This Diwali is illuminated with added lights and the aroma of sweets for British Indians, for sure. As soon as ‘Dishy’ Rishi’s premiership was confirmed at 2:00 BST on 24 October, one of my acquaintances living in Warwick – a ‘Basu’ – was the first to send me a WhatsApp message full of thrill and ecstasy. As September’s loser emerged as October’s winner, I remember one of my favourite BBC sitcoms – ‘Citizen Khan’. In an interesting episode of this TV series in 2014, Mr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant to Britain living at Sparkhill in East Birmingham, was seen to be furious over East European immigrants in Britain, for they were eating up jobs meant for ‘British Pakistanis’, as per Mr Khan’s interpretation.
There is enough reason to believe that such Mr. Khans are not just fairy-tale-type characters. They certainly exist in British society. And they are now an integral and important part of that society as well. Research shows there is enough evidence that Citizen Khan and his fellow British Asians played a significant role in instrumenting ‘Brexit’ – something whose effect might have got confounded at this time mostly by the dual effect of the Covid pandemic and Russia’s Ukraine invasion and weak leadership, but Brexit would haunt Britain for another 50 years, at least.
Well, Mr. Khan, Mr. Sharma, Mr. Senaratne, Mr. Mahbub Latif Bablu, and so on – comprising more than 6 per cent of the UK’s population, would now be happy enough as Indian-origin Rishi Sunak has become a resident of 10 Downing Street. A triumph out of the colonial legacy, for sure. “Pretty astounding” and “a ground-breaking milestone” for the immigrant Indian community’s achievements, as it is seen by even Joe Biden. Well, at 42, Sunak is the youngest British prime minister for more than two centuries. He is the first Hindu premiere of Britain and the first British prime minister of colour.
These are certainly very important issues in the context of the heterogeneous and multi-dimensional character of today’s post-Brexit UK, where even the skin colour of Archie, Harry and Meghan Merkle’s baby, gets into the news for the wrong reasons. Sunak became an MP from Richmond in North Yorkshire in 2015 – just seven years ago. Less than three years ago, in December 2019, a poll was conducted by Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University in London, in which Conservative Party members were asked who should take over were Johnson to step aside.
“Just five out of 1,191 named Rishi Sunak,” Professor Bale said, “and I’m not sure that all of them spelt his name correctly” (on the day he was chosen, the BBC’s scroll kept calling him Risha Sunak). Then, Sajid Javid’s resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer in February 2020 gave Sunak, Javid’s deputy, the unique chance to be Boris Johnson’s pandemic-period Chancellor – a crucial time for the country and a crucial time period for his own political limelight. It’s a fairy-tale end for ‘Dishy Rishi’, who once admitted he had ‘no working-class friends’. What about Sunak’s achievement? Who has seen such a meteoric rise in his career? “And it matters. It matters,” as US president Joe Biden explained it. But would that really help Britain’s Citizen Khans, besides just giving a “feelgood” factor? Not quite sure though. Priti Patel’s tough stance on immigration was a hallmark of her time in charge of the Home Office.
Then, within her brief tenure, Liz Truss’ Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that a trade deal with India would only increase migration to the United Kingdom. Didn’t she defend her comment that “Indians comprise the largest group of people who overstay their visas in the UK”? Across the Atlantic, Indian-origin Kamala Harris is now the second most powerful person in the US behind the president. It is not clear though how Kamala Harris as the US vice president was of additional help to India or the Indian diaspora in that country, except for that “feel-good” factor.
There may be important political consequences also. Interestingly, a YouGov poll at the end of 2021 showed that British Indians continue to display a preference for the Labour party, although the gap in support between the Labour and the Conservative party has been reducing. While, in 2010, 61 per cent of British Indians supported Labour and 24 per cent supported the Tories, just four in 10 British Indians identify with the Labour party now, while three in 10 support the Conservatives. With the political allegiance of the Indian diaspora in Britain changing rapidly, will this become further helpful for the Conservatives with Sunak at the helm?
This might become important in the next general election after two years, if not earlier. There might be enough reason for the Indian diaspora to get excited to see an Indian-origin person becoming a resident of 10 Downing Street, particularly during the 75th year of India’s Independence. It should also be stimulating for the Citizen Khans – the Asian-origin people. However, Sunak was born British, and he didn’t have an Indian passport at any time.
Despite being of Indian origin and holding a US green card and having a billionaire Indian wife whose ‘non-dom’ tax status created ire in the UK a few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak is British. It may well be that the Rishi Sunaks and Priti Patels are more British than the Boris Johnsons or Liz Trusses, who knows! “One of the best things about being Chancellor is working in some of Britain’s most historic buildings. This week I went to the balcony where Churchill made his victory speech 75 years ago today. It reminded me that when Britain comes together, we can overcome anything,” said a May 2020 tweet from the Churchill fanboy Sunak.
There is another side to the story of Sunak’s elevation. It’s certainly a matter of coincidence that the British Indians got a chance to celebrate the festival of light with added rigour this year. But to be honest, an Indian-origin prime minister was something inevitable for Britain – today or tomorrow. Asian-origin politicians – Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman and Rehman Chishti – were knocking at the No. 10 door for some time. As France is now paying the price of its colonizing history in its socio-political structure, Britain was also destined to pay the price of Kohinoor in this way, at least. In the meantime, this Diwali, Britain’s post-Brexit post-pandemic politics has changed. Forever.