Commentary: U.K. PM Rishi Sunak: What this Bigger-Than-Obama Feat Says about British Democracy
At a time when countries are throwing up barriers, immigration reflects the self-assurance that all democracies need.
Rishi Sunak becoming the Prime Minister of the U.K. is an extraordinary story at multiple levels. First and most obvious is that the British have done something very rare in the world—to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office in their government.
In a world where most people find it impossible to be oblivious to the issues of race, religion, and ethnicity, a majority of Conservative Members of Parliament have chosen as their leader a brown-skinned Hindu. Sunak is a member of an Asian minority that represents barely 7.5 percent of the British population.
Sunak’s rise to the highest office in the British government is even more breathtaking than Barack Obama’s ascent to the Presidency in the United States in 2008, considering blacks have been a feature of the U.S. political landscape for way longer than Indians have been in Britain.
U.K. warms up to its first non-white Hindu PM
This suggests a “normalization” of ethnic differences in a country long associated with overt racism. It suggests a reversal of a culture that defined centuries of British imperial conquest and oppression.
It is extraordinary for any society to so comprehensively outgrow its worst attributes as Britain has done. Less than a century ago, the British ran clubs in India and Africa where people of color were disallowed. Today, their Prime Minister is a man from an ethnicity that most British people in those days would have regarded and treated with contempt. Can one imagine what their iconic leader, the egregiously racist Winston Churchill, would have said even about the prospect of such a development?
“Hindus are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” Churchill had notoriously sneered. And now the British government will be led by a man who not only practices his Hindu faith but does so openly. Sunak took his ministerial oath on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Even while campaigning for the leadership of his party earlier this year, he tweeted photos and videos of himself performing cow worship and praying to Lord Krishna on Janmashtami.
Some Britons have wondered how a Hindu will preside over the government of a country that has an established religion (Christianity as practiced by the Anglican Church), and where the then Prime Minister read aloud from the Bible at the Queen’s funeral service earlier this year. Would Sunak be able to do that on a similar occasion if required? Though he has not said so, I imagine that, like most Hindus, he would answer “Yes” since Hindus generally have no difficulty venerating the beliefs and the sacred texts of other faiths.
Sunak’s meteoric rise to the British mantle is a tall feat
Then, there is the stark fact of his age. Rishi Sunak was born in 1980—he is now 42. His parliamentary career only began in 2015, when he was first elected to the House of Commons for the mainly rural constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire. In three years, Sunak was appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government in Theresa May’s government.
Within two years after that, Boris Johnson made him the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Finance Minister. That is a dizzying rise by any standards. To be Prime Minister seven years after first entering Parliament is an astonishing achievement, and while it is a tribute to Sunak’s talents, it also shows Britain’s ability to recognize talent and reward it early. In India, such a feat would be inconceivable.
Britain needs a leader who represents diversity
Undoubtedly, the circumstances of the economic meltdown that precipitated Liz Truss’ resignation after just 45 days in office helped. Britain was in need of a steadying pair of hands with a record of expertise and competence in financial management, and Sunak, whose earlier stint in the private sector had made him an effective Chancellor during the worst days of the Covid pandemic, offered precisely the reassurance of an economic leadership that Britain desperately needed at this time. He was the man to turn to in a crisis.
The Conservative MPs realized that it was either going to have to be him or a general election. They chose him because he was the best available option in the current circumstances.
Finally, Prime Minister Sunak embodies the extraordinary potential of immigration and cosmopolitanism in an era of increasing nationalism and protectionism. His serving as Britain’s Prime Minister expands the very meaning of the term “Western,” which most had assumed was synonymous with “white.”
What India can learn from the British example
The presence of people of color in the highest echelons of Western democracies is a tribute to a half-century of more welcoming immigration policies, the willingness of the West to embrace talent wherever it comes from and to give ability the recognition and the reward it deserves.
There are, of course, a substantial number of white Britons who don’t share this attitude—such as the radio caller who launched into a diatribe on Sunak, describing him as “not even British,” and acquired some social media notoriety in recent days—but a majority of Conservative Party MPs did not hesitate to put his competence above his color.
[Right] Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “To be Prime Minister seven years after first entering Parliament is an astonishing achievement, and while it is a tribute to Sunak’s talents, it also shows Britain’s ability to recognize talent and reward it early.”
This is worth noting at a time when so many countries are throwing up barriers to immigration and indulging in various forms of xenophobia, equating patriotism with “authenticity” and “rootedness” in the traditional beliefs, practices, and prejudices of the timeless past. Immigration reflects the kind of self-assurance that democracies need and that only the United States, a land made up of immigrants, was so far known to possess.
This offers a lesson for India too. When the news was about to break, I asked on social media: Can it happen here? Let us not forget the furor that arose when an “immigrant” Sonia Gandhi was offered the premiership by her victorious coalition.
There were public fulminations about a “foreigner” ruling a billion Indians and one prominent politician threatened to shave her head and conduct a dharna outside Parliament in protest. She chose to decline. True, Manmohan Singh belongs to a “visible minority,” but most Hindus do not see Sikhs as particularly “different” from themselves. Can we imagine the day, in our increasingly majoritarian politics, when someone who is not Hindu, Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist can head our national government? That would be the day, India would truly have matured as a democracy.
Meanwhile, here’s to Rishi Sunak. May he succeed in his challenging new position and may all of us in India look beyond our nativist pride in his ascent to reflect on the extraordinary lessons it can teach us all.
Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and the award-winning author of 22 books, most recently The Battle of Belonging(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This article was originally published in The Quint. Reprinted with permission from Dr. Tharoor.
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