Britain’s First Indian-Origin Prime Minister
Forty two year old British-Indian Rishi Sunak becoming the youngest Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) may have a great symbolic value for India, but that does not imply that the Indo-UK relations are going to be “special” now onwards.
However, Sunak’s heritage – he is a practicing Hindu – does reflect the growing power of the Indian Diaspora all over the world. But his case is special because he has succeeded in politics as a Hindu, something that is apparently not possible in the United States, though the Indian Diaspora there is equally, rather more, powerful in terms of education, jobs and social status. Indian –Americans, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who have assumed important political offices like Governors, happen to be Christians.
Even Harris has usually underplayed her Indian connection (her mother was an Indian), preferring to be known as a Black leader (her father is Black) instead. In that sense, Britain accepting a Hindu Prime Minister implies that the country, essentially white and Christian, is more open, diverse and tolerant of multiple faiths than the United States.
Incidentally, Sunak is married to an Indian, who is daughter of an Information Technology czar and holds an Indian passport. As chancellor of the exchequer under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sunak had taken oath of office holding the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book. And as he campaigned for Tory leadership earlier this year, he tweeted photos and videos of himself praying on Lord Krishna’s birthday and performing cow worship, a ritual in Hinduism. It is coincidence ,indeed, that he has been chosen to be next British PM on the day of the holy Indian festival “Deepavali”, which he celebrates every year with a sense of pride.
In fact, the UK is now the sixth country where a person of Indian descent will be holding the highest position. Sunak will be the first person of Indian or even Asian origin to hold the post.
However, this trend of Indian origin people holding powerful positions is not confined to the UK. The following are some prominent persons of Indian origin occupying high posts in other parts of the world:
1. Antonio Costa, Prime Minister, Portugal
2. Mohamed Irfaan, President, Guyana
3. Pravind Jugnauth, Prime Minister, Mauritius
4. Prithvirajsing Roopun, President, Mauritius
5. Chandrikapersad Santokhi, President, Suriname
6. Kamala Harris, Vice President, United States
According to “Indiaspora”, a US-based non-profit organisation representing the Indian–origin community globally, in Mauritius, nine heads of state, including Mr. Jugnauth and Mr. Roopun, have been of Indian origin. Similarly, Suriname has seen five Presidents from the community. Also, four heads of state in Guyana and three in Singapore were of Indian descent. Apart from these countries, Trinidad & Tobago, Portugal, Malaysia, Fiji, Ireland and the Seychelles too have chosen an Indian-origin Head of State.
But then, people of foreign-descent becoming Heads of Government is a common phenomenon in established democracies. The example of the United States is particularly striking. There have been 23 American Presidents of “Irish” ancestry, some of whom were publicly proud of their lineage. Famous among them have been Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and present incumbent Joe Biden.
Even President Barack Obama’s maternal family tree is traced back to his “great-great-great-great grandfather” Joseph Kearney, a shoemaker. So much so that as President, Obama had visited an Irish village where his great-great-great-great grandfather made shoes.
Notably, more than any President since John F. Kennedy, Biden’s Irish heritage is central to his public persona . Incidentally, Biden is the second Catholic after Kennedy to become the US President, and both have Irish-origin. As Ben Schreckinger of “Politico” magazine writes, “Biden has had plenty of reasons to lean into his Irish heritage over the years. In a different era, it helped him channel a Kennedy mystique, when, as a young senator in the years after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, he was seen as an heir to Camelot. Later, it helped Biden serve as a bridge to Irish Americans and other white Catholics, who have drifted from the Democratic Party in recent decades. Throughout, it has helped him bolster a personal brand built on Average Joe relatability”.
The point that needs to be highlighted here is that politicians like Biden highlighting their ethnic origin does not imply that America’s relations with “the mother country” get special treatment when they are in office. It is true that the United States did play an important role in brokering a peace agreement between London and the separatists in Northern Island wanting to join Ireland, but that has been done as per the broader US foreign policy goals or interests; it has nothing to do with the ethnicity of the President in office.
Of course, it is true that Biden, then a Senator, had voiced support for the Irish cause and sometimes took action in the Senate. In 1985, he opposed an extradition treaty with Britain that would have affected members of the Irish Republican Army who had fled to the United States. Taking issue with the British administration of justice in Northern Ireland, he did manage to water down the agreement. However, otherwise, Biden did go with then President George Bush (Senior)’s overall goal of a peaceful settlement of the Irish issue.
In reality, Irish-ancestry is invariably highlighted by the US Presidents or Presidential candidates for political reasons. As John Robert Greene, historian and author of dozens of books about US Presidents, points out, “ It’s very simple, Catholic votes. There’s not a huge love of Irish tradition, with the possible exception of JFK and Ronald Reagan, not a huge love of Irish culture, with the possible exception of JFK, Reagan and Bill Clinton, but there’s a huge love for Catholic votes and particularly Irish Catholic votes”.
Similarly, the fact that Barack Obama was the first African-American elected to be President in U.S. history did not necessarily make his legacy in Africa particularly historic. Obama was highly sensitive to charges of favoritism and to critiques that he might be too focused on the continent of his relatives and his late father, though he became the first sitting President to visit Kenya, his father’s country, in 2015. But Obama did secure the support of African-Americans throughout his eight years in office.
If one goes by the American example, it is very much likely that Prime Minister Sunak will be equally sensitive to charges of favoritism and to critiques that he might be too focused on India of his relatives and his father-in-law. But, it is highly unlikely that he will change the direction of the Indo-UK relations that was agreed upon during the days of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson. The Indo-UK Free Trade Agreement will remain in course and the deepening of the bilateral defence cooperation will continue to meet the challenges of a rising but hegemonistic China.
In fact, Sunak is not known for any important foreign policy issues. As a supporter of his previous leader Boris Johnson, he has been pro-Brexit and suspicious of China. Otherwise, one could not find any significant foreign policy statement that he has made in general and on India in particular as a leading Conservative leader of the UK.
And that means that as has been the case with the American leaders with Irish-origin in garnering Catholic votes, Sunak’s rise needs to be seen in the context of the growing importance of the British-Indian votes , particularly that of Hindus, in British politics of late. As a study of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests, the demographic weight and political influence of British Indians in the United Kingdom continue to increase.
There are more than a million Britons of Indian descent in the United Kingdom, according to the latest government data, from 2021. About 86 percent of the population of England and Wales is White, with people from Asian ethnic groups making up the second-largest cohort, at 7.5 percent, followed by Black ethnic groups at 3.3 percent, according to census data.
As far as Indian-origin people in the UK are concerned, numbering 1.4 million, they account for 2.5 percent of the overall British population. But this figure was from the 2011 census; the number must have gone up higher today. No wonder why the 2019 British election saw fifteen Indian-origin members of parliament (MPs) taking office, including two high-profile Cabinet ministers. Sunak was one of them.
Incidentally, Nine of the United Kingdom’s top 100 entrepreneurs, and three of the twenty wealthiest UK residents, are Indian. Many Indian business magnates own second homes in the United Kingdom, and the country continues to be a prized destination for Indian students pursuing higher education abroad (students from India represent the second-largest contingent of foreign students in the United Kingdom after China).
The Indian community’s growth has been accompanied by changes in its political leanings, the Carnegie study says. Historically, the British Indian community has strongly supported the left-of-center Labour Party, but has been slowly gravitating toward Labour’s principal rival, the right-of-center Conservative Party. This shift appears to be largely driven by Hindus and Christians, many of whom have drifted away from the Labour Party, even as their Muslim and Sikh counterparts have remained steadfast Labour supporters.
Sunak’s rise, thus, will further consolidate the preference of the Hindus and Christians of Indian-origin , much more in number than the fellow Muslims and Sikhs ( a significant section of whom happen to be the supporters of the Khalistan –idea and have close links with Kashmir-separatists with Pakistan’s help), towards the Conservatives.
But, this trend is not necessarily going to have much effect on the already growing ties of the UK with India. As the Carnegie study adds, “When it comes to foreign policy, few British Indians rate UK-India relations as a top political issue…. (they) do not perceive any party with an advantage in the stewardship of the UK-India relationship”.