Monday, November 28th, 2022 14:34:51

Rishi Sunak as PM: Does India need to learn from the UK about diversity?

By Shekhar Iyer
Updated: October 29, 2022 5:19 pm

Rishi Sunak on October 25 made history for a series of firsts. He is the first Indian-origin person to lead the UK, and the first non-white, a person of colour to become the UK’s PM, at the age of 42.

He is also the youngest person to take the office in more than 200 years, as well as the first PM to take oath under the new King Charles III.

Also, Sunak became PM just weeks after Liz Truss beat him in a Conservative party election to replace former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. At that time, Conservative members thought he did not make a better PM because she was promising a tax-cutting booster over his warnings that inflation must be tamed.

However, after the mess created by her policy ideas, Truss conceded last week that she could not deliver on her plans.

Her attempts triggered market chaos and worsened inflation at a time when millions of Britons were already struggling with soaring borrowing costs and rising energy and food prices.

Finally, the Conservatives realised that only Sunak, the former finance minister, can salvage the situation — and nothing else mattered.

He was given the job because he seemed to be the best man for the job– to salvage the UK out of the economic mess.

Sunak’s ascent had nothing to do with him being a Hindu or there was a push for diversity in the UK.

True, British society has undergone a lot of changes over the decades. But that does not mean, as some Opposition leaders in India chose to make out of Sunak’s elevation, India needed to learn from a good example of the diversity of the UK today.

Basically, our Opposition leaders were irked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting Sunak on becoming the PM and thought that the BJP might benefit from this development “somehow” in domestic politics! They have so much fear about anything that might help Modi in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha polls in 2024!

Of course, ever since Sonia Gandhi failed to become Prime Minister of India in 2004 and  Rahul Gandhi could not enable the Congress party to any electoral success at the centre, Congress leaders are upset that Indian voters are not enthused by them. So they claim India is a bad country.

In 2004, even after leading the Congress to secure more numbers than the BJP and cobbling up a successful alliance, Sonia Gandhi declined to be PM. Why? Many attributed her decision to nominate Dr Manmohan Singh for the PM’s post after she met then President A P J Abdul Kalam. There were problems within her family as Rahul Gandhi was then stated to be opposed to her becoming PM, according to former Union minister K Natwar Singh who was once very close to the Gandhi family.

True, BJP leaders like SushmaSwaraj and Uma Bharti had opposed her becoming PM, citing her Italian background. But, did Sonia Gandhi back out only because of the BJP leaders’ threat to launch agitation against her?

There have been also stories that she had always had Dr Singh in mind and never wanted herself to be PM ever.

Whatever may be the truth about Sonia Gandhi’s decision, some Congress leaders are trying to show that India is not a land of diversity since the BJP came to power.

When Sunak was declared as the next UK PM with the support of the MPs of the Conservative Party, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted, “Britain has done something very rare in the world, in making a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office. As we Indians celebrate the ascent of Rishi Sunak, let’s honestly ask, can it happen here?”

Quickly, people cited his fellow Congress leader Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, who has been PM for 10 years. Tharoor was also told that Muslims and Sikhs have been President, the Constitutional Head of State.

But Tharoor won’t accept it. “Dr Manmohan Singh absolutely does belong to a visible minority. But most Hindus don’t see Sikhs as different from themselves,” he said in a TV interview. “Can you imagine an overt Christian or an overt Muslim, public about their faith, being embraced by the BJP as a fit Prime Minister for India?”

He went on to recall the “public fulminations” about Sonia Gandhi’s Italian and Christian origins after she led the Congress alliance to victory and was tipped to be PM. “One prominent politician threatened to shave her head if she became PM. I believe that we need to acknowledge — and I’ve been a critic of British racism — that they’ve chosen to anoint as their leader a brown-skinned Hindu after a history of overt racism… They’ve outgrown their worst attributes.”

Tharoor was soon backed by former finance minister P Chidambaram who said, “First Kamala Harris, now Rishi Sunak in the UK. The people of the US and the UK have embraced the non-majority citizens of their countries and elected them to high office in government. I think there is a lesson to learned by India and the parties that practise majoritarianism.”

Both the Congress leaders appear to deliberately ignore the fact that Sunak was chosen by Tory MPs as their leader for the present after Truss’s resignation, and after Boris Johnson declined. The same Sunak was rejected just a couple of months ago. He was not appointed PM under some minority quota!

However, once the Congress realised the damage done by Tharoor and Chidambaram, it had to come out with a statement that India does not need to draw lessons from any other country as many minorities have become the president and chief minister in the past, a remark that was quickly seen as a rebuff to its own leaders. AICC general secretary (communications) Jairam Ramesh said respecting diversity has been India’s hallmark for many years and cited the examples of Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and A P J Abdul Kalam who held the top constitutional position in the country for many years. “Those who get a mandate will become prime minister. Democratically, if someone is elected, we don’t have a problem. England’s party has made him the prime minister, we welcome it,” said Ramesh.

We must appreciate that Sunak’s election is the result of circumstances that may not recur in future in the UK. Sunak’s task is to fix the British economy. Surely, he will be blamed for anything that goes wrong. As to why he was chosen, we know that his predecessor Liz Truss pushed the Conservative Party to its lowest levels of popularity.  Also, Conservative members of Parliament wanted to put off a general election as long as possible. They know they will be wiped out if an election were to be held today because of high inflation and a tanking economy.

Whether Sunak can put the UK economy back on the rails, only time can tell.

One must not forget that, as a non-White and a Hindu, Sunak will be under watch. If Britain’s Muslim minority starts getting shriller against a Hindu Prime Minister, his hands will be tied.

The Labour Party, which is in the opposition, will expect Sunak to be to talk tough with India under the BJP rule. Sunak is known to be in favour of a free trade deal with India, but as we saw earlier with SuellaBraverman, Home Secretary under Liz Truss and another person of Indian origin, she went out of her way to prove she was a more loyal British than someone with Indian linkages. So Sunak too will need to show he is tough on India.

Lastly, Sunak is one of the richest men in the UK. This will be held against him if his stewardship does not deliver results. Therefore, a million-dollar question will be whether Sunak will lead the Tories into the next general election?

For us, Indians, at the moment we are delighted because we are reminded of 1947.  On the eve of Indian Independence, Winston Churchill supposedly said ‘…all Indian leaders will be of low calibre & men of straw.’ Today, during the 75th year of our Independence, a man of Indian origin is the PM of the UK to bail it out of a crisis!

As for whether a Muslim or a Christian will become the PM of India, the answer is that anyone can be the PM of India if they win the elections.


By Shekhar Iyer

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