Europe is no stranger to Indian-origin prime ministers. Portugal counts two premiers of Goan ancestry, including current Prime Minister António Costa. Leo Varadkar, whose father is from Mumbai, served as Ireland’s prime minister from 2017 to 2020. He is poised to reclaim the post in December, setting up an intriguing moment in Anglo-Irish relations where both sitting heads of government will be of Indian heritage. (That is, of course, if Sunak manages to avoid the same maelstrom that curtailed the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss, to just six weeks.)
But Sunak coming to power in Britain seems more poignant, given the obvious symbolism it carries. For the better part of two centuries, Britain lorded over the Indian subcontinent and siphoned away much of its wealth. The empire’s legacy is complex, wrapped up in histories of indignity, inequity and exploitation, but also cultural affinity and aspiration. Britain’s footprint is felt all over South Asia — from the existing legal codes to the format of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy to the prevalence of English as the lingua franca for many of the region’s elites. While much has changed over 75 years of independence and Indians find themselves in positions of clout and authority all over the world, it may have seemed outlandish even a decade ago to imagine an Indian-origin politician leading the government of the former colonial power.
Winston Churchill once labeled Indians “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Now, someone of this origin and the Hindu faith — Sunak took his 2019 parliamentary oath of office clutching the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy text — will assume Churchill’s former post as prime minister and hold the ceremonial power to appoint bishops to the Church of England. Far away in India, as much of the country celebrated Diwali and basked in the afterglow of a major cricket victory over Pakistan, the sense of jubilation was undeniable. “India son rises over the empire,” touted a banner headline on NDTV, a major English-language news channel. “History comes full circle in Britain.”
Yet, there is much about Sunak’s rise that also feels par for the course. In the context of British politics, his racial background and cultural identity have seemed less important than the riches he’s amassed through his career. Sunak, a former hedge manager who once worked at Goldman Sachs, is married to Akshata Murty, a fashion designer and heiress to a major Indian tech fortune whom he met at Stanford Business School. The couple has an estimated worth of roughly $830 million, according to the Sunday Times Rich List — eclipsing the documented wealth of Queen Elizabeth II before her death. They landed in controversy earlier this year when it emerged Murty had maintained “non-domiciled” status, allowing her to avoid paying taxes on foreign earnings to the British agency her husband oversaw as chancellor of the exchequer.
Sunak’s story is that of conventional immigrant success. He was born in the coastal city of Southampton to parents of Hindu Punjabi background who had migrated from former British colonies in East Africa in the 1960s. Their middle-class striving enabled Sunak’s journey through the prestigious finishing schools of Britain’s political elite, including an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford.
“My grandparents came with very little from a village in northern India, and two generations on, their grandson has this enormous privilege of running as a candidate for parliament,” Sunak told journalist Ben Judah in 2015. “For my family, the route was education.”
On Monday, the president of the Hindu temple set up in Southampton by Sunak’s grandfather hailed his victory as “our Barack Obama moment.” But while the question of race seemed to perennially shadow the former U.S. president’s campaign and time in office, it has loomed less over Sunak, at least up until now. Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank on immigration, identity and race, told my colleagues that that is either a “sign of the normalization of ethnic diversity in British politics” — the twice-elected mayor of London, for example, is of Muslim Pakistani origin — or an indicator of the “scale of the crisis” that made Sunak simply the “last man standing” after rounds of Tory infighting.
Sunak is in a certain sense the consummate creature of the British upper-class establishment. He was “the golden loyalist, the good soldier smoothly ascending through the ranks of British life,” Judah wrote in a 2020 profile, where he described the sharply dressed Sunak as cast in “the wiry Emmanuel Macron” mold. Now, he has glided into power not via the votes of the British public, but the handshakes of a suited phalanx of his peers.
What happens next is a fundamentally British story. Sunak faces the same political and economic pressures that bedeviled Truss and former prime minister Boris Johnson. He has touted a more sober and less ideological approach to governance and seems to have already brought a degree of calm to a party that was in full-blown panic amid the turmoil unleashed by Truss’s brief stint. Sunak will have to navigate the same thorny policy challenges — including tensions over the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland — that roiled the waters for his predecessors.
And he will likely face the same criticism they did, too. “Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister isn’t a win for Asian representation,” said opposition Labour lawmaker Nadia Whittome, who also is of Indian origin, in a since-deleted tweet. “He’s a multi-millionaire who, as chancellor, cut taxes on bank profits while overseeing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956. Black, white or Asian: if you work for a living, he is not on your side.”
But on the other side of the world, senior politicians found plenty of cause to cheer Sunak, no matter his distance from the country. “The Brits ruled over us for 200 years,” Basavaraj Bommai, chief minister of the Indian state of Karnataka and member of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, told reporters. “They’d not have dreamt that one day an Indian would become their PM.”
The irony, of course, is that there’s no evidence Sunak or a coterie of other Indian-origin Tories will further any of the relevant causes dear to Indian nationalists and a wider pool of critics of Britain’s imperial past — from the repatriation of looted diamonds to engaging in a greater reckoning over colonial-era massacres and misdeeds.
Nevertheless, Bommai invoked the pride for the diaspora widely felt in India: “Indians are second to none in the world and they’re at the forefront in many sectors, including politics and administration,” he said. “In many countries, there are Indian MPs. But becoming the British PM is special.”