As Rishi Sunak made history this week by becoming Britain’s first Prime Minister of Indian descent, many in the South Asian nation were quick to congratulate the new leader – with some in the media even claiming him as their own.
India was once part of a British empire that stretched so far across the globe it was often said the sun would never set on it. But 75 years since the end of the British Raj, many Indian commentators gleefully pointed out how times have changed.
“Indian son rises over the empire. History comes full circle in Britain,” an NDTV headline said.
“From Age of Empire to Rishi Raj as Sunak moves into No 10,” thundered The Times Of India.
“India was [once] under the governance of Britain. Now, an Indian-origin man has become the Prime Minister of England,” a Zee News anchor said.
Others were more blunt about what they saw as the symbolism behind Sunak’s appointment, news of which emerged on Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
“Another Diwali gift to the country. Indian-origin Rishi to rule the whites,” said India’s largest Hindi-language newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar, which has a circulation of nearly 5 million.
To some, Sunak’s appointment is just the latest in a series of events to highlight the contrasting fortunes of a rising India and the recent economic woes of Britain, its former colonial ruler.
In the wake of Britain’s exit from the European Union, London has repeatedly looked to its former colony for a boost; wooing it in search of a free-trade deal and granting more visas to Indian nationals than any other country.
And now, just weeks after the United Kingdom ceded to India its title of the world’s fifth largest economy, it is former finance minister Sunak that London is turning to in the hope of repairing the economic carnage wrought by the policies of his short-lived predecessor, Liz Truss, which roiled markets and crashed the pound.
Given Britain’s actions during the colonial period – when Indians were excluded from top jobs in their own country and barred from many institutions – it’s perhaps not surprising that there might be a sense of Schadenfreude.
But experts say it would be wrong to suggest this is the only emotion in India. Many in the nation of 1.3 billion see the moment as a reason to celebrate progress in both countries, and hope Sunak can act as a bridge between India and Britain by ushering in a new era of ties.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested as much in a tweet welcoming Sunak’s appointment.
“Special Diwali wishes to the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership,” the Indian leader tweeted Monday.
Others see Sunak’s triumph as reflective of a growing role in British politics for people of South Asian descent.
“For a long time, the question was asked whether Britain was ready for Sunak to be Prime Minister,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president of studies and foreign policy at the New Delhi-based think thank Observer Research Foundation.
“And the fact that he is indeed now, is an enormous tribute to British democracy and to the role the South Asian diaspora has played in British politics.”
Moving relations forward
The relationship between Britain and India is complicated, given the history of inequality and exploitation during the colonial era.
“Some people are still perplexed about why Rishi Sunak’s race matters. It matters because of the imperial context,” tweeted Sathnam Sanghera, author of “Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain”.
Many Indians have not forgotten the chaos that followed the country’s independence in 1947 and its subsequent bloody partition during which between 500,000 and 2 million people were killed and an estimated 15 million uprooted.
Pant said that until relatively recently it would have been “unimaginable” for a person of Indian origin to rule Britain, but Sunak’s appointment was the latest piece of evidence that the relationship today is “much more about the 21st century than about the past. And that has allowed both to take it forward in a much more productive manner.”
Economic considerations are at the heart of this more modern relationship, with London looking increasingly to India and its $3 trillion economy for opportunities in the post-Brexit era.
Britain remains one of the largest investors in India with British companies employing close to 800,000 people in the country, according to a 2017 report, and politicians in both countries hope economic ties will grow under Sunak.
Among the biggest prizes on offer is a highly anticipated free-trade agreement, aimed at more than tripling bilateral trade, from $31 billion to $100 billion by 2030.
When then-British prime minister Boris Johnson visited India in April, the two leaders agreed to sign that deal by Diwali. That deadline has been missed but there is renewed hope an agreement can be resurrected under Sunak.
“Whether Sunak will sign the deal will be an important marker,” Pant said. “And it is an important benchmark for how far India-UK relations are willing to go.”
What it means for Indians in India, and in the UK
While Sunak’s face has been plastered across newspapers and televisions in India, the mood on the ground has been harder to judge. The streets of Delhi have been quiet as Indians celebrated Diwali – the most important holiday on the calendar for Hindus, who make up about 80% of the country’s population.
“It is good to see someone whose family is originally from India take the top job and that too on Diwali, which is like a blessing,” said Rajesh, a chemist in the Indian capital. “But it doesn’t mean that things between India and the UK will automatically improve.”
For some, his appointment is little more than a foreign news story.
A shopkeeper, Arjun, said Sunak’s appointment “didn’t make a difference” to Indians. “Yes, he is Indian but he is still from there,” he said.
Others say the significance of Sunak’s appointment is that it underlines the success of the Indian diaspora, particularly in the UK, where about 7% of the population is of South Asian origin, according to a 2011 census.
Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman also has Indian roots, while London mayor Sadiq Khan was born to a working-class Pakistani family.
Sunak’s parents came to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. His father was a doctor while his mother ran a pharmacy in southern England – something Sunak says gave him his desire to serve the public.
“British Indian is what I tick on the census, we have a category for it. I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu,” Sunak said in an interview with Business Standard in 2015.
When he took his parliamentary oath in 2019, Sunak clutched the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book. He made history a year later when he lit Diwali candles outside 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the UK chancellor.
Now he is at the pinnacle of power – and that, analysts say, is the epitome of the diaspora’s success.
Pant, from the Observer Research Foundation, said Sunak’s appointment symbolizes how people of South Asian descent have “cut across political parties in the UK,” adding Sunak “will shape the political trajectory” of Britain.
“I think there is a certain comfort level that people of the Indian diaspora have in these democracies,” Pant said. “And that is reflective of the largest success of India globally.”