It’s the holy day of Diwali for Hindus, and South Asian parents are rejoicing at the news that a fellow Brown man is becoming the Prime Minister of the UK. Rishi Sunak won the Conservative Party leadership race by default after candidates Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson sheepishly dropped out. So what does this actually mean for us in the global majority?
Yes, Sunak is officially the first person of colour to hold that title. And of course, it is supposed to be a big moment for the country. However, this feels nothing like the 2008 hoopla when Barack Obama became the first Black man to become US President. That particular campaign saw Obama having to fight against potentially the first female president in Hillary Clinton, as well as centuries of racist oppression in the country. Sunak’s appointment is down to the fact that he’s now the last man standing.
After a series of unfortunate events with former prime ministers Johnson and Liz Truss bowing out disgracefully from office, Sunak’s appointment feels more like an act of desperation from the Conservatives. It is true that he did foresee some of the spectacular failures of Truss and former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s catastrophic mini-budget, but his own financial situation may come back to haunt him.
Sunak is not our fellow man - more like a ‘model minority’, in the sense that he is both an Oxford and Stanford University-educated Fulbright scholar and now the leader of the country. He is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of the Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy and the founder of the technology company Infosys.
Murty herself owns a 0.91% stake in Infosys, which was valued at about £746 million in April, making her one of the wealthiest women in Britain. And with this came claims that Sunak was clearly “out of touch” with the common person, especially during a cost of living crisis.
What’s more, as history has shown, there will always be more onus on people of colour as well as women, when they’re elevated to leaders of the nation. After all, what happens if they fail? It won’t be seen as your average MP making a few bumbling mistakes, it will be portrayed as a stubborn Iron Lady, who is ‘not for turning’ as seen with the first ever female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Critics like Professor Kehinde Andrews have pointed out that the current mix of Tory MPs are some of the most hard-right people in the party and that “a cabinet packed with ministers with brown skin wearing Tory masks represents the opposite of racial progress”.
But some of the Indian ‘aunties’ may not necessarily see this. Already there have been people hailing the news on Twitter, calling it a “celebratory moment” and “what a moment of Hindu pride”. Lest we forget, some of the staunch hardliners behind the government’s anti-immigration rhetoric were Brown people themselves. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman was planning to impose a blanket ban on anyone deemed entering the UK illegally from seeking refuge, whilst her predecessor Priti Patel was behind the idea to try to make it possible to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda. And it was Sajid Javid who, as home secretary at the time, stripped British teenager Shamima Begum of her citizenship. This category of ‘undesirables’ would clearly include the aforementioned ‘aunties’, had it applied to them when they came to the UK over the past 70 years.
So what makes anyone think that Sunak will be any better? He is described as a “twice migrant” by University of Oxford researcher Neha Shah, referring to the fact that his own Punjabi Indian family arrived from east Africa in the 1960s and 70s, having been expelled or encouraged to leave by the newly independent regimes in Kenya and Tanzania.
Shah calls this a settler-colonial project to be led by Indians on behalf of the British. Functioning as a subordinate ruling class, Indians in east Africa enjoyed success in business, finance and the professions throughout the colonial period, and gained significant control over the economy.
The opportunities offered to select subjects by the British colonial government in India and East Africa meant that some Indian communities had a far better chance of economic success post-migration. It was these British Indians that came to occupy a special place in Thatcher’s ”enterprise economy”. Therefore it’s hardly any surprise that there are so many affluent Indians at the forefront of the Conservative Party, who potentially have their own interests at heart.
The moment it all falls apart, however, it will only bolster far-right claims that South Asians and other ethnic minorities are ‘not fit to lead’ because they are not seen as ‘British’ enough - comments we’ve already seen ahead of the announcement online. And what’s worse, is that if they do not have a genuine desire to change structural racism, and prefer to maintain the status quo, they will only reinforce the ruling elite and change nothing for the working class.
It’s for these very reasons that Sunak’s appointment, while historic, is not an Obama-style moment for the UK.
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