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It matters that Rishi Sunak has become the UK’s first prime minister of Indian descent
Following his uncontested run at the top job, Rishi Sunak acquires the less-than-coveted title of second successive un-elected British prime minister to take office in 2022. However, coming from Punjabi heritage, he also takes on the more esteemed title of the nation’s first British Asian leader.
Sunak was born in the southern English port city of Southampton in 1980. His father, Yashvir, was a family doctor and his mother, Usha, a pharmacist. They were born and brought up in present-day Kenya and Tanzania, respectively, before moving to the UK. Sunak’s grandparents on both sides were from India and had migrated to East Africa.
Indians share a long history with African traders in the Indian Ocean region – links that were strengthened in the 19th century. During the time of the British empire, and especially following the creation of the East African Protectorate (also known as British East Africa) in 1885, many Indians migrated to the region, which was then under British control. The Indian population grew rapidly and prospered economically.
Many Indian immigrants and their descendants remain in East Africa today, but significant numbers left in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the region became a less hospitable place for Indians, most infamously evidenced by the expulsion of the Indian minority from Uganda under the orders of then-president Idi Amin. It was at this time that a significant proportion of the Indian diaspora left Kenya and Tanzania. Instead of returning to India, many settled in the US, Canada and the UK.
Sunak’s parents may have been born in East Africa, but his cultural affinity lies with his Indian roots. He is a practising Hindu and does not, for example, eat beef. As he said in a 2015 interview:
A dream – for some
The Sunaks’ personal family history could be read as a testament to the British dream: the idea that the UK is a land of opportunity where, no matter where you come from, if you work hard, you can make it right to the top. The formula for success is simple hard work and determination.
Both his parents studied in the UK – his father, medicine at the University of Liverpool, his mother, pharmacy at my own institution, Aston University. Sunak has spoken about the sacrifices his parents made to give him “opportunities they could only dream of. But it was Britain, our country that gave them, and millions like them, the chance of a better future.”
Not all immigrants, of course, get to afford for their children the best education that money can buy – no matter how strong their work ethic. Privately educated at Winchester, one of England’s oldest and most expensive public boarding schools, Sunak’s upbringing was undoubtedly privileged. He followed the well-worn path of many in the British political elite, studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. After graduating he entered the world of investment banking, landing a job with Goldman Sachs before going to Stanford University in the US to complete an MBA.
He married into wealth. His wife, Akshata Murty, is the daughter of an Indian billionaire, NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys. Her shares in her father’s company make her one of the richest women in the UK. The couple have a combined wealth of £730 million. Sunak can thereby allegedly lay claim to another title – the richest man to ever sit in the House of Commons.
A scandal over his wife’s non-domiciled tax status threatened to end Sunak’s career less than a year ago but he somehow managed to recover.
Acutely aware of the potential for his fortune to jar with the experiences of the public, Sunak ensures that his image is carefully curated (with the help of a PR company). Choreographed snaps and videos more akin to a social media influencer than a politician have characterised his every move since becoming a cabinet minister in Boris Johnson’s government in 2020.
This is nevertheless a big moment. Whatever the mixed feelings are around his personal fortune, becoming the first non-white leader of the country is important. In some ways, the Conservative party has a lot to be proud of when it comes to promoting ethnic minority colleagues. In Liz Truss’s administration, ethnic minority politicians held three of the key posts: chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary and foreign secretary – albeit only for a short while.
However, they were all also, like Rishi Sunak, privately educated. There is certainly room for a specific kind of diversity in the Conservative Party.
Interestingly, Sunak was not popular with the party’s membership when he first ran for the leadership in the summer of 2022. A possible explanation – and one which certainly warrants further research – is that the membership is less comfortable with an ethnic minority leader than it lets on. In a now infamous radio show, a caller professing to be a Tory Party member stated that he, “along with most people”, didn’t think that Sunak was British. While this was the view of one caller on a radio show, such views are a reminder that some people still don’t accept British Asian identity to be truly British.
The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands.
Parveen Akhtar is a Senior Lecturer in Politics, History and International Relations at Aston University.