What would you rather be known for? Expertise, competence, character and integrity? Or your ethnicity and skin color?
Rishi Sunak clearly prefers the former even as his fellow Asian cheerleaders, particularly in India, have gone to town with the latter. Anyone who followed the Conservative Party leadership campaign that culminated in his election as Britain’s first colored prime minister would have noticed that he was careful to avoid any reference to his ethnicity.
Yes, he talked about his Hindu heritage and the values of hard work and integrity he inherited from his immigrant parents, but rarely about his Indian background. There was no reference to this even in his first statement as Prime Minister outside Downing Street. This occasion is usually used by incoming prime ministers to introduce themselves. Sunak, on the contrary, devoted it entirely to the economic and political challenges facing the country and how it has been called upon to “fix” them.
The BBC The presenter reporting on the event emphasized that his message was clear: “I’m here because of my ability to solve problems and my race doesn’t matter.”
To be fair, Sunak’s party colleagues, including his rivals, have not used the race against him either. He has been criticized for being too “chic” to connect with ordinary people, too “technocratic” and lacking in political savvy, and, worse, a “back-stabber”, a reference to the fact that it was his resignation that led to The downfall of Boris Johnson. But I don’t recall his skin color being mentioned as an issue.
Indeed, until Indian commentators and social media were quick to appropriate him as a son of India and mark his victory as a kind of sweet revenge against former colonial masters, he there had been no mention of his racial background. The Time quoted an Indian banker Ranjan Kumar, describing it as “reverse colonization”. MA Ibrahimi, former Chief Secretary of State of Bihar, tweeted in reference to the country’s colonial past: “The revenge of history too. Fate.”
Then there were comments like “the Indian sun rises over Britain”. A leading newspaper headlined: ‘From empire to Rishi raj’, while an otherwise moderate TV presenter tweeted: ‘To think that on Diwali the UK might have its first Prime Minister of Indian origin. This too in the 75th year of independence! Yeh hui na baat! [that’s the spirit].”
A few weeks ago, when Sunak was eliminated from the leadership race against Liz Truss, many of the same commentators rushed to conclude that he lost because of the color of his skin. Even those who disliked Sunak for various reasons strongly believed that he had been the victim of racism.
So what has changed in six weeks? Nothing. The point is that neither Sunak’s defeat has anything to do with racism, nor does his victory mean race has ceased to matter in Britain. There is no doubt that the election of a person of color to the highest office in a white Christian country has enormous symbolic significance, but to read something deeper into it would be to repeat the mistake that Americans made when they took Obama’s election for a new dawn. in American race relations. We all know what happened.
The idea that Britain has suddenly become a ‘post-racial’ society or that this is a time when ‘the empire strikes back’ is a gross misreading and a chauvinistic view of situation. The truth is that Sunak simply benefited from a fortuitous set of circumstances. And electoral rules strongly designed to facilitate the election of a man seen as a sure pair of hands to restore political and economic stability to the country facing a “deep crisis”, as Sunak pointed out in his post- electoral.
Put simply, he was elected because of his perceived competence rather than a nod to his ethnicity. His performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer when he spearheaded several programs to help ordinary people and small businesses affected by the pandemic shutdowns left people in awe. And that’s the only reason he was chosen to lead the country in these difficult times. Full stop.
Sunak’s obsession with ethnic identity ignores the fact that Britain has changed beyond recognition over the past decade and is now the most racially diverse society in Europe. As Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, said, it reflected the changes in British politics and public life over the past decades.
“It’s a new normal at the pinnacle of British politics… We have the third female prime minister, followed by the first Asian prime minister… Rishi Sunak is actually the fifth British Asian minister in history, and there were none before 2010,” he said.
British Indian businessman and peer Karan Bilimoria said Sunak’s election confirmed Britain’s reputation as a racial melting point. “Anyone, regardless of race or religion, can aspire to achieve anything,” he said. BBC.
Of the three main parties, the once turbulent Conservative Party has become the most diverse thanks to changes introduced by David Cameron in 2010 to give more representation to ethnic minorities and women. Priti Patel, Alok Sharma, Sunak and several other Asian and black British politicians have benefited from this diversification campaign. Sunak was parachuted into a secure Conservative parliamentary seat (vacated by former party leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague) despite local opposition on the grounds that he did not belong in that constituency.
Outgoing Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was not far from work when he said BBC, “Ethnic diversity has been a hallmark of the Conservative Party. He has always supported meritocracy and Rishi is an incredibly brilliant man.
Sunak’s elevation should dispel any doubts that may have existed about the willingness of the British to accept a desire to rule the country. The question of whether Britain will ever have a non-white prime minister has plagued the country since Obama was elected as the first black US president in 2009.
Will Britain ever have an “Obama moment” has become the subject of much debate. Implicit in the question was the suggestion – “no, not yet”. That was then. The year 2022 is not 2009. And Sunak’s election speaks for itself.
In the meantime, by all means, let’s celebrate his moment of triumph but don’t turn it into triumphalism. This is not helping him or Indo-British relations which urgently need a restart.
The author is an independent commentator. The opinions expressed are personal.
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