Sunak’s rise is a breakthrough for diversity, with privilege

LONDON — In north-west London, home to one of Britain’s largest Hindu communities, celebrations of Diwali, a festive holiday, were well underway on Monday. The children launched small fireworks which exploded when they hit the sidewalk. Bright lights hung in the street twinkled above our heads. The families bought sweets and candles.

But many of those reunited with their families said they suddenly had something new to celebrate – the news that Rishi Sunak, the eldest son of an Indian-born doctor and pharmacist, will become prime minister, the first person of color to hold Britain’s highest honour. political office.

Britain is home to a vibrant and diverse community of people with roots in India, which it ruled as a colony for almost a century before India gained independence in 1947. No less than 1, 5 million people of Indian descent live in England and Wales, making them the largest ethnic group after white Britons.

It makes Mr Sunak’s triumph a milestone for Britain’s Indian diaspora, whose long struggle with racism and prejudice is rarely a major issue in British politics.

“We are so proud and happy,” said Hemal Joshi, 43, who lives in north-west London with his wife and son. “I have already received so many messages from India. So he has a lot of expectations now from all over the world. Let’s see what he will do.

Mr Sunak, 42, has always expressed pride in his Indian roots and he regularly highlights his upbringing as the son of immigrants. But he did not put his heritage at the center of his political message, focusing instead on his background in finance, and the British media did not dwell on his ethnicity.

Instead, it was Mr Sunak’s elite upbringing and extreme wealth that caught the eye – and became something of a political liability in a society notoriously divided by class tensions.

Mr Sunak is also a practicing Hindu, and when he was sworn in as an MP he did so on the Gita, a book of Hindu scriptures. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he celebrated Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights, by installing lights outside his official residence at 11 Downing St.

“We are very proud and very excited to be Hindus from India,” said Priya Gohil, who had just left the temple with her family in the Harrow district after offering Diwali prayers. “It’s just very relevant.”

What was less akin to many was the air of privilege attached to him.

Mr Sunak attended elite Winchester College, a private boarding school in Britain, then went on to Oxford University and Stanford. He made his fortune in finance, working for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds before his political career began. He is also married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of one of India’s richest men.

Skepticism about his wealth followed him throughout his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party, although many of his predecessors also came from privileged backgrounds. The question remains relevant even after he emerged victorious in the contest to lead the country on Monday.

“I think it’s great that we have a person of color as Prime Minister for the first time,” said Shivani Dasani, 22, who was leaving a temple in northwest London. But she added: ‘He’s a wealthy, upper-class man, so he can’t speak for the whole community in that way.’

These concerns persisted beyond the Indian communities of London. In some neighborhoods, many people were too busy finishing their day’s work to even know Mr Sunak had been chosen as prime minister. But those who did cited Mr Sunak’s considerable wealth as one of the only things they knew about him, although they hoped he would fix the problems of inflation and soaring oil prices. real estate.

“He won’t know how normal people live – the working class,” said Samuel Shan, who was sweeping the floor near his fruit and vegetable stall at a market in Dalston, a diverse neighborhood that has become gentrified in recent years. . “We’ll see what he can do for us.

Brano Gabani, a council worker from Slovakia, laughed humorlessly as he noted he had ‘no choice’ in selecting Mr Sunak. He said he didn’t know enough about the new prime minister’s character to assess him. But, like many others, he pointed to slow wage growth and the rising cost of living as major problems.

“Each month, we lose wages; we are poorer,” he said. “I want to see him do something, something for the English.”

Narendra H. Thakrar, the president of the Shri Sanatan Hindu Mandir temple in London’s Wembley area, said he believed Mr Sunak was the right man to lead the nation during a time of uncertainty, and that his appeal transcended any particular ethnicity. or religious community.

“There are many challenges facing this country right now economically, and I believe Rishi Sunak is the right person to take over as prime minister,” he said. “He has proven himself to be a good chancellor, and let’s hope he brings justice to the country. I’m sure he will.

As he stood next to the bronzed and intricately carved sandstone temple on Monday, Mr Thakrar rejoiced at the confluence of the Diwali holiday and Mr Sunak’s victory, calling it “a great day “. Mr Sunak, he said, was “a devout Hindu and he loves his community”.

Around the same time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised Mr Sunak and described Britain’s Indian community as a “living bridge” between the two nations.

Dr Zubaida Haque, former executive director of the Equality Trust, a British charity, said the pride that Mr Sunak’s victory might inspire had to be put in context. While representation is important, “it doesn’t mean Britain has great social mobility,” she said, pointing to her rich upbringing.

“It’s still a great achievement that Rishi Sunak gets the highest job in this country, but let’s not pretend that racial inequality is no longer an obstacle,” she said.

Ms Dasani, who was at Wembley Temple with her family, expressed a similar sentiment, saying she believed the previous leadership race lost by Mr Sunak had brought to light “a lot of racism that still exists in the UK. United”.

She said she felt people were questioning her Britishness in a way they never had with her white counterparts.

Ms Dasani also cited Conservative Party policies which she said were hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers. Human rights groups, for example, have condemned a policy initiated under Mr Johnson to send some refugees arriving in Britain to Rwanda.

But she said she still believed having wider cultural representation on such a prominent stage could have a positive effect on the national psyche.

“I think South Asians in the UK fear that if we talk too loudly about our culture people will see us as not being really British,” she said. “So I think it’s a good thing that he’s so open about his culture and his religion.”

Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of Runnymede Trust, a research institute focused on racial equality, called Mr Sunak’s triumph a defining moment.

“It is a poignant and symbolic moment for a grandson of the British Empire to rise to the highest office in the country,” she said.

Still, Dr Begum said she hoped Mr Sunak would use his skills as a former Chancellor to address issues affecting ethnic minority groups in Britain, including inflation and rising interest rates which drove up household mortgages.

“The rest of the British public will be considering the immediate action Sunak will take to weather the storm,” she said.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.