There couldn’t have been a more fitting moment for the ascendance of the United Kingdom’s first Indian prime minister, who will also be his country’s first PM of color, the first Hindu to lead its government, and the youngest person to have the role in 200 years. On Monday, when the 42-year-old, 5-foot-7 Rishi Sunak was selected by Conservatives to lead their party—and therefore the former British empire—it was also the first day of Diwali. It was only weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. And 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of Indian independence from Britain.
Now that Liz Truss has been lettuced and Boris Johnson has decided not to call it a comeback, Sunak will head His Majesty’s Government for at least a little while, assuming general elections don’t happen anytime soon. And his fellow Indians across the globe are feeling all sorts of ways about it.
The diaspora has much to consider in this desi power broker’s rapid climb in British politics—helped, in part, by years of turmoil on Downing Street and within the Tories’ ranks. The Southampton-born son of Punjabi medical workers who emigrated from East Africa, Sunak mostly carries a typical Tory pedigree: a boarding-school education, an Oxford degree, and multiple family connections to wealth. Before his election to the House of Commons in 2015, he worked for various international finance firms and married his Stanford Business School classmate Akshata Murthy—the daughter of legendary Indian billionaire N.K. Narayana Murthy, who co-founded the tech behemoth Infosys in the 1980s. Sunak’s financial career and his wife’s fortune made them one of Britain’s richest couples by the time he became an MP; Murthy’s assets, including a chunk of her father’s company, made her “richer than the queen,” according to the Guardian.
In Parliament, Sunak’s early support for Brexit gained him favor with the Conservatives’ post–David Cameron leadership; Prime Minister Theresa May appointed him to her Cabinet in 2018. After she resigned, Sunak threw his support to Boris Johnson, who as PM appointed him chancellor of the exchequer. He became something of a COVID-era star: His press conferences and public addresses to Britons in the pandemic’s early months, showing off his clean-cut presence and comforting voice, earned him some Andrew Cuomo–esque praise (and public thirst for “Dishy Rishi”), along with speculation that he could succeed Johnson down the line. As with New York’s governor, Sunak benefited from mass public perception of competence; only later, during the “Partygate” scandal, would he be exposed as being not quite public health–conscious. Yet he savvily navigated the U.K.’s political crises, resigning from Johnson’s cabinet as the oafish PM’s approval plunged—then running to succeed his old boss as the Conservative Party leader. Some Tories sneered at his candidacy due to his willingness to (slightly) expand Britain’s safety net during COVID and readiness to dump Johnson this year; while Sunak made it to a final round against Liz Truss, the party ultimately backed her until, well, it just couldn’t anymore. And now here we are.
It’d be a strange political origin in any context, but Sunak’s is further magnified by his nationality and religion. British Indians, especially its Hindus, have historically leaned toward the Labour Party, given the Conservatives’ history of blatant racism. But, as in the United States, more British Hindus of South Asian origin have drifted toward the center-right in recent years. Various factors have contributed to this: Hindu nationalism has expanded its global presence, abetted in part by app-fueled misinformation; more privileged Indian immigrants increasingly support “pro-business” politicians; small-c conservative politicians in Western countries are often perceived as “friendly toward India”—i.e., toward the subcontinent’s right-wing government. Indeed, some of Britain’s most globally prominent politicians of Indian descent have risen under Tory cabinets: Alok Sharma, who led last year’s United Nations climate conference; the scandal-plagued Thatcher superfan Priti Patel, a member of both the May and Johnson governments; and Suella Braverman, a Truss Cabinet appointee who was forced to resign just last week for mishandling documents (and after making comments about Indian immigrants that almost scuttled a U.K.-India trade deal).
So, in the midst of all this, just how are Indians looking at incoming PM Rishi Sunak? Well, all the WhatsApp forwards that fizzled when Truss beat him for the big job are flurrying anew, as Indians incorporate Sunak’s “kinda hot” visage into Diwali wishes to their families.
The BBC compiled a number of WhatsApp Indian-family group messages following Sunak’s Conservative victory. Some expressed hope that Indians would finally be taken seriously on the world stage, but others were a touch more skeptical of the PM. One such message reads: “He is nothing like most of us. Posh and rich and just like the rest of Westminster.” (Not far from Slate contributor Imogen West-Knights’ description of Sunak as a “sniveling billionaire.”) Even fellow Conservatives are wary of his ample wealth and the scrutiny that’s ensued from it; one British Indian party member told Reuters that “he’s part of the global elite,” as opposed to “an ordinary person who goes to work and faces the problems which I face.”
But many responses across the diaspora have focused on Sunak’s ethnicity and Hindu faith, which are highly meaningful on a symbolic level. After all, he now leads the party of Winston Churchill, who helped contribute to the destructive 1943 Bengal famine and infamously referred to Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” At least superficially, Sunak represents a major advance in a country that brutalized Indians for centuries. One Delhi businessman told ABC News this was “a moment of pride for India”: that “the country which ruled us for many years” is now anointing a prime minister of Indian descent.
Sunak is also a proud Hindu who took his MP oath of office on a copy of the Bhagvad Gita, an essential text of Hinduism, and used his social media presence to share photos of himself practicing his faith. This is especially significant in light of the fact that just four years ago, a Conservative politician said that Hindu and Muslim faith-based celebrations had transformed Britain into a “crime-ridden cesspool.” It may be that Sunak’s new position as party leader will help marginalize sentiments like this within his party. But he’s also been quickly embraced by Hindu nationalists, including from India’s ruling party, who hope his selection augurs well for more fundamentalist forms of Hinduism. Sunak does not appear to have solid ties to Hindu nationalist organizations. But it seems unlikely he’d confront India over its Hindutva agenda anytime soon.
At any rate, Sunak’s honeymoon period as a paragon of British multiculturalism will likely be brief. He’s inheriting a Britain suffering from both economic and energy crises, and as a result his party’s approval rating has sunk to the bottom of the Thames. And to the dismay of many Indians in the U.K. and elsewhere, the Tories are still the party of austerity, climate denial, transphobia, crackdowns on citizenship eligibility, and—yes—racism. Sunak has sometimes bucked the party line on these issues, and at least has far better records on climate and the economy than Truss (which really isn’t saying much). But, as evidenced by this summer’s Conservative Party contest, he’s not likely to halt the Tories’ ever-rightward drift. Meanwhile, the majority of Indian Britons still back Labour, and Britain’s minority artists and activists, increasingly surveilled and demonized under Conservative administrations, probably won’t get relief or empathy from their first PM of color. Sunak has benefited a lot from good timing, savvy image-making, and relative newness to the global stage—not to mention an immense personal fortune. So he’s getting quite a bit of love this week. Soon enough, we’ll see how the auntie WhatsApps really feel.