The fortuitous elevation of Rishi Sunak as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister has triggered an unseemly and entirely futile political slugfest in India.
The bitter squabble, between those who are delighted by a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) making it to the 10 Downing Street on the one hand and the embittered ginger group of the Indian politics on the other, is embarrassing, with the latter tauntingly asking the former if there were any chances of a minority leader becoming head of the government in India.
Sadly, both are way off the mark, not least because it is not the first time that a full or partial PIO made it to the top in a foreign country; thirty-one of them are listed by the Wikipedia. Sunak may also not be the last.
Besides, some of the highest positions in the country’s polity and military, sports, academia, and practically all other fields have been held by persons belonging to the ‘minority’ groups. Does this count for nothing, and India will become truly secular when someone from the minority groups becomes its prime minister, not counting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh among them?
What Sunak has achieved is something to feel nice about, but it is puerile to posit this feat in terms of his being a practising Hindu of Indian descent. It’s more fatuous to think that somehow there is a special advantage in all this for India -a narrative also being peddled in Pakistan.
In fact, being a PIO may constrain Sunak in taking some urgently needed policy decisions, like going ahead with the Free Trade Agreement with India, if any such decision could even remotely be seen by the political opponents and the electorate as a sign of his unduly favouring India at the cost of the British interests.
Any such action could also heighten racial tensions in the UK which were at display in Leicester and elsewhere just last month.
There is no question that Sunak’s foremost loyalty must be to the country, of which he is a proud citizen, and now its Prime Minister. As Suella Braverman’s retention in Sunak’s cabinet as Home Secretary despite her known anti-migrant stance suggests, Rishi is not going to be guided by how his actions are perceived in India.
The Britons will expect him to fix the problems that beset their economy and bring political stability, and the Tories will expect him to seal their prospects at the hustings due not later than January 2025. He can lose the confidence of the Tory MPs as quickly as Truss did if he fails to deliver in the coming months.
There is also no guarantee of his returning as the Prime Minister after the general elections unless he performs some miracles which mesmerise the electorate to the point that they consider him to be indispensable -a virtual impossibility by any yardstick.
Without in any way belittling Sunak’s success or the Tory MPs’ disregard for his ethnic origins to catapult him to the top post, one must point out that just a month-and-a-half back he was defeated by Lizz Truss by a 21,000+ margin in the leadership contest in which 140,000-odd votes were cast by the members of the Conservative Party.
It will be as ludicrous to suggest that Sunak’s loss in the trust vote by the larger electorate just last month indicated British society’s racial bias as it will now be to suggest that his elevation to the top job reflects its broadmindedness.
Sunak is not the leader of a rag tag political party representing parochial interests of a particular religious, ethnic, regional, or linguistic group. He is a member of one of the oldest political parties anywhere in the world, tracing its origins to the late 17th century, and has risen through its ranks on merits, and not because he is an Asian, much less an Indian or a Hindu.
If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is this: you cannot expect to become the Prime Minister in a democracy, particularly in a large rambunctious society like India’s, by forming a pressure group to espouse the putative interests of a particular community while masquerading as a legitimate political party, simultaneously complaining that the political opponents are following the same electoral tactics and beating you at it.
You must work through the ranks of the mainstream political parties which represent interests of a wider-cross section of the society to be able to emulate Sunak in the Indian context. It’s not easy, but that’s another story for another time.
The author, Amit Cowshish, is ex-Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence, Government of India