Rishi Sunak has just been appointed as Britain’s Prime Minister – the third in only two months and the second non-elected one – and he has already made history: he is the first person of color to ever lead a British government and the first practicing Hindu. At only 42, he is also the youngest person in the past two centuries to take the office and certainly the richest: his (and his wife’s) private fortune is estimated at 730 million pounds.
Rishi Sunak said he was “humbled and honored” to serve and he promised to do it with “integrity and humility”. He said that the UK is a great country he owes so much to and made reference to the “profound economic” crisis with a soaring cost of living – the highest in 40 years – and a gap in the UK’s public finances. In his first address at Downing Street, Sunak said there are “difficult decisions to come”. Yet he promised to tackle them with “compassion”.
Who is Britain’s 57th prime minister and how did he get there? Born in Southampton in 1980 to an Indian couple, who emigrated from East Africa in the 60s, Sunak grew up in a well-to-do environment: his father worked as a family doctor, while his mother ran a pharmacy. After a degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the so-called degree of the political elites) from Oxford, Sunak flew to the United States, where he completed a master in Business Administration from Stanford University, California.
He married wealthy Akshata Murty, the daughter of Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder of the computer giant Infosys. Once back in the UK, Sunak’s first steps were not in the field of politics, but in the world of finance: Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and later as a partner at two hedge fund firms. An early career that earned him the nickname “Davos man”. He first entered politics in 2015, when he was elected to the House of Commons for Richmond in North Yorkshire.
Given Sunak’s background, critics are questioning whether the young millionaire is even able to understand the magnitude of the cost-of-living squeeze faced by struggling households. The Sunaks’ real estate assets are valued at around 17 million euros. They live in a five-bedroom house in Kensington – one of London’s most luxurious neighborhoods – worth 8 million, they own a manor house in the north of England with a private lake, a swimming pool and tennis court (hence the nickname “ the Maharaja of the Yorkshire Dales”), and a 7 million dollar property in Santa Monica, California.
In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum – where he campaigned to leave – Sunak claimed that leaving the EU would make the UK “freer, fairer, and more prosperous”. He said that another key reason for his position was to change immigration rules, “I believe that appropriate immigration can benefit our country, but we must have control of our borders”. A belief he still holds onto now, as he promised to reform British asylum rules. In 2018, Sunak was a little-known parliamentary under-secretary in Theresa May’s second government.
Later, in 2020, Sunak supported Boris Johnson’s campaign for leadership of the Tory Party. When Johnson was elected and became Prime Minister, he personally chose Rishi Sunak as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Once he was promoted Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Finance Minister, Sunak had a prominent role in the government’s financial response to the Covid-19 pandemic by developing a giant stimulus package of 330 billion pounds (the largest in UK history). He resigned as Chancellor in July 2022, only days before Johnson participating in the cabinet crisis that forced Boris Johnson to step down.
Like his predecessor Liz Truss, Sunak has spoken in favor of neoliberal economic policies. Compared to the outgoing premier though, he believes that lowering taxes in the current economic situation is not advisable and would further damage the struggling households with skyrocketing interest and inflation. While Sunak promised to reduce taxes in the long term, he warned Truss’s tax cuts would damage the UK economy. Time proved him right, as “Trussonomics” sent markets into disarray and pushed her out in record time.
After Liz Truss’s resignation in October 2022, Sunak was seen as a possible candidate for the Tory leadership as he had the required number of supporters, i.e. 100 members of the House of Commons. After the other two contenders’ withdrew, he was announced as the new leader of the Conservative Party and subsequently as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. “Unite or die” was the message he sent to his party after being declared leader, a call for unity and stability in a time of profound turmoil for the country and the Tory Party.
His “coronation” as Tory leader – how his sudden rise to power has been called – and as PM, the second consecutive non-elected one, triggered mixed feelings among the Tories and in the UK but it is definitely a historic moment for the country. Only years ago, it would have been unimaginable to have a non-white prime minister. Sunak becoming premier can be seen as a sign of a progressive normalization of ethnic minorities in multicultural Britain, where people of Asian descent make up 7.5 percent of the population. In the outgoing administration, ethnic minority politicians held three key positions. However, some can argue that only a “specific kind of diversity” is acceptable for the Tories, where class is more relevant than ethnicity.
Although Sunak declared “I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu,” one cannot forget that he comes from a privileged background, placing some distance between him and the average Brit. While it is undeniable that his role today is inspirational to many ethnic minorities who live in the UK, Sunak, the son of “twice-migrants”, is rather an expression of certain transnational elites who have access to the most privileged and exclusive circles.
The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, quickly congratulated Sunak calling him “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. The Indian diaspora as well as exponents and supporters of the nationalist Hindu government in India are rejoicing at the elevation of “a son of India” – a former British colony for more than 100 years – to the highest position of the UK government. Some have called his rise to power “Britain’s Obama moment”, yet, Sunak, a practicing Hindu of Punjabi descent, has never played the Indian card during his campaign. So why are so many Indians feeling like he is “one of our own”?
“Two factors have played a role – his ethnicity and his religion”, wrote The Wire founding editor, Sidharth Bhatia. “His grandparents and parents are of South Asian stock and so is he, which makes him an ‘Indian’ (more a South Asian really) and also, that he is a Hindu, and one who makes it a point to emphasize that by practice, make him the Right Kind of Person of Indian Origin. He took his oath as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 2020, on the Bhagwad Gita and he very publicly showed his reverence to the cow – these are huge plus points in his favor to those who have fixed ideas of who can be called a 100 percent, pure Indian”. A pure Indian, in today’s India, in undoubtedly an upper-class and devout Hindu.
Cover Photo: Gurukul School of Art teacher’s paintings to congratulate New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Mumbai, India, 25 October, 2022. (Photo by Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via AFP).
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