UK may be ready for Sunak but what difference will it make to India?

India ranks 17th on Britain’s list of trading partners and little is likely to change under a new British PM. In fact, Sunak is more likely to work overtime to dispel any impression of partiality

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Abhijit Shanker

Rishi Sunak has received more support from Tory MPs than his rivals so far; but it will be the approximately 160,000 Conservative Party members, mostly White men, who will choose between Sunak and Elizabeth Truss. The votes will be counted towards the end of August and the new leader will be announced on September 5.

Truss had been a staunch ‘Remainer’ in 2016 and took a public stand against exiting the European Union. But since then, she has changed her stance and is now a confirmed Brexiteer. Sunak on the other hand has been a Brexiteer from the beginning and has attacked Truss for betraying the conservatives and Brexiteers in 2016. The campaigning by the two is therefore expected to be fierce and no-holds-barred. And a YouGov poll showed Sunak trailing Truss by 19 points among conservative voters. In other words, it is by no means certain that Sunak will win.

While Rishi Sunak was born and raised in Britain, his ties to India are less than a generation old. He happens to be married to the daughter of India’s business baron, Mr. NR Narayana Murthy. There is understandably considerable excitement in India and the Indian diaspora at the prospect of a man of Indian origin becoming the Prime Minister of UK.

The 11 Tory MPs who participated in the first elimination round included people of Iraqi, Pakistani and Indian heritage. The last five, after six of them were eliminated, included two women and two persons of colour. The only white male, Tom Tugendhat, received the least number of votes from the MPs. After Wednesday’s run off, which left Sunak and Truss in the final race, Sunak seemed to have a fighting chance on paper of taking up residence at No. 10, Downing Street. For a country which ruled most of the world within the last hundred years, including India, this will be nothing short of revolutionary.

But Sunak is not the first or the only person of Indian origin to have headed Governments outside the country of origin. Some of the countries which have had their Presidents and Prime Ministers with an Indian lineage include Fiji, Ireland, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, Portugal, Singapore, Suriname, and Seychelles, other than United States where Kamala Devi Harris is the current Vice President. Canada is another country which has several ministers of Indian origin.

Antonio Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal, Mohamed Irfaan, the first Muslim President of Guyana, Pravind Jugnauth, Prime Minister of Mauritius, Prithvirajsing Roopun, President of Mauritius and Chandrikapersad Santokhi, President, Suriname happen to be some of the more prominent leaders of Indian origin. In Mauritius, nine heads of state, including Mr Jugnauth and Mr Roopun, have been of Indian origin. Suriname has seen five presidents from the Indian community. Also, four heads of state in Guyana and three in Singapore were of Indian descent.

But if and when Sunak is elected, will his Indian origin influence his foreign policy or will it serve only as a photo opportunity? Will he go out of his way to favour India? It is highly doubtful. Boris Johnson had as PM visited India earlier this year and promised better trade relations between the two countries.

The least that will be expected from Britain’s Indian-origin Prime Minister will be a better reception of the Indian Passport at UK’s immigration counters, or a visa-on-arrival facility. As for preference for a trading partner, India ranks 17th on the list of favoured trade partners of UK, after Turkey and just ahead of Canada. The British still prefer the European Union, even though they have lost at least four Prime Ministers to their fixation with Brexit.

A certain section of Indians’ fascination with things British: Queen, her many family members, the nostalgia involving Princess of Wales, Diana, her sons, and their wives, emanates largely from the clichéd colonial hangover. One could also add cricket to the list.

If India must put its colonial past to rest, it must remember that a man in a loincloth had brought the British to their knees, using their strategies against them. As Shashi Tharoor reminds us in his book, the Era of Darkness, the British have a statue in London of a dog who apparently participated in the World Wars, but none of the Indian soldiers who fought as part of the British troops globally.

India, in its pursuit of global prowess, cannot disassociate from its past. Its leaders must bring up their colonial distresses on global platforms, and not shy away it. Sweeping these excesses under the proverbial carpet will not help India rise on the world stage. Neither will it help the country enter new era of friendship with a former colonial master.

Rishi Sunak may look like us, have Indian parents-in-law but he will likely not let this fact sway his decision making. On the contrary, he will be hard pressed to prove to the world that he is not favouring India and Indians.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York. Views are personal)

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