UK Elections: Looks like curtains for Rishi Sunak

Sir Keir Starmer looks to be a shoo-in for the general election of 4 July 2024

The rain's coming down on Rishi Sunak, as he declares general elections (photo: @rahhead01/X)
The rain's coming down on Rishi Sunak, as he declares general elections (photo: @rahhead01/X)

Ashis Ray

A new dawn beckons for the British Isles.

Sir Keir Starmer, the 61-year-old, Oxford-educated Labour party leader, called to the bar from Middle Temple and a former director of public prosecutions, seems to be almost a shoo-in as the next British prime minister when the results are declared in a general election on 4 July.

Starting with a shambolic outdoor announcement of a general election, when he got drenched in the rain and the song ‘Things Can Only Get Better...’ played by anti-government demonstrators on a loudspeaker drowned out his speech, incumbent Rishi Sunak’s fortunes have only appeared to plunge as the campaign unfolded.

Last week’s YouGov poll put the British public’s disapproval of Sunak’s government at 71 per cent and effectively predicted that Labour — now more centrist than centre-left — may win a record 100 seats more than the majority mark of 326, and that the ruling right-wing Conservative party could plummet to its worst performance in a general election since it was founded in 1834.

This is chiefly because the Conservatives have disintegrated since the British electorate chose to exit the European Union in 2016, in addition to proving themselves to be sleazy and incompetent. Also as a result of a new practically far-right Reform party eating into the Conservative vote bank. Indeed, even if half of the forecast manifests itself, the Conservatives are bound to unceremoniously unseat Sunak as party leader, as has been their unforgiving historical practice.

It is not Sunak’s fault that he was pitchforked into the position of prime minister when neither he nor Britain was ready for it.

Boris Johnson, who as prime minister won the election five years ago, had denuded the Conservatives of weighty leaders who disagreed with his rash promises, his undemocratic style of functioning and his incurable tendency to lie.

With Johnson and his immediate successor Liz Truss biting the dust within weeks of each other, the Conservatives did not enjoy the luxury of conducting another time-consuming leadership contest involving the party rank and file. Truss had managed to crash the British economy during her unprecedentedly short 45-day tenure. Conservative MPs stitched up a process which threw up Sunak — who had, thanks to Johnson, held the senior cabinet post of chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) — with an ill-equipped Penny Mordaunt (leader of the House of Commons or parliamentary affairs minister) as the only other serious contender.

When the Truss versus Sunak face-to-face unfolded in the summer of 2022 in the succession battle after Johnson was ousted — which Sunak lost — a woman identifying herself as a Conservative party member from one of the southern counties phoned a London radio talk show to suggest Sunak wasn’t British. She was immediately challenged by the host; but persisted that a son of an immigrant could not be defined as British. Her opinion was unsurprising, reflecting the sentiments of a section of indigenous Britons.

Sunak, who is of East African Indian origin, has not made it any easier for himself by frequently referring to his Hindu faith in a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) country, even ill-advisedly speaking at a ‘Ram Katha’ event at Cambridge in 2023.

Edward Anderson writes in his recently published book Hindu Nationalism in the Indian Diaspora:

One year before (Indian) Independence, and two years before the RSS’s ban following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist, (Jagdish) Shastri (a teacher at an Arya Samaj school in Amritsar) set sail from Bombay (Mumbai) to Mombasa to take up his new post. Standing on the deck of the SS Vasna, one tempestuous evening in the middle of the Indian Ocean, he had a serendipitous encounter with another passenger—a Gujarati called Manek Lal Rughani. The meeting, memorialised by Shastri in his Memoirs of a Global Hindu, led to the first shakha (branch) [of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS] outside India.’

London-based writer Shyam Bhatia, whose father Prem Bhatia was once the Indian high commissioner to Kenya, recently wrote in the Times: ‘In 1935, aged 18, Ramm Dass (Rishi Sunak’s paternal grandfather) left Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) and moved to Kenya, where he started a new life as an accountant. Sohag, his young wife, followed him two years later. The couple had six children and one of them, Yashvir, is Sunak’s father.’

The UK’s Daily Mail reported Ram Dass ‘was a member of the Hindu supremacist outfit called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was modelled on fascist organisations like the Nazis’.

Bhatia further revealed that upon moving to Southampton in 1971, Ram Dass ‘established the Vedic Society Hindu Temple, where (Rishi) Sunak’s parents are very active and which the prime minister still visits’.

In short, when Sunak’s family arrived in Britain, they were, by all accounts, conservative Hindus. His parents trained in the sciences — father Yashvir qualified as a doctor to become a GP and mother Usha as a chemist — but seemingly retained their religiosity.

Settled on the south coast of England, they sent Rishi to Winchester College, a well-known private school nearby. From there, he proceeded on merit to Oxford. However, a human being is often an amalgamation of heredity and environment. This juxtaposition rendered him outwardly British; but the heritage of Hindu traditionalism did not desert him.

The influx of refugees from East Africa exponentially increased the number of Britons of South Asian descent in Britain. The new vote bank this constituted—which the Labour party initially cornered—left other parties no choice but to accept multiculturalism as state policy.

What this spawned, though, was not merely an uninhibited expression of Indian–East African culturalism—which arguably lent variety and enrichment to British society—but an assertion of religious identity. In other words, compared to those who had migrated earlier from India and partially integrated into ‘Britishness’, East African Indians, accustomed to fastidiously observing their religious customs in East Africa, were granted the liberty to continue doing so in Britain.

Today there are an estimated 65 RSS-affiliated Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas in Britain, not to mention scores of Hindu temples. Parts of north-west London and the Midlands city of Leicester, where East African Gujaratis are concentrated, are in fact hotbeds of Hindutva.

Benjamin Disraeli was born Jewish, but had an Anglican upbringing from the age of 12, after his father left Judaism. This opened the door for him to be twice elected as a Conservative prime minister in the 1860s and 1870s — during an era when Jews were excluded from parliament. The moral of this story being: not even a Catholic — let alone a non-Christian — has until Sunak held the post of British prime minister until Johnson reverted to the Catholic faith of his mother (after becoming an Anglican at his school at Eton).

Of course, neither Disraeli nor Johnson quite faced the dichotomy of one culture at home and another outside it, which many Asian immigrants in Britain tend to encounter.

Sunak’s formal entry into politics was only in 2015. Seven years later, at the age of 41, he was prime minister. It took John Major 11 years to move from elected MP to tenant at 10 Downing Street. For Tony Blair, the span was 14 years. David Cameron rose to premiership nine years after entering parliament.

Sunak’s was, therefore, a staggering achievement for a non-white son of an immigrant in a party dominated by white Britons. Indeed, in merely 17 years, the Conservatives had motored from not possessing a single Asian MP to embracing one as their prime minister!

Covid made Sunak’s task as chancellor a no-brainer. Adhering to Johnson’s wishes, he embarked on a generous furlough scheme to save businesses and jobs, which catapulted him from obscurity to fame.

However, Sunak puritanically lying prostrate on the floor to pray at a temple in Delhi last year was an enactment of only the most devout and exhibitionist of Hindus. Ironically, the Conservatives’ ultimate hero, Sir Winston Churchill, had once described Hinduism as ‘a beastly religion’.

By and large, modern Britain is exemplarily tolerant of all religions. Yet, the person who called the talk show embodies the feeling that one needs to be white and Christian to be culturally British. That a person (like Sunak) who neither partakes of a pint at a pub nor savours roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is not quintessentially British.

Sir Keir Starmer in a multicultural photo op preaches 'Change', but a lot of Brits doubt how inclusive he can actually be (photo: @KareemRifai/X)
Sir Keir Starmer in a multicultural photo op preaches 'Change', but a lot of Brits doubt how inclusive he can actually be (photo: @KareemRifai/X)

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