By Rajan Philips –
The ascent of Rishi Sunak as the new British Prime Minister is an individual achievement of stunning proportions. It is also a testament to the positive evolution of the British political system to the point of adopting a non-Christian person of colour and son of immigrant parents as its Prime Minister. While these two facts and the accolades they elicit are all in order, there are also other facts about British politics and the politics of Mr. Sunak himself, provoking justifiably negative criticisms both within and outside Britain. They too cannot be ignored, and they have to be balanced with the positive symbolisms of the recent changes in British politics.
The sun may have set on the British Empire quite a while ago, but its twilight is still encompassing a substantial portion of the world made up of former colonies and whose political and socioeconomic developments are still intertwined to varying degrees with developments in Britain. Rishi Sunak’s background as the son of immigrant parents of North Indian Punjabi origin, a practicing Hindu, and husband of a South Indian billionaire heiress, has created special acclamations in India. Nothing much may come out of it, but Sunak’s elevation in Britain has brought into relief both the nostalgia and the cynicism that surround the continuing aftermaths of the empire, not only in India but also in other postcolonial societies in the Commonwealth. And in Britain itself.
A particularly cynical take on the matter could be that with the national economy in the doldrums, British Tories have got hold of an ambitious Indian to clean up their Brexit mess. While acknowledging the poignancy in the current circumstances, one must also acknowledge that someone with roots in former colonies could not have risen to the top in the old imperial centre except at the intersection of the downward trajectory of Britain and the upward trajectory of some of the old colonies. It may not be a coincidence, but India at $3.53T GDP recently overtook Britain at $3.38T as the world’s fifth largest economy, and India is also currently registering the highest rise in real salaries in the world at 4.6% whereas in Britain salaries have fallen 5.6% in real terms due to its 9.1% inflation.
A substantively different take would be that while British political society has evolved to the point of accepting women and men of colour regardless of their religious persuasions to the highest levels of power in the county, India has backslid from its early decades of secularism and inclusiveness to the current Hindutva quagmire in which Muslims and other religious minorities are actively excluded and more than occasionally harassed. Exclusion of national and ethnic minorities from high political offices is not something peculiar to Modi’s India. Sri Lanka’s record of exclusion targeting non-Sinhala Buddhists is even more longstanding. There are many other instances in the Commonwealth.
Sunak’s rise in Britain also bucks the growing anti-non-white and anti-immigrant populism in many western polities. Donald Trump personifies this trend in the US and the fact that he, in spite of all his bullying antics and violations of the law, could still be considered a serious presidential candidate for 2024 shows how deep racist and reactionary populism has sunk its roots in US society. Trump has counterparts and followers in many European countries, especially East European countries. The irony about this populism in western countries is that many older and well-to-do immigrants of colour subscribe to anti-immigrant populism very vigorously.
The British Conservative Party is now home to many established immigrants of colour who are more vociferous than old stock Britishers about fighting crime, protecting borders and eliminating immigration. Almost all frontline Tories of Asian and African origins subscribe to this ethos of the ‘hard right’ and Rishi Sunak might be a moderate among them. This came out quite clearly in the defensive justification he offered for the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.
Ms. Braverman had resigned just days ago from Truss’s cabinet for violating the code of conduct for Ministers. The real reason was a clash over immigration policies. Braverman would not stand Truss and her new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, going soft on immigration and viciously attacked the lettuce Prime Minister and expedited her exit. Her return to cabinet is Sunak’s sop to hard right Tories and a payback for her supporting Sunak and preventing Boris Johnson from forcing another leadership contest involving Tory members at large. The upshot was Sunak’s coronation by Tory MPs.
Sunak, Braverman, and Priti Patel among others are children of parents of Indian origin who migrated from East Africa. They are the successful descendants of Indians who migrated to Africa to work in colonial bureaucracies, but who came under threat when African countries became independent and took to Africanising their states and their economies. Indian and Pakistani immigrants from African countries are a different political constituency in Britain – from those who migrated directly from the subcontinent in South Asia. The latter immigrants are far more socio-economically diverse – from factory workers to shop keepers, professionals, and entrepreneurs than their African Asian counterparts. Their socioeconomic circumstances found a natural ally in the Labour Party, which they have traditionally supported. They may not know the details of Churchill’s vulgar invectives against Hindus, but they remember India becoming independent when there was a Labour Prime Minister in Britain.
Indian migrants from Africa have different memories and their circumstances are also different. It was Conservative Prime Ministers, Macmillan, and Heath, who allowed their migration to the UK when they came under threat first in Kenya and later in Uganda. And they remember years later a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, reversing Macmillan’s earlier greenlight to Asian migration from Africa. As well, South Asian immigrants have long distance political agendas and their involvement in British politics is coloured by the political hangovers from their natal countries. Indian migrants from Africa, on the other hand, have no abiding political interest in Africa and have been able to assimilate themselves into British politics without any African hangover.
They are now dead set against any immigration, especially of the poor and refuge seekers. Patel and Braverman are ready to trample over any rights that immigrants may claim under international humanitarian laws. Braverman spitefully calls them modern laws of slavery. Prime Minister Sunak may not be as spiteful of hapless immigrants as his Indian-origin Tory colleagues are, but he needs their support to be Tory Leader and Prime Minister.
Mr. Sunak personifies another facet of the African Indian constituency in Britain. And that is their overachieving success in business and the professions, easily far and ahead of any immigrant constituency in Britain, including their distant kin from South Asia. As repeatedly insisted by the new Prime Minister, his parents were not born into wealth. His father was a GP Doctor in Hampshire, his mother ran a pharmacy, and they saved enough to put their son through Britain’s best schools, and finally to Oxford for a PPE. From there he took to ‘finances’ with an MBA from Stanford and a not too short pre-political career at Goldman Sachs. Rishi Sunak’s political career began not in the traditional trenches of constituency politics but in the financial networks in London that Tories had infiltrated throughout the Thatcher era. It is this experience that is likely colour his politics as Prime Minister and not his cultural inheritances.
For good measure, Sunak found the love his life in a South Indian billionaire heiress, Akshata Murty, from Mysore. Their combined wealth is double the assets of Britain’s Royal family and that has become both a matter of pride and a point of detraction in British political gossip. Mr. Sunak’s affinal wealth is also a commentary on wealth creation in our time – the exponential fusion of electronics and high finance. Ms. Murty’s parents, Naryan and Sudha Murty, began as young computer engineers with little seed capital. But the IT company Infosys they launched turned out to be hugely successful and elevated them to the ranks of the richest in India.
A third aspect of Mr. Sunak’s rise as Prime Minister is the perennial leadership tumults in the Conservative Party. Sunak is now a beneficiary of Tory convulsions, but he could be another victim as well. Even if he manages to survive the current term of parliament, he is unlikely to be able to win the next election given the steep fall Tories have suffered in public opinion. His economic challenges are not in dispute, but his political challenges are more within the governing Party than they are with the opposition parties. Brexit is at the root of both. But he cannot address the economic challenges without compromising Brexit, and he cannot compromise on Brexit without provoking another internal revolt by Brexiteers. That is his real dilemma.
At the same time, something needs to be said about the resilience of the British parliamentary system that has held forth and in fact worked well, from a system standpoint, through six years Brexit fiasco, Tory infighting and Labour self-destructiveness. Britain did not any ‘aragalaya’ to get rid of Boris Johnson. The British people did not have to march on streets chanting Boris Go Home, but their restive mood was powerfully reflected in the British parliament, where all that was needed to get rid of the Prime Minister was resignations by senior cabinet ministers and enough-is-enough messages from Tory backbenchers. Not even a No Confidence Motion in parliament was needed for the good riddance of bad Boris.
A few months ago, when President Emmanuel Macron lost control of the legislature after the National Assembly elections in France, a prominent Sri Lankan commentator rhetorically posed a presidential-existential question for Sri Lanka. What calamity, he asked, and I paraphrase, would befall France if it had a parliamentary system and had Mr. Macron not as President but as Prime Minister? The question was vacuous, and the answer then as now is simple. At best, Mr. Macron would have been the Prime Minister of a minority government; at worst, he would have been Leader of the Opposition while leading the single largest party in the Assembly. And France would have been still far better than what is going on in the US, the world’s oldest presidential system.
The more appropriate question should have been, and it has since become one, is not a question referencing France but Britain. What would be Britain’s plight if Boris Johnson were President and not Prime Minister? Given his reluctance all along to quit, Mr. Johnson would have been Britain’s irremovable President and not a procedurally dispensable Prime Minister. Comparing Johnson in Britain and Trump in America there is certainly something to say about the flexibility in the parliamentary system for changing government heads, mid-term or between elections, as opposed to the virtual non-removability in a presidential system.