Rishi Sunak was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom a day after Diwali 2022. It was a huge moment of reckoning for British-Asians in particular and Asians in general. The elevation of a British-born and raised, Stanford-educated multi-millionaire resonated among the Indian diaspora in the UK and elsewhere and among Indians in India.
If you look at the turn of events objectively, Sunak is a British citizen with a GP father (Yashvir Sunak), with his maternal grandfather, Raghubir Sain Berry an MBE, and Infosys’ billionaire co-founder Narayan Murthy as father-in-law.
It would be my contention that family background and connections matter, nowhere more so than in the UK. And as much as his personal competence and merit, it is the societal elevation and political fillip he received from his education at Winchester and Stanford that could be justly credited for his journey to No. 10, Downing Street.
Indian-origin Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP, in a tweet that now stands deleted said, “Rishi Sunak as prime minister isn’t a win for Asian representation.” She added, “He’s a multi-millionaire who, as chancellor, cut taxes on bank profits while overseeing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956. Black, white or Asian: if you work for a living, he is not on your side,” she added.
Whittome may have accurately pointed out the inconvenient truth that now confronts so many Indians, people of Indian-origin, British-Asians, Asians and the like. After it garnered backlash on social media, Whittome was ‘instructed’ to remove her tweet. This was confirmed by a spokesman for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Incidentally, the combined fortune of Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy is estimated to be around 730 million pounds. That is double the 300-350 million pound wealth of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort. According to The Guardian, they also own four properties spread across the world, valued at over 15 million pounds.
“Rishi Sunak and his wife sit on a fortune of 730,000,000 pounds. That’s around twice the estimated wealth of King Charles III. Remember this whenever he talks about making ‘tough decisions’ that working class people will pay for,” Whittome, a staunch critic of Sunak, had earlier tweeted.
The uncomfortable truth spoken by Whittome is crucial to understand how a person of Sunak’s background, education and financial portfolio has landed the highest elected office in an erstwhile colonial power so powerful that the sun did not famously set on it. Being British-Asian and richer than the head of state would have arguably smoothed Sunak’s march towards Whitehall.
Not for nothing are there examples strewn across the global political landscape of leaders being elected, selected, appointed to the highest office in the land based on their perceived ‘ideal’ background. Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Trudeau, four-time premier of Canada, comes readily to mind. John F Kennedy, George W Bush in the US and Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in India are other examples of ‘family ties’ coming to the aid of a young and aspiring political leader.
Sunak’s supporters will point to the delicious irony of an Indian-origin person being appointed to lead Britain in the 75th year of Indian independence. What cannot be ignored is how much of an impetus his family, educational and professional background gave him in his long march to the PM’s office.
Can a first-generation Indian aspire to this office? What about the typically-British penchant for the ‘right’ school, college, university? How much does your financial portfolio influence and determine your professional standing?
It is undoubtedly a moment of celebration to have an Indian-origin politician at No. 10. It’s just that you cannot pick and choose someone’s ‘ability’, ‘capability’, ‘merit’ without also factoring in the schools they attended, the university they went to and the money in their bank.
According to a Guardian report, a young Sunak spoke about his aristocratic friends and his privileged education. In a 2001 BBC documentary called ‘Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl’, he was quoted as saying, “I have friends who are aristocrats, I have friends who are upper class, I have friends who are working class … Well, not working class.” He goes on to say, “I mix and match and then I go to see kids from an inner-city state school and tell them to apply to Oxford and talk to them about people like me and then I shock them at the end of chatting with them for half an hour and tell them I was at Winchester and one of my best friends is from Eton and whatever and they are like: ‘Oh, OK.’”
The same Guardian article mentions how Sunak once boasted to Conservative party members in Tunbridge Wells that he helped out wealthy towns by taking public money out of “deprived urban areas”. Sunak said: “We inherited a bunch of formulas from the Labour party which shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas,” in footage obtained by the New Statesman. He then boasted about the fact that as chancellor he started to reverse those policies.
I am happy for you, Rishi Sunak.
What would have been truly delightful and historic is if the Labour Party had elected and appointed a PM of Indian-origin. Now that would have been truly momentous and all the well-intended accolades pouring in at present would have been better-received across the board.