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  • Chaiti Maheshwari

RISHI SUNAK – A WIN FOR SOUTH ASIANS? A DISCUSSION ON IDENTITY POLITICS


Those were the words of former prime minister Winston Churchill in 1947. After centuries of empire, it was unthinkable that someone of South Asian descent would climb the ranks of British politics so rapidly. And yet 77 years later, Churchill’s beloved Conservative party is being led by a man from, what used to be, Britain’s most valuable colonial possession– a man whose race he saw no hope in.


On 25th October 2022, Rishi Sunak made history by becoming Britain’s first non-White Prime Minister. Coinciding with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, Britain’s South Asian community rejoiced in jubilance. Celebrations transcended British borders, as Hindus across India embraced Sunak as a source of pride.


Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton, England, on 12th May 1980. His parents, Local GP Yashvir and Pharmacist Usha immigrated to the UK in 1960 from colonial Kenya and Tanzania. Growing up Middle-Class, they picked up extra shifts at work to secure Sunak's place at the prestigious Winchester College. During that time, he lived in two worlds. In one of them, he earned the esteemed position of Winchester's head of school– the first of Indian origin. In the other, he worked as a waiter, laying tables at Kuti's Brasserie, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Southampton. After schooling, Sunak attended Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Upon Graduating in 2001, he began working at Goldman Sachs, completing an MBA at Stanford, where he met his wife, Akshara Murthy. Finally, Sunak became a Hedge Fund manager, a position he held until joining politics. In 2015, Sunak took the seat as MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire. He was re-elected in 2019, appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and worked as Chancellor under Health Secretary Sajid Javid in the same year. Finally, in July 2022, Sunak joined the leadership race to replace Boris Johnson and, in a few months, replaced Liz Truss upon her resignation, becoming prime minister.


From this angle, Sunak's humble roots and impressive credentials are the epitome of the model immigrant success story.


He is ‘one of us’, Indians say. In place of a Bible was a Bhagvad Gita during his parliamentary oath in 2019. He goes to the temple. He keeps a statuette of Ganesha. He lights diyas. He avoids eating beef. For the first time, Brits of South Asian origin– the UK’s largest minority group– have a leader who looks like them. This is their ‘Obama Moment’, signalling a turning point for social justice and racial equality in the country.


But is this narrative entirely accurate? Taking a look at his policies may suggest otherwise.


From the beginning of the leadership race, Sunak’s harsh position on immigration has been one of the biggest parts of his campaign. Sunak has pledged to implement laws tackling illegal immigration, in which “people who do not come to the country through legal and safe routes will be detained and returned to their home country”. His proposed ‘five-point plan’ aims to increase the number of raids carried out by immigration officers, personnel monitoring channel crossing and working on asylum cases and to facilitate the return of asylum seekers. Sunak has also openly voiced his support for the controversial ‘Rwanda policy’, which seeks to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda where they will be assessed for resettlement. Finally, in an attempt to attract overseas talent, Sunak has announced plans for a visa scheme to attract ‘highly-skilled immigrants’ – those who are proficient in English and have a job offer with a salary of at least £33,000 – while restricting the entry of unskilled immigrants and students seeking ‘low-quality’ degrees.


At face value, it can be difficult to understand how Sunak, the child of immigrants, can reconcile his background with his policies. Upon closer inspection, it is not as paradoxical as it seems. While his premiership is undoubtedly an exceptional achievement, the relationship between the conservative party and South Asians is nothing new.


When looking at Britain’s colonial history, the picture becomes clearer. Sunak, alongside his fellow conservative hardliners Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, is a ‘twice-migrant’– someone of South Asian descent whose family migrated to the UK from British colonies in East Africa. The British envisioned an East African settler-colonial project to be led by Indians, which began the migration of thousands of South Asians in the 20th century. In East Africa, they joined the colonial police and army, public service and administration, and thus benefitted from their ‘middle position’ in the colonial system, placed above the African majority. This prompted significant control over the economy. In 1963, when Kenya gained independence, with Indians barely constituting 3% of the population owned more than two-thirds of the country’s private non-agricultural assets. Due to their position as ‘a subordinate ruling class’, when they arrived in the UK, migrants were relatively rich and educated compared to other immigrant communities, guaranteeing a higher level of economic success in Britain. Furthermore, without any direct connection to their ancestral lands in South Asia, twice-immigrants did not see any prospect of returning and thus strongly associated their identity as British, invested in their lives in the UK and felt the need to fervently defend their country. The unique characteristics of privilege and patriotism led them to adopt a politically right-wing, conservative ideology. In a twist of irony, they turn their back on immigration – the very route that brought their forefathers to Britain.


In mutual benefit, the Conservative Party identified them as potential voters, using them as a ‘model minority’. South Asians – specifically those who were twice-migrants – were commended for their educational success, low crime rates, and overall value as productive members of society; evidence of the success of Britain’s free-market economy. In 1988, Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced “We so much welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, of hard work and of resolve to make a better life … you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative, which benefit not just you and your families but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole.


In the last decade, the conservative party has become increasingly racially diverse and today has what is called “the most Indian cabinet ever”. In doing this, the Tories have been accused of using the twice-migrant ‘model minority’ to represent the interests of the status quo with the facade of progress. To adapt to a world where White Politicians no longer have the liberty in being excessively draconian against immigration, some of the party’s most drastic measures– including the Rwanda Policy – have been introduced and defended by conservatives of colour.


Ultimately, Sunak’s appointment opens up a bigger conversation about the limitations of identity politics – how much does representation really matter? On one hand, the experiences of people of colour can enrich our understanding of racial injustice. Sunak himself, referring to personal experiences, has voiced that racism, discrimination and bigotry must be tackled. Furthermore, his rise to prominence is evidence of the breakdown of glass ceilings that people of colour face. It has changed opinions on what it means to be British– challenging the idea, as once thought, that the UK should be a “white man’s nation”.


On the other hand, many argue that identity politics is – quite literally – skin-deep, failing to acknowledge the complexity of identity itself. With Britain’s imperial past – national, racial and ethnic – identities are seldom black-and-white categories. It is difficult to merely label Sunak as merely ‘Indian’. His South Asian identity has been complicated by his family history of transnational movement and affiliation with British colonists. More generally, identity is intersectional, consisting of multiple factors – While Sunak’s background is Indian, he is also the “richest ever occupant at 10 Downing Street”, with a net worth exceeding that of even King Charles. Class is an equally important part of identity that should not be glossed over.


As the debate on Sunak continues, it seems there is no straight answer. What is certain, is that even though his prime ministerial term is still in its early stages, it has already had a significant impact on how we view race, identity and representation.



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