Sunak’s Political Makeover Includes Leaning Into Indian Heritage

The British prime minister is the first premier of Asian descent and also the the richest in history. He’s keen to talk about the former.

(Bloomberg) — Perhaps never before has Britain’s South Asian diaspora enjoyed such prominence on the country’s biggest political stage.  

During the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester this week, two of the UK’s highest-ranking officials highlighted their Indian heritage in efforts to rally the party faithful. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared that “I stand before you today as the first non-white leader in our country’s history,” and his home secretary, Suella Braverman, acknowledged the “wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe.”

But while Braverman contrasted the 20th century’s demographic currents with the “hurricane” of migration now bearing down on Europe, Sunak used his family’s migration from India via East Africa to highlight his debt to British traditions. The message was part of a broader effort by the premier to reintroduce himself to the country as he prepares to face the voters for the first time as the their leader. 

“My grandparents did not emigrate to just Leicester or Southampton, but to the United Kingdom,”  Sunak said on Wednesday. “They came here because our country stands for a set of values. We are the home of fair play, the best of British.”

The comment highlighted how little emphasis has been placed on Sunak’s minority status since he became prime minister in the wake of the back-to-back resignations of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss last year. True, the prime minister hasn’t hid his heritage, speaking in interviews about being a practicing Hindu while wearing a red kalava string around his wrist to mark his faith.

And other leaders of South Asia decent, such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan and First Minister of the devolved Scottish government Humza Yousaf have both spoken about the importance of their roots, with the former speaking about the racism he faced growing up in the wake of rising hate crimes in the country. Still, Sunak’s rise to the pinnacle of power in a government that until 1947 ruled the Indian subcontinent as a colony has gone with little of the fanfare that accompanied, for example, Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president.

It was a fact acknowledged in his speech, expressing pride that being Britain’s first Asian prime minister “is just not a big deal.” Still, the comments showed Sunak’s heritage may be of increasing relevance ahead of a general election that must be held by January 2025.  

On a personal level, the migration of Sunak’s forebearers from the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan and eventually to Britain helps fill out the backstory of a prime minister who has so far enjoyed little public enthusiasm. That was underscored by Sunak’s decision to have his wife, Akshata Murty, introduce him at the conference, a break with tradition seen as an import of American-style First Lady politics.

Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs Group banker, met Murty while attending Stanford University. She’s the daughter Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy, a co-founder of Infosys Ltd., and her personal fortune contributes greatly to Sunak’s status as British richest-ever prime minister. 

“Aspiration runs through his DNA like it does this party,” Murty said of her husband. “Aspiration is what drove his family many years ago to move to the UK.”More broadly, Sunak must balance Britain’s support for the ideals of multiculturism with anxiety over a record surge in migration, particularly asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats. Braverman, who oversees migration as home secretary, told Conservatives on Tuesday that immigration was “already too high,” days after decrying the “misguided dogma of multiculturalism” in a speech in Washington. 

“Sunak, I think, is using his own story, authentically in his account of it, to put the Conservatives back in the middle of a debate, so this isn’t an existential debate about the failure of British society,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank which explores attitudes toward identity and integration. “It’s back to a debate about can you get a grip on the immigration system and how to manage immigration well.”

The Conservative Party’s history with immigration is fraught, complicated by the late-1960s debate over then-Tory politician Enoch Powell’s so-called Rivers of Blood speech warning the dangers of mass migration. The opposition Labour Party, which will hold its annual conference next week in Liverpool, has traditionally done better in areas with large South Asian populations. 

But Sunak used his speech to present an image of the Conservative Party as one of inclusion and change, noting how it was led by a Jewish premier, Benjamin Disraeli, when Victoria was still queen and has had three female prime ministers. He noted how Labour leader Keir Starmer was the party’s third consecutive leader to live in north London, although he grew up in the suburbs Surrey.

Sunak, for his own part, has made “stopping the boats” one of his five pledges after taking power and has pursued an aggressive deportation policy that would house asylum seekers on barges and deport them to Rwanda. He has, however, declined to endorse Braverman’s comments on multiculturalism, saying “we have done an incredible job of integrating people into society.”

With his party lagging behind Labour in the polls, Sunak’s latest rhetoric might be a pitch to win over support from a growing segment of the British population with South Asian heritage, many of whom, like Sunak, supported Brexit. Recent census data—which show that people from Asian ethnic groups make up more than 9% of the UK population—points to increasing immigration from India, where support for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is high.

It also makes him more human and softens his wealthy persona, according to Sunder Katwala. “It becomes a relatable story because it’s about more universal themes of family and opportunity and aspiration and community rather than being about where he’s ended up,” he said.

For its part, the Conservatives have also made a concerted effort since coming into power in 2010 to cement a good relationship with India and the Hindu population. That includes hosting a huge concert in 2015 at the iconic Wembley stadium to welcome BJP leader Narendra Modi and blocking efforts to make caste discrimination illegal.

Sunak and Modi’s governments are currently negotiating a trade deal, which could further deepen links between the two countries. The Indian side is seeking provisions to allow its workers freer movement in and out of the UK, although Sunak says a looser visa policy isn’t being discussed. 

It remains to be seen whether Sunak’s embrace of his own heritage will help him navigate Britain’s fraught immigration debate or overcome the perception that he’s too rich to relate.

“It’s to try to counter the other weaknesses in his pitch,” said Bronwen Maddox, chief executive of the Chatham House think tank.  He’s “trying to appeal to a lot of groups and trying to dispatch this notion he is out of touch with ordinary people and will just head off to California if he loses,” she said. 

–With assistance from Eamon Akil Farhat and Joe Mayes.

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