Is Rishi Sunak really the poster child of immigrant success?

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Is it just me, or is it actually unnerving how Sunak's smile does not quite reach to his eyes? Ministry of Housing, Communities and Loval Govt via Flickr

Ultranationalist rants and unhelpful advice abound in interpretations of this shift in leadership

The United Kingdom has been much in the news the past few months. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the departure of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and thus prime minister of the U.K., and Liz Truss taking over as prime minister and setting the record for the shortest tenure in U.K. history. All of that culminated two weeks back with the Conservative Party electing a new leader, Rishi Sunak, who by virtue of being party leader is now also the prime minister of the U.K.

As most people who have been following the news would know, Sunak had long been a contender for the position. Sunak certainly has a very impressive resume, having gone to Oxford for his undergraduate years and then getting an MBA from Stanford on a Fulbright scholarship. Before entering politics, he was also a successful investment banker with Goldman Sachs, and has worked in multiple hedge fund firms. All that to say, there is little room to doubt his credentials or qualifications for his most recent job.

In fact, many admirers have gone as far as to say that the only reason Rishi Sunak was not elected party leader and prime minister even earlier is that the party had to first make sure every White person had a shot at it before turning to Sunak, a person of South Asian descent and someone who looks, shall we say, visibly different than Winston Churchill. While it would be naïve of me to deny that racism exists and plays a significant role in politics, I am not too sure that was a factor. If anything, what may be closer to the truth is that Sunak has policy stances that the party was not willing to stomach until it had no other options. But more on that another day. The focus of this article is something else. 

As soon as Rishi Sunak became prime minister of the U.K., social media and official news channels began talking about how he is of Indian descent, one of those that the U.K. once colonized. Depending on what source you were seeing this in, the rest of the commentary either went down a mildly disturbing jingoistic route or the mildly reductionist route of how it is a triumph of U.K. democracy that someone from a former colony rose to the highest office in the land.

I found both perspectives problematic, or at least too simplistic. While the former often turned into ultranationalist rants about how the U.K. once ruled India and an Indian now rules the U.K., the latter seems too much like the oft-repeated and unhelpful advice of “work hard and you can do anything” that does not take into account the substantial privileges Rishi Sunak enjoyed from an early age. Let us analyze each of these perspectives in turn.

Those who are claiming it is a huge victory for India and those of Indian descent that a man whose ancestors were colonized is now the prime minister, I almost have to wonder if they are missing the point of a parliamentary democracy. Rishi Sunak might be the prime minister, but not because he won some sort of direct election. The Conservative Party, in the midst of a leadership crisis, eventually turned to him to lead the party and take on the job of prime minister. This, for instance, is a far cry from when Barack Obama won a popular election in 2008 and convinced the youth of the United States, however briefly, that things were about to change. Sunak is not going to be “ruling” anyone. He will simply be leading a party and a government to the best of his abilities.

As already mentioned, given his credentials, there is reason to hope he can do a good job. While this is happening in the public life, in the business of government, and perhaps at a much larger scale, an argument can be made that so far, what Sunak has achieved is no different from when people like Satya Nadella or Sundar Pichai – also of Indian descent – were selected internally to become the CEO of Microsoft and Google respectively.

Someday, Sunak might go down as the greatest prime minister in the history of the U.K. and turn the country around from its recent troubles. So far, he has been selected internally for a top executive job. We can only hope he is equal to the challenge. As an aside, I cannot help but mention here that unlike Sunak, both Nadella and Pichai grew up and went to college in India.

Personally, though, I am far more frustrated with those with the second perspective. These are the ones who are glorifying Western democracy, or maybe even democracy in general, by pointing out how someone from a former colony is now the head of the government of the colonizing power. First of all, I find it a little ridiculous that Rishi Sunak, whose grandparents left present-day Pakistan in the 1940s, whose parents were born in Kenya, and who himself was born in Southampton, is considered Indian. Sunak was born in the U.K., educated almost exclusively in the U.K. except when he went to Stanford on a Fulbright scholarship, and even his parents were not born in India. As someone who is familiar with Indian politics, I have to let out a chuckle of frustration when the same people who claim Indian Sikhs and Muslims – who are indigenous to India for over 400 years – are “foreigners” also claim Rishi Sunak, who has probably never stayed in India for more than four weeks, is “Indian”.

Secondly, Sunak had the immense fortune of having two highly educated parents who were able to send him to the best schools, make sure he could focus on education without having to hold down three jobs and/or take on crushing student loan debt, and in general provide the sort of support that is simply not available to most people. It helps that all of this happened in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It also helps that he is married to Akshatha Narayan Murthy, daughter of the Indian billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy, which brings Sunak’s net worth to just under $800 million. At the end of the day, what has happened is that a man born to wealth, and himself the owner of substantial wealth, has been chosen to lead the party in power. Does it really matter so much that this time the man is not White? Do I, a South Asian immigrant, really have more in common with Rishi Sunak than I do with my neighbours and coworkers?

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