Note 31/Rishi Sunak





27 OCTOBER 2022

Unlike Barack Obama who made much of being an African-American, Sunak wants to be seen as just another Tory politician.

When it became clear that Rishi Sunak would become Prime Minister of the UK, many Indians felt a sense of vindication — validation, even. That old Winston Churchill quote was repeatedly retweeted, the one about how Indian leaders were “rogues, freebooters, men of low calibre….They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.”

This was deliciously ironic because the Conservatives, Churchill’s old party, had just elected their third leader in six weeks among endless political squabbles and fights for power. And the man they had chosen was of Indian origin, though he was neither a ‘rogue’ nor a ‘man of low calibre’.

Churchill said many other things of a similar nature. He had a visceral hatred of Indians —though he quite liked India itself as long as it remained British property. According to his colleague Leo Amery, he referred to Indians as a “beastly people with a beastly religion.” So the sound we heard as Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, walked into 10, Downing Street was Churchill’s body spinning violently in its grave.

As someone who loathes Churchill’s views on empire, I am delighted to pull out those quotes. But let’s remember that Churchill’s objections to Indians had less to do with our culture and more to do with our race. In common with many champions of the British Empire, he doubted whether non-White people could be trusted to govern themselves. In that respect, he was like Rudyard Kipling, who wrote famously of the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ regarding colonialism as a means of civilising the natives, a “divine burden to reign God’s empire on Earth.”

So, much more than his heritage, it was Sunak’s colour that was the most unusual aspect of his election as prime minister. With the UK in a mess, he was finally going to pick up the Brown man’s burden.

Sunak is proudly British

But, a few qualifiers. Let’s accept, first of all, that Sunak is not Indian. He is proudly British. Even the ‘Indian origin’ thing is a bit of a stretch: His parents are East African Asians. He seems more Indian to us because he is married to Narayan Murthy’s daughter, but let’s not forget that while she has held on to her Indian passport, he has always been British, a national by birth.

Let’s also dispense with the Barack Obama parallels. Obama made much of being an African-American (in his case, literally), talked about racism and often focused on racial issues. Sunak, on the other hand, is eager to be seen as just another Tory politician. He does not seem to think (or at least, admit) that his race matters much.

Many Tory politicians of colour follow a racial agenda that is no different from that of White, Right-wing politicians. As the writer and journalist Sathnam Sanghera wrote perceptively in The Times (London), when Sunak had to campaign in the shires for votes from Conservative party members (many of whom are Right-wing and possibly racist) he used the same rhetoric as the traditional Tory Right—attacking “Left-wing agitators” for trying to “take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values.” At a time when many in the UK are taking a critical look at the country’s imperialist past, he announced that “vilifying the UK” should be an offence.

Sanghera quotes Sayeeda Warsi, the former chairwoman of the Conservative party who told him in an interview that “it’s almost like ethnic minorities in the Tory party have had to be more Right-wing than the most extreme Right-wing to be accepted.”

Anyone who has followed the statements made by the appalling Suella Braverman, the India-baiting Home Secretary who is partly of East African-Asian heritage, will know what Warsi meant. Braverman referred to her parents as “proud children of the Empire,” defended it and spoke of her “dream” of deporting potential refugees to Rwanda by Christmas. No surprise then that though Braverman was sacked by Liz Truss over a security breach, Sunak quickly reinstated her on his first day in office.

Ancestry does not determine loyalty

But two things need to be said in Sunak’s defence. First, he has never been as craven as Braverman or her predecessor, Home Secretary Priti Patel. And second, why should he let his ethnic origin or colour define his politics? He regards himself as British. Let him act like a British politician. Yes, some of his ancestors were born in India. But then, so were the ancestors of all of Pakistan’s politicians. Ancestry does not determine how pro-Indian you are.

It is understandable for us to feel proud of Brown people who succeed in politics abroad, but we need to recognise that while the Indian diaspora has strong cultural (and sometimes religious) links with India, its members owe loyalty not to the land of their ancestors but to the countries they have chosen to call home.

At some level, we do accept this. We know that people of Indian origin have risen to the top of the political structure in say, Mauritius. But we never doubt that their loyalty is to Mauritius, not India. So it is with the Caribbean. We don’t regard people of Indian origin in say, Guyana or Trinidad as being Indians or expect them to be pro-Indian.

It is only when it comes to some Western countries that we have different expectations. Kamala Harris has cultural links with India because of her mother. But she is entirely American. Why should we expect her to lean towards India? And so it is with Sunak and the current generation of UK politicians. They are British. Cultural and ethnic identity does not make them Indian. And yet, we had people on Twitter hoping that Sunak would return the Kohinoor!

Why do we find it so hard to accept that politicians of Indian origin in the West owe loyalty to the countries they live in and not to India? Perhaps because the rise of Indian-origin politicians in the West is still a relatively new phenomenon. And mostly because we have been so scarred by the Empire, with the abuse hurled at us by the likes of Winston Churchill and the institutionalised racism of the Raj, that we are thrilled by the spectacle of Brits being led by Brown men and women.

And partly, it is because not all people of Indian origin with foreign nationalities who live in the West are ready to fully commit to the countries whose passports they carry. Many of them keep offering opinions on Indian politics, telling Indian nationals who actually live here how India should be run. When it comes to politics, the bright ones—like Sunak—rise in the countries they now live in. The not-so-bright ones merely interfere in the politics of the country they left behind. Those who can succeed in politics, do. Those who can’t, tweet.

So yes, I am pleased that a Brown man will lead the UK. But no, I don’t have any expectations of him from an Indian standpoint. He has chosen his country. And now, he must serve its interests.





31 OCTOBER 2022

Momentary romanticism over ‘being seen’ will not save us from Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, presided over by a prime minister wealthier than the king

Britain last week welcomed a new prime minister, not elected by the people. Yes, you read that right: a select few from the Conservative Party lent their backing to Rishi Sunak, constituting enough support to replace Liz Truss.

Yet, the general public’s attention was not so much on a new Tory leader who the people did not elect, but on the background of the new prime minister. This is, allegedly, a historic moment being compared to former US President Barack Obama’s win – although he won via the mandate of the people, not a select few. 

The events of the past few days should force us to ask some urgent questions. How is representational politics, based solely on sharing the same heritage as someone, a helpful measure of political consciousness? What does it mean for economically marginalised citizens to have the wealthiest MP as our prime minister? It has been duly pointed out that Sunak is richer than King Charles III, with an estimated fortune of £730m ($845m). 

Indeed, this moment will not necessarily entail any form of tangible economic change to help those in dire need during a massive and widespread cost-of-living crisis. This momentary lapse of asserting that we are in a post-colonial, post-racial world is little more than denial, exposing how racecraft is understood through acquiring higher positions of power. It shifts the focus away from political deceit, deepening inequalities and social breakdown that will take decades to rebuild. 

Sunak, in this sense, represents his class – those at the very top. Class is a variable that stratifies Britain in a multitude of ways; a form of social engineering that none of us can escape. His presence as the country’s leader is what I would call a mythic racial nightmare. 

The merging of economics with race here is an acute way of emphasising how the leader’s aesthetics mark a cosmetic change, while the same fiscal policies are retained, benefiting those in the same economic position as Sunak. Just this year, Sunak gave a speech in Tunbridge Wells where he boasted of diverting public funds from “deprived urban areas” to more affluent constituencies.

Easing white anxiety

Sunak is committed to the Rwanda plan, wherein refugees arriving on the shores of Britain are deported to Rwanda to have their paperwork processed. He has also expressed his desire to widen the definition of extremism, targeting those who “vilify Britain”. 

This is an intriguing point. A day before Sunak accepted his premiership following a meeting with the king, he articulated how he wanted to give back to the country to which he owed so much. He thus not only declared himself the leader of the country, but also asserted that he is not a danger, emphasising his utmost loyalty. Such a public admission exculpates him of being the “Other” and eases white anxiety. 

Sunak as the grateful immigrant who remains deferential to the metropole of empire is the only way to reassure the insecure, affirming the notion that Britain cannot possibly be racist. The making of the servile sahib with access to the head of the table is not an unknown tactic. 

Amid Britain’s colonisation of India, the famous “Minute on Education” speech was delivered by Thomas Macaulay in 1835. He shared his ambitions on how to advance the British empire, noting: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Expansion of capital

I would propose that things are no different today, albeit without the British Raj. A similar machine is at play: the expansion of capital within the upper echelons of society, with the crumbs littered among those at the bottom, the working class. 

Sunak’s ascension has been hailed as an advance for other South Asians in Britain, despite their immensely different experiences. Unlike the vast majority of South Asians in the UK, Sunak’s personal migration story is often referred to as one of the “twice migrants”. Originally from Gujranwala (in today’s Punjab in Pakistan), his family moved to Kenya before migrating to the UK in the 1960s. 

The belief that most South Asians in Britain, who are working class, will somehow feel elated at seeing someone who “looks like them” in power – that this should be sufficient to reduce their economic anxieties – amounts to a subtraction of race from economics. This is what I call abject politics: a politics incapable of critiquing state actors, because representational politics is weaponised as a distraction. 

The South Asians who had already settled in Britain before the arrival of East African Asians forged politically radical movements that fought vehemently against assimilationism and encouraged pushback against those in power.

A momentary romanticism of “being seen” will not save us from the cost-of-living crisis. Indulging this moment obscures and erases the damage that the Conservative Party has done to the country for 12 years.

Now is the time to build collectively from the ground up. It is time to smash the egregious policies passed by government actors and stop masking the violence of those in power simply because they “look like us”. 


Reacties uitgeschakeld voor Note 31/Rishi Sunak

Opgeslagen onder Divers

Reacties zijn gesloten.