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British Conservative Party Member of Parliament Rishi Sunak is the frontrunner in the UK’s prime ministerial race to replace Boris Johnson. Photo: AP

‘Ready for Rishi’: Why Indian netizens are glued to UK’s race to replace PM Boris Johnson

  • The entry of several South Asian candidates, such as front runner Rishi Sunak, in the UK’s leadership race has given India’s public cause to rejoice
  • Some political observers highlighted the benefits of a non-white leader while others questioned the UK’s readiness for a person of colour
In India, social media users just cannot stop talking about Britain’s prime ministerial race.
Social media users’ fervour over the possibility of a British prime minister with an Indian heritage has intensified after former finance minister Rishi Sunak won the most support from Conservative lawmakers in the first round of voting on Wednesday.
Sunak, Attorney General Suella Braverman and former health secretary Sajid Javid, all of South Asian descent, were among the most high-profile members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet and were in the running for the top job.

After party-loving Boris, will teetotal Rishi Sunak be Britain’s next PM?

Javid and Braverman have dropped out of the race, while Sunak has the most publicly-declared support from Tory MPs and is tipped to win. Further rounds of voting are expected next week following television debates scheduled for the weekend.

While most of the Indian community celebrated Sunak’s lead in the race to replace outgoing Prime Minister Johnson, some have tried to temper expectations, saying that a Sunak win might not necessarily translate to benefits for India. Other political observers also questioned the readiness of the UK for a “non-white” leader.

“The rise of South Asian candidates in British politics is fascinating and reflects a tectonic shift in the country’s political history. Be that as it may, I don’t think Britain is ready for a brown PM yet, be it Sunak or anyone else,” said Manoj Joshi, a Delhi-based columnist and political commentator.

“Racism is still rampant and entrenched in the island nation. And it’s unlikely that the British masses will accept a non-white PM,” he said.


Boris Johnson’s rise to power and what led to his downfall as UK prime minister

Boris Johnson’s rise to power and what led to his downfall as UK prime minister

Historical ties

Twitter users in India expressed excitement to have someone of Indian-heritage as British prime minister, given centuries of ties between India and its former colonial ruler. “If Rishi Sunak becomes the next British PM, history will truly be coming full circle,” a Twitter user wrote.

For a nation that prides itself on its diversity and multiculturalism, the UK could also benefit from non-white candidates in its politics as such candidates bring a “deeper understanding of issues and nuances due to their cultural affinity with India”, said Ashok Sajjanhar, India’s former ambassador to Sweden.

The diplomat highlighted that the robust UK-India relationship stemmed from a partnership on a swathe of issues such as climate change, terrorism and migration.

“If Asians assume higher positions of power, there will be more synergies and it’ll be easier to bridge differences or resolve national level conflicts.”

The UK and India have enjoyed a strong relationship from tackling issues such as climate change, terrorism and migration. Photo: Bloomberg

While Sunak’s rise and popularity has been a point of pride for the Indian diaspora, some political observers have sought to play down the fanfare surrounding Sunak.

Instead, they have pointed to the common occurrence of biracial and Indian-origin leaders in other countries, such as Barack Obama and former prime minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that immediate benefits will start accruing to India due to their positions. These candidates will obviously be catering to their domestic constituency and not a country they now share only tenuous ties with,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, dean of the School of International Studies and a professor of China Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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He cited the example of US Vice-President Kamala Harris whose link to the Indian diaspora through her mother accounted for much jubilation in India. “But Harris has been very circumspect about projecting a pro-India image or making friendly overtures to us.”

“We should also keep in mind that occasionally, contrary to expectations, cultural ties can also boomerang, leading to such candidates being critical of India,” he said.

Public opinion in the UK remains divided over a Sunak administration, with many people slamming him for raising the UK’s tax burden to its highest since the 1940s, when he was chancellor.

“Rishi Sunak has vowed to tackle the inflation caused by Rishi Sunak and lower the taxes set by Rishi Sunak,” read one tweet.

Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty, daughter of Indian tech billionaire and Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy. Photo: AFP

In his final months in office before resigning, he fought against lowering taxes for fear of inflation. Inflation in the UK is forecast to exceed 11 per cent in October.

Born to a pharmacist mother and a general-practitioner father, Sunak holds degrees from Oxford University and Stanford. He was a Goldman Sachs analyst before he became chancellor at age 39 in 2020.

Popularly known as “Dishy Rishi” in British tabloids for his suave appearance, Sunak is married to Akshata Murty, daughter of Indian tech billionaire and Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy. Akshata, who remains an Indian citizen, owns about 0.9 per cent of Infosys.

The couple made headlines in April over Murty’s “non-domiciled” tax status which meant she did not pay UK tax on her earnings abroad. She later agreed to pay foreign tax on her UK income.