There is something special about the fact that Rishi Sunak is the UK’s first Asian, as well as first Hindu, prime minister. It says something about the UK. But there is plenty it does not say, and a lot of wishful thinking seems to abound over his appointment. We have to be careful about reading too much into it, both positively and negatively.
Firstly, the UK is not the first western European country to have a prime minister with Indian heritage. The UK’s western neighbour, Ireland, had one from 2017 to 2020 in Leo Varadkar, and who will be PM in a few weeks in the planned power sharing rotation. When that happened in Ireland, however, it was not lauded particularly as a massive milestone. Irish society might have had their first mixed race prime minister, but it seemed to be an ordinary event. Race didn’t come up particularly, and to this day, even while Mr Varadkar has his critics in Irish politics, race does not seem to have ever come up.
Indeed, when Mr Varadkar pushed an actively anti-racist platform on several issues, such as removing statues of slave owners, or expressing support for the Black Lives Movement in the US, it didn’t really turn heads in Irish society.
There are those that want to imagine that the UK has got to this point – that Mr Sunak’s race and minority religious status as a practicing Hindu, is simply irrelevant for the British public. Hence his being elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party, and thus prime minister, was extraordinary in its ordinariness.
There are others who go in the other direction, which we saw on the Daily Show, a popular American comedy-news show, where it was claimed there was a massive "backlash" against Mr Sunak’s becoming Britain’s prime minister, due to his Indian origins. The host, Trevor Noah, defended his comments, insisting that he wasn’t making a generalised characterisation of British society writ large, but was talking about only "some" people.
Noah was wrong – but also right. He was very wrong in saying there was a backlash against Mr Sunak due to his Indian origins – his belonging to the UK seemed barely to come up as an issue, even at the height of campaigning. The closest one could say it came up as a point of contention was related to taxation issues, as Akshata Murty, Mr Sunak’s wife, claimed to be "non-domiciled" in the UK for tax purposes.
And even then, his own Indian origins were not seen as controversial. Quite rightly so – and quite unlike when former US president, Barack Obama, was elected in 2008. Then, his mixed race and Black heritage served as a lightning rod for right-wing and far-right wing opponents to question his fitness for the presidency. No doubt, there is a temptation to see Mr Sunak as somehow a British version of Mr Obama – but Mr Sunak likely did not have to overcome huge anti-Indian racism in the UK to gain his position, in remotely the same way that Mr Obama had to overcome anti-Black racism in the US.
But that does not mean the UK actually does not have a problem with racism, or indeed with minority religious groupings. Mr Sunak has Indian origins, true – but Mr Sunak is also incredibly wealthy, and in the context of the UK, class often overcomes and displaces race.
Moreover, historically, the biggest target of racism and bigotry in the Indian British community is aimed at a different demographic – the Muslim community, and especially those who are visibly and publicly Muslim. This is why the former chairperson of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, has been raising the alarm around anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK in general, and inside the Conservative Party in particular, for many years now.
Far beyond the party, there have been numerous critiques of how the Conservative Party simply does not take anti-Muslim bigotry seriously enough, which has meant reports of rampant Islamophobia within the party.
Despite three years of promises, the current government failed to even define Islamophobia, an essential task if the government were to recognise the importance of tackling anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims.
In May of next year, the coronation of the UK's new monarch, King Charles III, is expected to take place. It will be a striking affair – the coronation of the head of the Christian Anglican Communion, against the backdrop of a Hindu Prime Minister, in a city with a (Labour) Muslim Mayor. The coronation will have multi-faith representation, as is befitting of this king in particular, who has expressed a great deal of respect for the multitude of Britain’s faiths. The UK has much to be grateful for in terms of how far it has come in this regard, but we also should not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve come further than we have.