Indians celebrate Rishi Sunak's rise to become UK prime minister

Political triumph an added bonus for many Indians celebrating Diwali, the biggest Hindu festival

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As Rishi Sunak made history by becoming the UK's first prime minister of Indian origin, people in India saw it as another victory to celebrate on Diwali.

Mr Sunak, 42, will take oath as Britain's leader on Friday.

A “proud Hindu”, the politician’s ascent has sparked widespread celebration in the former British colony.

Social media was abuzz with congratulatory messages, with some people regarding his Conservative Party leadership victory as a payback for the former colonisers.

“If Netflix hasn't yet, they should start a mini-series on how a couple of Indians plotted to take revenge on the British by ruling them — the Brits found out and chased them to Africa," said Twitter user Sanjay Sharma. "They never gave up and finally succeeded three generations later with Rishi Sunak."

For many Indians marking Diwali — the biggest Hindu festival — on Monday, Mr Sunak’s victory was another cause for celebration.

Twitter user Amol Kumar said: “Rishi Sunak is the new UK PM on Diwali 2022. Britain gets the very first Indian-origin Prime Minister."

Some Indian social media users said Mr Sunak’s ascent to the top post was particularly significant as it coincided with India’s 75 years of freedom from British rule.

“Who would have thought when India celebrates 75 years of independence from the British, the British will get a Prime Minister of Indian origin, a first-ever Hindu PM," renowned South Indian actor Chiranjeevi Konidela tweeted.

Leading national TV news channel New Delhi Television also congratulated Mr Sunak, running the words: “Indian son rises over the empire”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Mr Sunak on Twitter and said he was looking forward to “working closely together on global issues”.

Mr Sunak will be Britain's youngest prime minister in more than 200 years — and perhaps its wealthiest.

He was chosen by a governing Conservative Party desperate to fix its own fractures and guide the country through political and economic turbulence.

Indian connection

Mr Sunak's grandfathers were born in the undivided Punjab province in British India and the families had moved to Africa before arriving in the UK in the 1960s.

He was born in Southampton on England’s south coast in 1980. He is the son-in-law of Indian billionaire Narayana Murty and his wife Sudha.

Rishi Sunak with daughters Krisna, Anoushka and wife Akshata Murty. Getty

Mr Sunak's wife Akshata Murty is the daughter of Mr Murty, who is worth a staggering $3.2 billion and is often touted as the “Steve Jobs of India”.

The couple co-founded Indian tech giant Infosys, the first Indian company to be listed on a US stock exchange, in 1981.

Mr Sunak has spoken about being a “proud Hindu”, a narrative that resonates with a wide section of Indians who identify themselves as Hindu nationalist, particularly under Mr Modi’s right-wing government.

But many on Twitter also pointed out that Mr Sunak did not have any direct connection with India and drew comparisons between those who despise “foreigners” entering into mainstream politics in India.

Many highlighted the case of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Indian Congress politician and widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who came under fire from Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP over her foreign origins and reportedly backed out of becoming India's prime minister in 2004.

Dr Udit Raj, a former parliamentarian, said on Twitter that Rishi Sunak and his wife are of Indian origin and Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan, and the Obamas were widely accepted by the US electorate.

"Surprisingly BJP leaders are congratulating Sunak … when Sonia Gandhi was proposed to be PM, they opposed vehemently,” he wrote.

No concessions

Indian-origin academics in the UK have said Mr Sunak has guarded his personal life and will avoid any explicit bias towards India, given his links with the former British colony.

“While Mr Sunak wears his Hindu identity proudly, this should not be confused with him having any deep-rooted pro-India sentiments,” Dr Amalendu Misra, professor of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University in the UK, told The National.

“He would be more conscious about his policy decisions — lest they be considered advantageous to India at the cost of British national interests.”

Manoj Joshi, a political commentator and a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, agreed it was unlikely Mr Sunak would offer any concession in bilateral ties.

India is the second-largest FDI investor in the UK.

Since the controversy of Brexit, the UK’s tortuous exit from the European Union, London has been expanding its markets and signed free-trade agreements, especially with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

London has also been negotiating a free-trade agreement with New Delhi under the Roadmap 2030 that outlines plans for the bilateral relationship over the next 10 years. Roadmap 2030 is a shared British-Indian vision to re-energise trade, investment and technological collaboration and improve citizens' lives.

With the FTA, both nations aim to reduce import and export barriers and could boost bilateral trade to more than $100bn by 2030.

The negotiations of the proposed trade deal were expected to conclude this month but the deadline was missed.

Suella Braverman, who last week resigned from the government role of home secretary, this month said she had “reservations” and “concerns” about any trade deal with India that involved more migration and visa flexibility.

Mr Joshi said he did not expect Mr Sunak to offer any “special concession” to India and that he was more likely to “be a tougher proposition”.

“The FTA talks were supposed to yield results in October but nothing has happened so far," he said. "I am not sure how much room is there for concessions as both sides will bargain toughly, particularly after Brexit, and to what extent they [the British government] want to develop ties with India."

Updated: October 25, 2022, 11:58 AM
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