Why Indians are backing Rishi Sunak to become UK prime minister

Some on social media are hoping former chancellor becomes Tory leader because of his Indian Hindu ancestry

Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak is now one of two candidates left in the race to succeed Boris Johnson. PA
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The prospect of Rishi Sunak becoming the next British prime minister has sparked fervour in India, where some social media users are rooting for him because of his Indian Hindu ancestry.

Some are calling it possible payback for the country's former colonisers.

The 42-year-old former UK chancellor is now one of only two candidates left in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party.

While he still faces a tough battle with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, a section of Indians are not just supporting his attempt to become the first British leader of Indian origin, but are also looking at the frontrunner's “historic” potential, given the country's colonial past.

The British ruled over the Indian subcontinent for more than two centuries before it earned independence in 1947 after a long battle for freedom.

Mr Sunak is seen by many in the country as an answer to British rule over the Indians.

Twitter user Himanshu Rawat wrote on the platform that “it would be a great moment for India" for someone with Indian roots to become prime minister of "the country who enslaved India for decades".

“The potential of Indian-origin genes proves itself many times on different continents. but this time he is going to make history. He can be the first ever United Kingdom prime minister who is not white and whose wife is an Indian citizen,” said Rupesh Jha, another Twitter user.

Indian ancestry

Mr Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980 to Indian parents who had emigrated from East Africa.

Both his grandfathers were born in undivided Punjab province in British India.

His paternal grandfather is believed to have been born in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, while his maternal roots in the country are not known.

Both families moved to Africa before making a final move to the UK in the 1960s.

His father, Yashvir Sunak, was born and raised in the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (present-day Kenya) whereas his mother was born in erstwhile Tanganyika, now part of Tanzania.

His father was a doctor with the NHS while his mother ran a small pharmacy.

Even though his paternal ancestral roots are in Pakistan, people in India widely consider him one of their own, a proud Hindu.

Indian parents-in-law

Mr Sunak is married to Akshata Murthy, the heiress daughter of billionaire couple Narayana Murthy and his wife Sudha.

Mr Murthy, an Indian software entrepreneur who is worth $3.2 billion, is often referred to as the “Steve Jobs of India”.

The Murthys co-founded Indian tech giant Infosys, the first Indian company to be listed on a US stock exchange, in 1981, using capital of just $250 and a six-member team.

Mr Murthy is a recipient of Padma Shri — India’s fourth highest civilian award.

Sudha Murthy is a well-known philanthropist who founded the non-profit Infosys Foundation and several orphanages, as well as establishing The Murthy Classical Library of India at Harvard University.

She is a pioneer of women rights and a prolific writer, having written 15 children’s books.

Mrs Murthy is also known for living a simple life, often wearing light-coloured cotton sarees and giving tips to children and parents on living happily.

She is a trailblazer in her own right.

In the 1970s, she was the first female engineer hired by Telco, India’s largest auto manufacturer, even though the job application said: “Ladies need not apply.”

Mr Sunak met his wife Akshata, who is an Indian citizen, while studying in California where the two lived before moving “back home”, according to the legislator's website.

“I'm actually incredibly proud of what my parents-in-law built. My father-in-law came from absolutely nothing, just had a dream,” Mr Sunak recently said on a debate over his wife’s controversial non-domicile tax status.

British PM and Indian ties

If Mr Sunak is elected as the next prime minister, he will become the sixth person of Indian descent to hold the highest position in a country other than India.

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

India experienced a similar fervour when Kamala Harris, whose mother is Indian, was elected as the vice president of the US.

“I want Rishi Sunak to become PM of UK. He is Hindu and Indian,” Twitter user Ruchita Maheswari said.

But experts in India are not certain whether a Sunak government would translate into benefits for India.

Manoj Joshi, a political commentator and a fellow at Delhi think tank Observer Research Foundation, said his win will not bring much change in India-UK ties.

“In substance, there will not be much of a change. Both sides will take advantage of this [Indian origin] fact, mainly in practical measures in trade policy negotiating with the British on trade agreement … those will certainly benefit, but I am not sure if Mr Sunak will win,” Mr Joshi told The National.

He also said that the Conservative Party might still want a “white person” to rule the nation.

“The Conservative Party would still like a white person to win," he said. "The poll was narrower among cosmopolitan votes, but we don’t know the rural component, which tends to be more conservative.”

“And even if he wins, we don’t know if he would want to overstake his ethnic connections, whether he would want to play on them or resist them.”

Updated: July 22, 2022, 6:03 PM