Why Rishi Sunak’s election doesn’t make Britain a ‘post-racial’ society
Let’s celebrate his moment of triumph but not turn it into triumphalism. It neither helps him, nor India-UK relations which are in urgent need of a reboot
What would you rather like to be recognised for? Expertise, competence, character and integrity? Or ethnicity and the colour of your skin?
Rishi Sunak clearly prefers the former even as his fellow Asian cheerleaders, particularly in India, have gone to town with the latter. Anyone who followed the Tory party leadership campaign that culminated into his election as Britain’s first prime minister of colour would have noticed that he was careful to avoid any reference to his ethnicity.
Yes, he talked about his Hindu heritage and the values of hard work and integrity he inherited from his immigrant parents, but seldom about his Indian origins. There was no reference to it even in his first statement as prime minister outside Downing Street. This occasion is generally used by incoming prime ministers to introduce themselves. Sunak, instead, devoted it entirely to the economic and political challenges facing the country and how he had been called to “fix” them.
The BBC anchor reporting the event pointed out that his message was clear: “I’m here because of my ability to fix problems and my race is immaterial.”
To be fair, Sunak’s party colleagues, including his rivals, too did not use race against him. He has been criticised for being too “posh” to connect with ordinary people, too “technocratic” and lacking in political nous, and, worse, a “back-stabber”, a reference to the fact that it was his resignation which led to Boris Johnson’s downfall. But I don’t remember the colour of his skin being raised as a problem.
Indeed, until Indian commentators and social media went into overdrive appropriating him as a son of India and flagging up his victory as some sort of a sweet revenge against former colonial masters, there had been no mention of his racial background. The Times quoted an Indian banker Ranjan Kumar, describing it as “reverse colonisation”. MA Ibrahimi, a former chief secretary of Bihar state, tweeted in a reference to the country’s colonial past: “Revenge of history as well. Destiny.”
Then there have been comments like “Indian sun rises on Britain”. A leading newspaper led with the headline: “From empire to Rishi raj”, while one otherwise moderate TV anchor tweeted: “To think that on Diwali day, UK could have its first prime minister of Indian origin. That too in the 75th year of independence! Yeh hui na baat! [that’s the spirit].”
A few weeks ago when Sunak was knocked out of the leadership race against Liz Truss, many of the same commentators rushed to conclude that he had lost because of the colour of his skin. Even those who didn’t like Sunak for various reasons firmly believed that he had been a casualty of racism.
So, what changed in a matter of six weeks? Nothing. The fact is that neither Sunak’s defeat had anything to do with racism, nor his victory means that race has ceased to matter in Britain. No doubt, the election of a person of colour to the highest office in a white Christian country is of huge symbolic significance, but to read anything more profound into it will be to repeat the mistake Americans made when they mistook Obama’s election for a new dawn in US race relations. We all know what happened.
The idea that Britain has suddenly become a “post-racial” society or that it’s an “empire striking back” moment is a gross misreading, and chauvinistic view of the situation. The truth is that Sunak simply benefitted from a set of fortuitous circumstances. And a heavily engineered election rules designed to facilitate election of a man seen as a safe pair of hands to restore political and economic stability to the country facing a “profound crisis”, as Sunak pointed out in his post-election statement.
In plain English, he has been elected because of his perceived competence rather than a nod to his ethnicity. His performance as chancellor of the exchequer when he piloted several schemes to help ordinary people and small businesses affected by the pandemic lockdowns impressed people. And that’s the only reason he has been picked up to lead the country in these difficult times. Full stop.
The obsession with Sunak’s ethnic identity ignores the fact that Britain has changed beyond recognition over the past decade and is today racially the most diverse society in Europe. As Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future, said it reflected the changes in British politics and public life in recent decades.
“It’s a new normal at the top of British politics… We have the third female prime minister, followed by the first Asian Prime Minister…Rishi Sunak is actually the fifth British Asian cabinet minister in history, and there wasn’t one until 2010,” he said.
British Indian businessman and peer Karan Bilimoria said that Sunak’s election confirmed Britain’s reputation as a racial melting-point. “Anyone whatever their race or religion can aspire to achieve anything,” he told BBC.
Of the three main parties, the once fusty Tory party has diversified the most thanks to the changes introduced by David Cameron in 2010 to give more representation to ethnic minorities and women. Priti Patel, Alok Sharma, Sunak and several other British Asian and black politicians benefited from this diversification drive. Sunak was parachuted into a safe Tory parliamentary seat (vacated by former party leader and foreign secretary William Hague) despite local opposition on the ground that he didn’t belong to that constituency.
The outgoing foreign secretary James Cleverly was not much off the work when he told BBC, “Ethnic diversity has been a feature of Tory party. It has always supported meritocracy and Rishi is an incredibly bright man.”
Sunak’s elevation should lay to rest whatever doubts there might have been about Britons’ readiness to accept a desi to lead the country. The question whether Britain would ever have a non-white prime minister had dogged the country ever since Obama’s election as America’s first black President in 2009.
Will Britain ever have an “Obama moment” became a subject of a heavily-loaded debate. Implicit in the question was the suggestion — “no, not yet”. That was then. The year 2022 is not 2009. And Sunak’s election speaks for itself.
Meanwhile, by all means, let’s celebrate his moment of triumph but not turn it into triumphalism. It neither helps him, nor India-UK relations which are in urgent need of a reboot.
The author is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.
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