As Indians celebrated the appointment of ethnic Indian and practicing Hindu Rishi Sunak as British prime minister, Vasuki Shastry of Chatham House examines the unappreciated irony of Sunak’s achievement, given the politics and society of India today.
Son of immigrants, now leader of the land: Rishi Sunak became the 57th prime minister of the United Kingdom on October 25(Credit: Lauren Hurley/No 10 Downing Street)
On Diwali, news about Rishi Sunak’s imminent elevation to the highest political office in the United Kingdom triggered a wave of delight in India, as the country and its people marked the annual Festival of Lights. The celebration and astonishment focused more on the fact that Sunak is a practicing Hindu in a Christian-majority country rather than on his ethnic Indian origins – he was born in Southampton, England, of Indian immigrants from East Africa who migrated to the UK in the 1960s. This played well into the exclusive narrative of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it comes to dealing with India’s own minorities.
The uncomfortable truth is that Sunak’s historic appointment is more than anything else a tribute to Britain’s record in integrating and assimilating minorities, undoubtedly patchy and still a work in progress. In that context, there is dissonance in the triumphalist tone evident in Indian social media feeds, with many of those savoring the moment failing to grasp the glaring irony: The prospect of a similar appointment happening in today’s India would be slim if not impossible. Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, who has been an international civil servant and diplomat in his career, spoke for many when he posted the following message on his Twitter feed: “I think all of us have to acknowledge that the Brits have done something very rare in the world, to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office. As we Indians celebrate the ascent of Rishi Sunak, let’s honestly ask: can it happen here?”
I grew up in a different, more tolerant India and left the country in 1990, around the time communal tensions were rising. Yet the India of my youth and early working years bears little resemblance to the country of today. Although majoritarian behavior persisted in that era, it was still possible for India’s many minorities – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists – to feel at home in the world’s largest democracy. It was not perfect by any means and the political class, whether right, center or left, also played a damaging role in playing up communal differences and undermined the country’s stated secular, democratic credentials in the process.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP won a sweeping second mandate in 2019, he pointedly noted in his victory speech that the electorate had decisively rejected secularism. This was interpreted by his supporters as a license to maim, lynch and torment minorities, which continues apace at an alarming rate without any visible checks and balances.
Few of Modi’s supporters in India and overseas realize or care about the enormous damage this has caused to the country’s reputation and prestige globally. While Indian immigrants are regarded as the “model minority” in the US and the UK, which partially explains the rise of Sunak and the Indian immigrant roots of the CEOs of many of the American Big Tech firms, India itself was a global model and a symbol of a democratic experiment, however flawed, which placed it in sharp contrast with rival China.
In today’s context, the differences between China and India are narrowing, with Modi accumulating and centralizing power very much in the mold of Xi Jinping, who extended his rule atop the Chinese leadership and consolidated his already enormous control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at its recently concluded 20th National Congress. To be fair to Modi, he was elected into office twice by a vast majority of his electorate, which is not true for Xi. However, an India which holds elections every five years but is illiberal the rest of the time and tramples on minority rights is no longer a model democratic polity. It is a nominally democratic country but is at core a dictatorship destined to behave like any other autocracy.
The most worrying aspect of the BJP’s rise has been the radicalization of Indians living overseas. In the US, where democracy is under threat from resurgent White nationalism, Indian immigrant backers of the BJP see no risk to themselves as a visible minority from supporting Donald Trump’s brand of politics. One explanation which I have heard from wealthier Indians is that they vote for Republican/Trumpist candidates for economic reasons, i.e., favorable tax and pro-business policies in contrast to the tax-and-spend approach of the Democrats.
There is nothing objectionable per se in such a rationale, which perhaps explains why this group does not see an inherent contradiction in supporting the Trump slate of candidates notwithstanding that group’s hatred towards minorities. Voting against their self-interest might seem counterintuitive but many Indians living in the US have rationalized their behavior by blaming other minorities for fueling the rising hatred. It is no surprise that their fingers tend to point towards the Muslim community, revealing the link as to why they prefer the BJP over other parties in faraway India.
The critical question is this: If India is no longer a model democracy, can the diaspora hold on to its reputation of being a model minority? Both can co-exist uneasily as the model Indian community relies to a great degree on the tolerance and openness of their adopted countries towards minorities to thrive and rise to the highest levels of business and politics. But as the celebrations of Prime Minister Sunak’s appointment have made clear, the profound irony is neither appreciated nor understood in India today.
Tripathi, Salil. (July 7, 2022) “Rule Out Britannia: After Her, A Delusion?”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Shastry, Vasuki. (May 6, 2021) “India’s Covid Crisis: Minimum Government, Minimum Governance”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Sunak, Rishi; and Rajeswaran, Saratha. (2014) “A Portrait of Modern Britain”, Policy Exchange, London, UK.
Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs)