UK shrugs as Rishi Sunak becomes first brown PM

New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Rishi Sunak waves as he leaves from Conservative Party Headquarters in central London having been announced as the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest, on October 24, 2022. PHOTO / AFP

What you need to know:

  • India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, congratulated his co-religionist on Twitter, while extending Diwali wishes to the "living bridge" of UK Indians as a whole.

In winning the race for UK Conservative leader on Monday, Rishi Sunak will become the first prime minister of colour to govern a country that once ruled India, much of Africa and a great deal beyond.

It happened at the start of Diwali. The Hindu festival of lights celebrates the triumph of good over evil -- and for a few of the religiously minded, it was a congruence written in the stars.

India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, congratulated his co-religionist on Twitter, while extending Diwali wishes to the "living bridge" of UK Indians as a whole.

The success of the UK-born Sunak rippled across the Atlantic too. 

Ro Khanna, a Democratic member of Congress representing a slice of Silicon Valley in California, said his own grandfather spent years fighting British rule in India.

"It is remarkable to see @RishiSunak, an Indian British of Hindu faith become PM on Diwali. Regardless of politics, this is a symbolic step in moving beyond a colonizer's world," he tweeted.

But for many UK South Asians, as with the country at large, the arrival of Britain's first prime minister of colour provoked as much debate about his economic credo as about the colour of his skin.

At the country's biggest Hindu temple in the London district of Neasden, many Diwali revellers basked in Sunak's ascent.

"It's a great day for the Indian community... but more so it's a time where we look back and think 'how can we move forward from here?'" financial analyst Kirtan Patel told AFP at the temple.

 Powell's 'rivers of blood' 
Anand Menon, politics professor at King's College London, said Sunak's ethnicity was "a really, really big deal". 

But he added on BBC television: "What reassures me most, actually, is how little comment there has been about it, in a sense that we seem to have normalised this." 

If it feels "normalised" now, a brown or black prime minister would have felt unimaginable in Britain only a few years ago.

When Sunak was born in 1980, there had been no Asian or black MPs since World War II. 

A handful were then elected for the opposition Labour party. But the Conservatives still had none when Sunak graduated from the University of Oxford in 2001.

In the late 1960s, many were in thrall to the firebrand Tory Enoch Powell, who warned of racial civil war if mass immigration from the old Empire continued.

Polls at the time found a majority of white Britons agreed with Powell.

Today, according to Sunder Katwala, director of the demographics think tank British Future, "most people in Britain now rightly say the ethnicity and faith of the prime minister should not matter". 

"They will judge Sunak on whether he can get a grip on the chaos in Westminster, sort out the public finances and restore integrity to politics," he said.

"But we should not underestimate this important social change." 

 Oxford still rules 
Sunak's reception among South Asians was previewed by that given to Conservative politicians such as Priti Patel, who was Britain's first ethnic-Indian interior minister.

Patel's flagship policy of sending would-be migrants on a one-way ticket to Rwanda was met with incredulity by many, given her own family's escape from persecution under the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

As Sunak's elevation was announced, Patel tweeted pictures from a Diwali visit to a Hindu temple, declaring: "It is a time for self-reflection, family, friends and service to others." 

"A period of self reflection would do you well," was one of the more polite tweets in response.

The Conservatives have done better at cultivating ethnic-Indian -- and female -- politicians in their top ranks than Labour, and they often out-compete their white colleagues in appeals to the hardline right.

Patel's short-lived successor Suella Braverman, whose family also came from India, was even more outspoken on migration. Her views helped to sink dwindling hopes for a UK-India free-trade deal by Diwali.

For many observers, the Tories still suffer a paucity of viewpoints, given the elite Oxford education afforded to Sunak and Truss -- as well as to Boris Johnson and most other post-war prime ministers before them.

The appointment of Sunak, coinciding with a new king in Charles III, "tells an important story about our society, where we have come from and where we are going in the future", Katwala said.

But he added: "I hope that Sunak will acknowledge that not everybody has enjoyed his advantages in life. Rishi Sunak reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy."