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What Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister means for Britain’s Hindu community

An art teacher in Mumbai, India, makes paintings to Congratulate New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on becoming Prime Minister (Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Caption: An art teacher in Mumbai, India, makes paintings to Congratulate New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on becoming Prime Minister (Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade). 

By Dr Nitasha Kaul

The appointment of Rishi Sunak, a brown man of British Asian origin, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is an historic moment.

His victory is a big one-up for civic nationalism – the idea of “blood and soil” ethnic nationalism would not ever admit someone like him, irrespective of wealth, into a role such as this. As a rich, educated brown PM, he does not signal social mobility – but his position does speak to the potential for aspirational politics. To use Weberian language, he is wealthy enough to actually afford to “live for” politics rather than “live off” politics, should he choose to do so.

The “brown” Britishness of the new PM is the focus of much attention because the norm often goes unremarked – and the norm is that of heterosexual white Christian men (and occasionally women) running the country. Being a brown south Asian origin man, a professed Hindu, married to an Indian woman, Sunak is clearly a departure from this.

While his Hindu and Asian identities are being seen as significant and a sign of greater hope for ethnic diversity in the UK across party and political lines, whether that will lead to tangible change in voting behaviour of ethnic minorities is an open question. We can expect more acceptance of the Conservative Party among an increasing number of Hindu Britons – but a lot will depend on Sunak’s performance and the impact of his policies on ordinary people over the coming months.

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Dr Nitasha Kaul

The Prime Minister is rightly celebrated by the broader Hindu Indian diaspora and numerous Indians in India – often focusing on his Indian businessman father-in-law and unaware of the East African roots, and routes, of his parental family – are jubilant at his victory.

But he also runs the risk of being claimed by sections of intolerant anti-minority Hindu majoritarian Indians who see in him a vendetta successfully enacted (“they ruled us, now we rule them”), a crude narrative of revenge for Britain’s colonial past in India. Those who subscribe to an idea of a Hindu nationalist India as scripting a civilisational “vishwaguru” (world-leader) chapter for this rising power country see “Modi in India, Sunak in Britain” as reflective of the glorious future of a people with a beleaguered past.

The baggage his identity carries will mean that the frames of interpreting his policies and stances on everything will be systematically different than they would be for a white man. Does he have an advantage in securing the trade deal for Britain with India? Will he be able to remark upon communalist sectarian or casteist positions when they are adopted by British Hindus? If he speaks out for minority rights in India, he will bolster his credentials as a democratic leader here in the UK but will become unpopular among Hindu chauvinists.

As he mentioned in his address to the country, Sunak no doubt would prefer to be seen as someone serving with integrity and humility, simply doing his job day in and day out. Witnessing his first televised speech as PM, it is clear that he is not a passionate orator trading on mediatised political charisma; he appears far more the astute technocrat politician, perhaps capable of evoking the moral language of sacrifice and reward that has worked for right wing politics in multiple countries.

He ought to be judged for his policies, yet the identity frames that mark him as different will mean that the “eye” and the “I” may not coincide; how he is perceived by others may not coincide with how he sees himself.

Since the end of the Obama era, a racist backlash in the West has meant the proliferation of talk about “culture wars” so that necessary progressive changes in society, from schools to museums, are resisted and seen as being further evidence of “Us vs Them”. Equally, the weaponisation of colonial history is also a big part of the nativist appeal of regressive nationalisms elsewhere, including in India. Globally, we live in a postcolonial neoliberal nationalist era; the colonial histories and policies linger, people everywhere feel absurdly powerless, the economy lurches from one crisis to the next, and the narrow nationalists gain ground.

Sunak is a Tory politician ideologically tasked with right-wing policies, at a time of great global flux and national economic crisis, who heads a party that foisted a divisive Brexit upon the country, and represents a people who have much racist history to acknowledge and confront. He has been preceded by liars and schemers of all kinds. The hard-core Left that only focuses on class politics sees a rich brown Conservative in power, and the racists in Britain see an unelected brown man who cannot win a general election for the Tories but has been thrust into this role due to party infighting and chaotic circumstances. His position arouses mixed envy on all those counts.

His words and actions in the coming weeks will be parsed for their tone and content and his Britishness will be under constant scrutiny, but the performance and politics of his links to his Indianness must also be carefully observed. One can only hope that he stands up for the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic British values of contemporary civic nationalism and stems any import of polarising political Hinduism in India where minorities, especially Muslims, are absent from parliamentary representation in the ruling BJP party and face violent repercussions for what they eat (beef) or what they wear (hijab) for example.

Racists will not vote for a brown man to lead a predominantly white country and Hindu British Asian voters will not cast the ballot for Tories simply because of his religion, yet his election as PM at this time is an experiment of great value; one that might create stability in the very short run, and also potentially foster an understanding among the wider public that marginalised identities are not necessarily progressive on their own.

As feminist theorists would say, a “standpoint” is an achievement, not a given – and all kinds of bodies ought to have a choice to succeed. When any unfairly restrictive barriers are broken, we must all be able to rejoice. An ethnic minority as a Prime Minister is an achievement in any democratic country. Whether Sunak’s term offers greater hope, or not, we have to wait and see.

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a novelist and multidisciplinary academic whose work includes studying right-wing political projects in India and transnationally. She is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-generated from news feeds. It has not been edited by Minority Watch staff. Please click this SOURCE LINK that deserves the credit.

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