A new tenant in 10 Downing Street has made history as Britain’s first prime minister of Indian origin, and the first person of colour to hold the top job in politics
As Indians across the world celebrated Diwali, the Festival of Light, October 24 gave them another reason for celebration when Rishi Sunak became the first British Asian, and the first practising Hindu, to be appointed prime minister of the United Kingdom, following his unopposed election as Conservative Party leader.
At 42, Sunak is also the country’s youngest premier in more than 200 years. While his political career spans only seven years, the MP for Richmond (Yorks) has already held key positions in government, including as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson from 2020 to 2022, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2019 to 2020.
Sunak’s rise makes him the latest in a long line of global leaders of Indian-origin who have reached the highest offices in the realms of politics, business and technology. With the new prime minister’s arrival, Britain joins a handful of countries, including Suriname, the Seychelles and Guyana, whose heads of government trace their lineage to India. US vice-president Kamala Harris and Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister and former prime minister, also have Indian heritage.
Born in Southampton in 1980, Britain’s new prime minister – the third this year –hails from a Punjabi Khatri family from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). His paternal grandfather left Gujranwala to work as a clerk in Nairobi, Kenya in 1935, while his maternal grandfather was a tax official in Tanganyika before coming to Britain, where he worked for the Inland Revenue and was later appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1988 Birthday Honours list. Sunak’s African-born parents – a doctor and a pharmacist – migrated from Kenya and Tanzania to the UK in the 1960s, where they met, marrying in Leicester in 1977.
Sunak attended the fee-paying Stroud Preparatory School and prestigious Winchester College, then graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a first-class honours degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, followed by an MBA from Stanford University in California. After graduation, he worked for the American multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs and then as a partner at the hedge fund firms The Children’s Investment Fund Management and Theleme Partners. In 2009 he married Akshata Murthy, daughter of Indian billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy, who founded the technology giant Infosys.
This privileged background has led some critics, particularly on the Left of the political spectrum, to label Sunak ‘out of touch’ with ordinary Britons. However, many Conservative MPs see his nomination as a return to a more sensible, solid direction of travel, after the populist leadership of Boris Johnson and the ideological zealotry of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership.
Sunak’s job is an unenviable one, with the country mired in a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by soaring inflation, rising interest rates and huge energy price hikes. He will also have to deal with further fallout from the ongoing war in Ukraine, and a Conservative Party riven by internal divisions.
While the new premier has yet to spell out precisely how he will tackle his role and what his policies will be, the positive market reaction to his appointment may make his task a little easier. But in the longer term, it will be his handling of the economy that determines his popularity with the electorate, and his future at Number 10.
Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti