Sunak’s ascent is a breakthrough for diversity, with privilege attached

As chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Rishi Sunak celebrated Diwali by putting lights outside his official residence at 11 Downing St. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON – In north-west London, home to one of Britain’s largest Hindu communities, celebrations for Diwali, a festive holiday, were well underway on Monday. Children tossed small fireworks that popped as they slammed into the sidewalk. Bright lights strung across the street twinkled overhead. Families bought sweets and candles.

But many who were gathered with their families said they suddenly had something new to celebrate – the news that Mr Rishi Sunak, the eldest son of a doctor and pharmacist of Indian descent, will become prime minister, the first person of colour to hold Britain’s highest political office.

Britain is home to a vibrant and diverse community of people with roots in India, which it ruled as a colony for nearly a century before India won independence in 1947. As many as 1.5 million people of Indian descent live in England and Wales, making them the largest ethnic group after white Britons.

That makes Mr Sunak’s triumph a significant milestone for Britain’s Indian diaspora, whose long struggle against racism and prejudice is rarely a prominent issue in British politics.

“We are so proud and happy,” said Mr Hemal Joshi, 43, who lives in north-west London with his wife and son. “I’ve got so many messages from India already. So, he has a lot of expectations now from all over the world. Let’s see what he will do.”

Roots not a focus, but privilege is

Mr Sunak, 42, has always expressed pride in his Indian roots, and he regularly points to his upbringing as the son of immigrants. But he has not put his heritage at the centre of his political message, focusing instead on his experience in finance, and the British news media has not dwelled on his ethnicity.

Instead, it is Mr Sunak’s elite education and extreme wealth that have drawn scrutiny – and become something of a political liability in a society famously divided by tensions over class.

Mr Sunak is also a practising Hindu, and when he took his oath of office as a member of Parliament, he did so on the Gita, a book of Hindu scripture. As chancellor of the Exchequer, he celebrated Diwali, known as the festival of lights, by putting lights outside his official residence at 11 Downing St.

“We are very proud and very excited, being Hindus from India,” said Ms Priya Gohil, who was just leaving the temple with her family in the borough of Harrow after offering Diwali prayers. “It’s just very relatable.”

What was less relatable to many was the air of privilege attached to him.

Mr Sunak attended the elite Winchester College, a private boarding school in Britain, then went to Oxford University and Stanford University. He made a fortune in finance, working for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds before his political career began. He is also married to Ms Akshata Murty, the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest men.

Scepticism about his wealth has followed him throughout his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party, although many of his predecessors have also come from privileged backgrounds. The issue remains resonant even after he emerged Monday as the winner of the contest to lead the country.

“I think it’s great that we have a person of colour as the prime minister for the first time,” said Ms Shivani Dasani, 22, who was leaving a temple in north-west London. But she added, “He’s a rich, upper-class man, so he can’t speak for the entire community in that way.”

He’s a rich guy dealing with poor people’s problems

Those concerns persisted beyond London’s Indian communities. In some neighbourhoods, many people were too busy finishing the workday to even know that Mr Sunak had been chosen as prime minister. But those who did cited Mr Sunak’s sizable wealth as one of the only things they knew about him, even as they hoped he would address the problems of inflation and soaring housing prices.

“He won’t know how normal people live – the working class,” said Mr Samuel Shan, who was sweeping the floor near his fruit and vegetable stall at a market in Dalston, a diverse neighbourhood that has become more gentrified in recent years. “We’ll see what he can do for us.”

Mr Brano Gabani, a council worker originally from Slovakia, laughed humorlessly as he noted that he had “no choice” in the selection of Mr Sunak. He said he did not know enough about the incoming prime minister’s character to assess him. But, like many others, he pointed to slow wage growth and the rising cost of living as major issues.

“Every month, we lose salary; we are more poor,” he said. “I want to see him doing something, something for English people.”

Mr Narendra H. Thakrar, chair of the Shri Sanatan Hindu Mandir Temple in the Wembley area of London, said he believes Mr Sunak is the right man to steer the nation during a time of uncertainty, and that his appeal transcended any particular ethnic or religious community.

“There are many difficulties this country is facing at the moment economically, and I think that Rishi Sunak is the right person to take over as prime minister,” he said. “He has proved himself to be a good chancellor, and let’s hope he will do justice to the country. I am sure he will.”

Racial inequality’s still there

As he stood alongside the tan, intricately carved sandstone temple on Monday, Mr Thakrar rejoiced in the confluence of the Diwali holiday and Mr Sunak’s victory, calling it “a great day”. Mr Sunak, he said, was “a devout Hindu and he loves his community”.

Around the same time, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was congratulating Mr Sunak and describing the Indian community in Britain as a “living bridge” between the two nations.

Dr Zubaida Haque, the former executive director of the Equality Trust, a British charity, said the pride Mr Sunak’s victory might inspire needed to be placed in context. While representation matters, “that doesn’t mean that Britain has great social mobility”, she said, pointing to his wealthy upbringing.

“It’s still a great achievement that Rishi Sunak will get the top job in this country, but let’s not pretend that racial inequality is no longer a barrier,” she said. NYTIMES

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