The Conservative leadership contest is, by any standard, historic. The final two candidates are a woman and a member of an ethnic minority, respectively Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. It is an especially poignant moment for British Indians, many of whom are passionately supporting Sunak’s pathbreaking candidacy, despite his admittedly “” status.
Sunak’s own campaign is playing on the theme that he is now in the role of the plucky underdog, a veritable David against the Goliath of Liz Truss’ campaign. His latest campaign video warns not to underestimate the underdog, that he will fight for every vote until the final day.
With Britain facing tough times ahead in the form of a , he may be trying to leverage the concept that a tough and resourceful underdog is better placed to deal with economic headwinds than his rival. Of course, everyone loves a good underdog story as well – which may help him claw back some votes ahead of the leadership election results being announced on September 5.
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He certainly needs a boost, given that he is trailing Truss by up to 30 percentage points among the ordinary Conservative Party members who select the next . This may well be an example of the party members going in one direction, while the Conservative MPs – who made Sunak the clear frontrunner to begin with – going in another. may be one of the factors behind this trend, given that Sunak is the first ethnic minority origin person to run for such a high office, and much of the party’s voter base of 160,000 people are mostly older white British people.
Whatever the root issues, in the final analysis Rishi Sunak faces an uphill task in his battle to become Britain’s first Indian-origin Prime Minister.
The fact that Sunak is unapologetic about his and heritage probably plays well to the diaspora gallery and bodes well for UK-India relations should he win. There was a positive atmosphere at the Conservative Friends of India hustings event with Sunak in Harrow, north London, earlier this week.
With hundreds of Conservative supporters of Indian origin eagerly wanting to meet Sunak, there was a lively atmosphere. Sunak took the opportunity to meet and take photos with almost all of his supporters.
This underlines his appreciation of British Indian support. Much of the diaspora has been vocal and proud in its support for Rishi Sunak. Whatever the final outcome of the contest, he has robustly helped raise the profile of British Indians to a new level. The diaspora in Britain already consists substantially of high-flying achievers. With his committed run for Number 10 Downing Street, he has helped break one more glass ceiling and set an example that other diaspora members can follow in due course. Given his relative youth he also has time on his side – there is nothing to prevent Sunak from another run for UK PM in, say, 10 years. At that point, the demographics of the party will have substantially changed to become younger and more metropolitan – in other words, more accepting of a minority running for high office.
Some ordinary British Indians have been for Sunak’s success – literally, by holding havans and poojas for his wellbeing and success. Besides being a good cultural highlight, this demonstrates the depth of sentiment and general outpouring of support for him among the British Indian community.
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Sunak himself has been vocal about his pride in his heritage, famously lighting diyas outside when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. This willingness to acknowledge his roots and demonstrate his pride in it is an inspirational point for British Indians, even as he runs to be Prime Minister for all British people. Of course, in the event that Sunak does win, it will be a great moment for UK-India relations, as a British Prime Minister of Indian origin could help boost the already robust British Indian relations further from a strong base.
For all its faults, the ministry of Boris Johnson in Number 10 has been transformational for the presence of British Indians in politics. The elevation of Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel to Chancellor and Home Secretary respectively, followed by Sunak’s subsequent run for Prime Minister has highlighted the contribution of persons of Indian origin to British public life. It has also arguably created a world of possibilities for younger British Indians aspiring for careers in politics. Socio-political changes to Britain are happening in tandem with socio-economic ones.
The Indian diaspora abroad now has prominent and powerful champions in the likes of Rishi Sunak, even as it continues to emerge as a robust and powerful economic force in the UK and the West. The are impressive and encouraging – according to consulting giant Grant Thornton, diaspora-owned companies employ 174,000 people in the UK, with a combined annual turnover . That is no mean feat, and it is slowly being converted into meaningful political representation.
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The Conservatives deserve credit for helping to bring about this change, in a West which is still ethnically monolithic in terms of power at its highest levels. The people in the corridors of power in much of the UK are still overwhelmingly of Anglo-Saxon origin. Sunak’s run, whatever the result, has begun the process of challenging that unfair status quo.
The symbolically significant candidacy of is a turning point in British history. It shows a country that simultaneously opens the path to the highest office for successful minorities such as the Indian diaspora, even as it grapples with the residues of racial prejudice. It also reflects the potent never-give-up underdog mentality that drove Britain to greatness, from being a poor backwater adjacent to Europe, to a superpower that ruled nearly all the world by the 19th century.
The future is bright for the living bridge of the Indian diaspora in the UK. Should Sunak win, he can count on the continued support of persons of Indian origin across the UK and around the world.
is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.