Many Indians are delighting in the elevation of Rishi Sunak — a practising Hindu with Punjabi roots — as British prime minister, in a milestone year for the subcontinental country’s relationship with its former colonial ruler.
Sunak took charge Tuesday as Britain’s third premier this year with his Conservative Party floundering in the polls and daunting challenges ahead.
The 42-year-old was born and raised in Southampton, but his appointment as his country’s first prime minister of color has been cheered by Indians who still consider him a son of the soil.
“I am extremely happy,” Krishna Kumar, an Indian IT worker, told AFP in the capital New Delhi.
“Great Britain is a country which ruled India for more than 300 years — now a person of Indian origin is going to rule UK.”
Sunak’s parents were born into the Indian diaspora in east Africa, and trace their heritage back to pre-independence Punjab in northern British India.
He is married to Indian-born Akshata Murty, whose father co-founded IT giant Infosys.
India celebrated 75 years since the end of British rule in August, just weeks before becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy when its GDP overtook the United Kingdom’s, according to IMF figures.
Colonial subjects would never have imagined such a “big development” as a man of Indian heritage taking charge of Britain, said Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of southern Karnataka state.
“The wheel of fortune has turned completely,” he told reporters on Monday.
Sunak’s ascent has been the subject of wall-to-wall television coverage in India, animating discussion during the usually lethargic Diwali holiday season.
“Indian son rises over the Empire — History comes full circle in Britain,” read a news banner splashed on broadcaster NDTV.
Sunak takes charge of the UK as his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, is accelerating efforts to scrap symbolic vestiges of the colonial years.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) espouses a muscular Hindu nationalism that champions historical figures who opposed foreign domination and influence.
In September, Modi inaugurated a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, an independence hero venerated for taking up arms against the British, but controversial for his collaboration with Nazi Germany’s war machine.
The unveiling ceremony took place just hours before Britain announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the statue itself replaces one of Britain’s King George V torn down nearly half a century ago.
The same month, Modi unveiled a new naval ensign that removed the prominent St George’s cross — the national emblem of England — from the existing flag.
‘Position of strength’
Modi congratulated Sunak on Monday and said he looked forward to the opportunity to “transform our historic ties into a modern partnership”.
Sunak’s first order of business with India will be to finalize a delayed free trade deal, a pact that both countries had hoped to sign before Monday’s Diwali festivities.
The agreement is important for Britain as it seeks alternative markets after leaving the European Union, but talks have reportedly snagged over fears among Conservatives that it would lead to an increase in immigration.
Sunak’s appointment could be an added hindrance to the deal, said Harsh V Pant, a professor at King’s College London’s India Institute.
“Being a person of Indian origin, he’d not like to be seen as being soft on India. He will have to negotiate from a position of strength,” Pant told AFP.
His ability to push the deal over the objections of his party’s rank and file would be an “important benchmark” for the success of his premiership, Pant added.
The new leader already faces the uphill task of uniting a party riven with divisions and infighting — and still reeling from the brief but calamitous tenure of his predecessor Liz Truss.
Despite Indians hailing Sunak’s appointment as a historic moment for both countries, the political and economic instability he inherits has muted expectations for his tenure.
“This is the third prime minister in a year,” Himanshu Singh, an engineer, told AFP.
“So we don’t know how many hours, or how many days or how many weeks he’s going to be there.”