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Sunak as PM matters for UK, not India

It is important to recognise that India isn’t exactly the first item on Sunak’s agenda. The UK’s economy is haemorrhaging and the former investment banker will have a tough balancing act as he tries to square a $43-billion budget deficit with calls for greater welfare spending.

Sunak as PM matters for UK, not India

Tough talk: Rishi Sunak has spoken strongly about China as an economic and strategic threat. Reuters



Navdeep Suri

Former Diplomat and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

THE elevation of Rishi Sunak as the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the UK matters, at least for the UK. But the hype and celebration in India do seem misplaced, excessive and possibly premature.

It matters for the UK because the appointment of the first Prime Minister of colour potentially shatters an important glass ceiling. It also marks a point of redemption for the Conservative Party, one that was described as “pale, male and stale,” and one that has been the favoured home for racists — from Winston Churchill and Enoch Powell to a generation of less-recognised successors.

And yet, there are important caveats here. Just a couple of months back, the 1,54,500 registered members of the party had elected Liz Truss as leader over Rishi Sunak, giving her 57.4 per cent of the vote, even though Tory MPs in the House of Commons had clearly chosen Sunak. There is legitimate speculation that the same electorate might again have preferred contender Penny Mordaunt over Sunak if party grandees hadn’t prevailed over the MPs to settle the matter decisively in favour of Sunak.

The fact that Sunak has been chosen and not elected leaves an important question unanswered. Would the Tories elect Sunak to lead them into the next General Election? And can a person of colour win those elections? That alone would allow us to say if this is truly UK’s ‘Obama moment’, a claim that some excited observers have made.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer rubbed home the point about Sunak’s unelected status by reminding the public that “the only time he ran in a competitive election, he got trounced by the former Prime Minister, who herself got beaten by a lettuce. So why doesn’t he put it to the test, let the people have a say, and call a General Election?”

For a section of the 1.6 million-strong Indian community in the UK, this is clearly a moment of celebration and will probably spur young second- and third-generation members to greater participation in political life. It is also a powerful boost for British soft power, enabling the managers of the “GREAT” Britain campaign to burnish the country’s image as a vibrant multicultural society, one that rewards competence over ethnicity, religion or race.

But does it also matter the same way for India? Social media has been abuzz with commentary about the ‘Indian’ Prime Minister’s religious beliefs and the fact that he is a practising Hindu, a teetotaller and a vegetarian who performs gau puja is being projected as a great victory for the Sanatan Dharma and greeted with exuberant tweets of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. There is also a propensity to conflate his Indian origin with the advent of a golden era for India-UK relations.

Such fantasies might soon run into the hard realities of domestic politics and national interests. India’s relationship with the UK is multi-faceted and complex. The “Roadmap 2030”, outlined in May 2021, has set out an ambitious agenda, including a commitment to implement the comprehensive Migration and Mobility Partnership covering the movement of students and professionals.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s intemperate comments on illegal migrants from India and her enthusiasm for deporting some illegal migrants to Rwanda had already thrown a spanner in the works for getting a free trade agreement (FTA) done by Diwali. A strong votary of reduced immigration levels, her return to the same position in the Sunak Cabinet, barely a week after she was dropped for a misdemeanour, underlines the influence that the Tory hard right might wield on Sunak’s agenda. It also complicates the task of negotiators struggling to tie up the loose ends on trade, investment, tariffs and mobility, now that the self-imposed deadline of Diwali has passed.

The government in New Delhi is clearly seized of these elements and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory tweet to Sunak was fairly restrained, mentioning only that “I look forward to working closely together on global issues, and implementing Roadmap 2030.” The G20 summit in Bali next month will probably provide the first opportunity for a bilateral meeting to revive the momentum in negotiations and also to gauge Sunak’s willingness to invest some political capital in clinching the FTA.

It is also important to recognise that India isn’t exactly the first item on Sunak’s agenda. The UK’s economy is haemorrhaging and the former investment banker will have a tough balancing act as he tries to square a $43-billion budget deficit with calls for greater welfare spending and the imperative of boosting economic growth. He was rightly applauded for astute management of the financial aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic after the initial mess created by Boris Johnson’s ‘erratic’ policies.

But the economic impact of Covid-19 has been exacerbated by the energy crunch and supply chain disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And these crises have come on top of the wrenching amputation of the UK from the European Union, following the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit. A fiscal plan will be presented to Parliament on November 17 and that might be the first indication of the extent to which Sunak has been able to prepare the nation for the promised “difficult decisions to restore economic stability and confidence” as stated by him in his first statement in Parliament on October 26.

Besides the economy, other priorities include bringing some order to the relationship with the EU, establishing a personal connect with the US leadership and ongoing attention to the war in Ukraine. Sunak has also spoken strongly about China as an economic and strategic threat and this aspect might provide some underpinning for a pivot towards India. Meanwhile, let’s relax and let him get on with his job. He being a Hindu or Braverman being a Buddhist means little in the context of geopolitics and national interests.

Having Sundar Pichai at the helm didn’t save Google from being hit by two fines totalling over Rs 2,200 crore by the Competition Commission of India and it is unlikely that India will agree to lower tariffs on Jaguar automobiles or Scotch whisky just because Sunak and Braverman happen to be of Indian descent! It may happen, but the justification will come from realpolitik, not sentiment. 


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