The British media has been hostile to Rishi Sunak, when compared to other western media.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been in office for a month now (he took office on 25 October 2022). At the time of his appointment the media used different ways to describe him. The most common description was that a person of colour had become Prime Minister. In the late 1970s this was a common expression to describe black and brown people. It seemed to have disappeared over the last two decades but has made an appearance again. This expression, “a person of colour” presumes that White is not a colour.
Another popular description of the PM was that he was the first Asian to hold the post. The word Asian, like the word European, refers to a whole continent. It would sound absurd if an American said that a European was the President of France. A correct description would be that Rishi was a British PM of Indian origin.
The foreign media, as opposed to British media, was very positive of Rishi becoming the PM of Britain. Writing in the AP news Jill Lawless said: “Sunak has been Britain’s prime minister for a month. In the tumultuous world of U.K. politics in 2022, that’s an achievement. Sunak, who took office a month ago, has steadied the nation after the brief term of predecessor Liz Truss. Sunak has stabilized the economy, reassured allies from Washington to Kyiv, Ukraine and even soothed the European Union after years of sparring between Britain and the bloc. The public quite likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his party is another matter.”
In a survey by pollster Ipsos, 47% of respondents said they liked the Prime Minister, while 41% disliked him. “That’s definitely better than Boris Johnson was getting earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, Ipsos’ head of political research. But he said Sunak’s popularity “is not showing signs of rubbing off onto the Conservative Party brand.” In the same survey the Conservative Party was liked by just 26%, and disliked by 62%—the worst figures for the party in 15 years.
Writing in the Bloomberg UK, Tyler Cowen, an American economist and Professor at George Mason University, spoke of the wider impact of the Indian diaspora on the world stage: “With Rishi Sunak as prime minister of the UK, it is now impossible to deny what has been evident for some while that Indian talent is revolutionizing the Western world far more than had been expected 10 or 15 years ago.”
You might think the UK leadership is an exception, but consider the US. It is entirely possible that there will be a presidential election in 2024 or 2028 between Kamala Harris (her mother is Indian) and Nikki Haley, who is of Indian origin. Few people consider that the most likely matchup, but it is very much within the realm of possibility. And one striking feature of Sunak is that his ethnic origin does not dominate the political discussion.
The success of Indian-origin talent is at this point overwhelming. Significant CEOs of Indian origin include Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, former CEO Twitter Parag Agrawal, Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, Arvind Krishna of IBM, Raj Subramaniam of FedEx, Sonia Syngal of the Gap, and (soon) Laxman Narasimhan of Starbucks. All this is happening in an America that is arguably the greatest generator of managerial talent the world has ever seen. Of the different ethnic groups that have moved to the US, Indian-origin individuals have the highest per capita income.
Two of the three most influential academic economists of the last 20 years have been Raj Chetty, for his work on mobility, and Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee (with French-origin wife and co-author Esther Duflo, also a Nobel laureate) on economic development and randomized control trials. You can debate who else might belong in this top tier, but the Indian-origin presence is indisputable.
It’s not just about the Anglo world, either. Indian talent is spreading more broadly. In Germany, for instance, 58% of Indian-origin workers have either university degrees or specialist skills. That is about twice the rate of the native Germans.
Tyler Cowen concluded: “I am of the view that India is by far the world’s most significant source of undiscovered and undervalued talent. The future of our intellectual spaces is to a large extent going to be India derived.”
The British media has been more hostile to Rishi. He has been referred to as, “Fishy Rishi”, a careerist and much more. The Daily Mirror wrote: “Rishi who is richer than the King is clueless about ordinary people and intent on making eye-watering cuts.” Rishi’s wealth is brought up again and again. Scotland’s Daily Record called Rishi’s appointment as, “Death of Democracy”. BBC News on 25 October wondered if Rishi the millionaire would be able to grasp the scale of cost-of-living squeeze facing struggling households. The Independent on Sunday 26 November came up with the following: One Tory MP on the right of the party told The Independent: “There’s never been much enthusiasm for Rishi within the Conservative party. Support isn’t as strong as people think.” The Independent goes on to predict a Boris Johnson comeback.
Guardian’s deputy political editor Jessica Elgot writing on 25 November listed out in detail the doubts she had of Rishi Sunak. How, she wondered, will Rishi deal with priorities such as stabilising the economy, tackling small boat crossings in the Channel and ease the pressure on the NHS. Rishi is likely to have only 2 years in No. 10, which will give him precious little time to build his legacy. All he will be able to do is seal up some holes in a sinking boat. He derives his mandate solely from MPs. What, Jessica asks, will Rishi do when the energy prices freeze for homes and businesses end in April 2023. Jessica adds patronisingly that there should be more to celebrate in a British Asian becoming a PM for the first time. But Rishi Sunak, a multi-millionaire former banker and Brexiteer, is the fourth Tory in a row to get the top job without facing the electorate. It is not good for democracy. She concludes by saying that Rishi will not get a free pass from the Guardian. The Guardian does fancy itself as some kind of a saviour of the UK.
Rishi Sunak certainly faces many challenges. Levelling up is a concept whereby every individual should get an opportunity to flourish. In pursuit of this ideal the Conservative Government had given mandatory targets to Councils for house building. Many Tories now want this mandatory targets to be scrapped. The industrial actions by the nurses, railway employees and postal staff along with halting illegal migrants coming by boats and tackling the crime issue are all the challenges Rishi faces. Rishi is already working hard on these issues. He has already resolved the offshore wind turbine projects issue within the Conservative party by declaring that they would be built in communities where there is a lot of support for it. On relations with the European Union he is likely to be much more pragmatic in national interest. The British public will see a much more assertive Prime Minister. Unlike the media the British people have a much more nuanced approach to the first Prime Minister of Indian Hindu origin.
Nitin Mehta is the founder of Indian Cultural Centre, London.