Rishi Sunak’s ascent to British prime minister has been described by some of his supporters as Britain’s “Obama moment,” comparing it to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first Black U.S. president.
Sunak, who is of Indian heritage, is Britain’s first non-white prime minister. The 42-year-old practicing Hindu was appointed to the role Tuesday, after winning the backing of a majority of Conservative Party members of parliament. He is also Britain’s youngest leader for more than 200 years.
The milestone was welcomed by all sides of the chamber as Sunak arrived for his first Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament Wednesday.
“The first British Asian prime minister is a significant moment in our national story, and it’s a reminder that for all the challenges we face as a country, Britain is a place where people of all races and all beliefs can fulfill their dreams,” opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer told MPs.
U.S. President Joe Biden described Sunak’s appointment Monday as “pretty astounding” and “a ground-breaking milestone.”
Anand Menon, a professor of politics at Kings College London, is skeptical of the comparison between Sunak’s appointment in Britain and Obama’s election in the United States.
“Firstly, because, actually, race isn’t as big a dividing issue in our politics here in the U.K. as it is in the United States. But secondly, too, because of the way Sunak was elected. He was chosen by MPs as a leader of a party. Barack Obama gained a personal mandate from the American people by being elected president. So, the scale of that triumph was simply of a different order to that which we’ve seen here,” Menon told VOA.
It is nevertheless a significant moment for Britain, said Menon, who is also of Indian heritage.
“That you see someone of South Asian heritage who is a practicing Hindu having the highest office in the land — that matters,” Menon said. “And it matters in terms of the reputation of the country. But it also matters to all those young ethnic minority kids who are looking at this and thinking, ‘Actually, I can do that.'”
Hindus are currently marking Diwali, or the festival of lights. Many in Britain say they have extra reason to celebrate this year.
“It’s a proud feeling as an Indian,” said 25-year-old businessman Rishabh Sharma, who lives in West London. “I like him.”
Others said they felt little connection with the new prime minister. Single mother Rita Patel from the city of Leicester said she would judge Sunak on his policies.
“There are people out there that are really, really struggling, and obviously he’s had a bit of a privileged lifestyle. I think he needs to kind of be in touch. Yeah, he’s the first Asian prime minister, and he’s from a privileged background. But now, he really needs to be in touch with his public because we’re all now looking to him for results,” Patel told The Associated Press.
Sunak is thought to be Britain’s richest MP. He attended Winchester College, an exclusive private school, then studied at the University of Oxford and became a hedge fund manager before entering parliament in 2015.
Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, is the daughter of an Indian tycoon. She only began paying U.K. taxes this year after political pressure following the revelation that she had been granted “non-domiciled” status, meaning her financial affairs were not subject to British tax laws. Their net worth is estimated at $830 million.
“We shouldn’t forget that there are many aspects of diversity, and the one perhaps where governments are doing worse rather than better is where it comes to socio-economic diversity,” Menon said.
“There are fewer and fewer working-class members of parliament, fewer and fewer members of the government who didn’t go to private school,” he added.
Questioned about his wealth on Wednesday, Sunak maintained that he would look after the most vulnerable people in society, despite the likelihood of public spending cuts or tax rises in the coming weeks as the government has pledged to reduce debt.
Roots in India
Sunak was born in Southampton on England’s south coast to parents of Indian heritage who moved to Britain from Kenya in the 1960s.
This year, India is marking 75 years of independence from Britain. For some, Sunak’s appointment is significant.
“If a person with Indian heritage becomes the prime minister of Britain, the same Britain which ruled us for so many years, then it is a moment of pride for the whole of India,” 54-year-old Manoj Garg, a Delhi businessman, told AP.
Manpreet Singh, also a resident of Delhi, shared the elation. “The British ruled us for 200 years, and now I feel Indians will rule Britain for the next 200 years,” he said.