Rishi Sunak as PM is not a true victory for the UK South Asian community
On the 25 October 2022, Rishi Sunak was announced as prime minister, succeeding Liz Truss with her notoriously short-lived tenure. As the first PM of colour, many in the British South Asian community have felt joyous, particularly those celebrating Diwali on the same day.
British South Asians, like Sunak, make up some of the largest ethnic minority groups in the UK. Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis came to the UK through waves of migration between the 1930s and 1970s, forming a sizable community that still thrives to this day.
For the older generations who first settled, making Britain their home was no easy feat. Many faced racism and prejudice, which often came violently through National Front riots, having buildings defaced with racist graffiti and ‘paki-bashing,’ where those of South Asian origin would be beaten up – in some cases fatally. The racist murder of 18-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar led to the Southall race riots in 1976.
''Whether or not his career and education came wholly from academic merit, Sunak has proven to be out of touch with the average Briton, particularly South Asians. For instance, British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are three times more likely to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. And on average, children from these communities have the highest child poverty rates.''
Given all of these struggles, to see a South Asian take the highest office in British politics is understandably a source of pride. However, it would be foolish to see this as a sign of true progress. The colour of Sunak’s skin is not what got him into office, but rather the failures of the Conservative party to deliver to the people.
Over the past few years, the UK has seen a constant succession of PMs, from David Cameron’s initial resignation in 2016 to Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who all eventually resigned. Each has failed to tackle the country’s pressing issues, including Brexit, the Ukraine war, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.
Truss’ brief forty-five days in office were nothing short of disastrous. She sent the economy spiralling, with her mini-budget causing the British pound to tank at an all-time low against the US dollar. The failure of the Tory party and its weak leaders have only enabled Sunak to take power. He is the current Conservative party placeholder, and it will take time to see if he can stabilise Britain and resolve its economic woes.
In reality, a true victory would have been if the public had democratically voted for Sunak in a General Election. At least then, maybe it would have indicated the changing face of racism.
But even so, we cannot take the current state of diversity in Parliament at face value. Whilst South Asians have undertaken significant roles, including Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, and Suella Braverman, this ‘representation’ has been bittersweet, and lacking. Indeed, unless the needs and values of the communities are met, we cannot see the institution as truly diverse.
Take for example, Patel and Braveman who both led the Home Office, spearheading the UK’s immigration policies. Patel has enacted some of the cruellest policies for the vulnerable, including the relocation of Asylum seekers and refugees to Rwanda while their cases are under review. This is a harsh blow to those seeking to leave war-torn countries and hoping for a better life in the UK.
Ironically, such circumstances are the backstory of our South Asian politicians, whose families fled from harsh regimes to settle in the UK. Yet, despite this shared struggle, they are relentlessly preventing others from enjoying these same freedoms.
Sunak even recounted the story of his grandmother in his leadership bid video. He explains poignantly how she boarded a plane to Britain from East Africa in search of a better life, with her success paving the way for his parents.
For all his efforts showing how much he can relate to the average British Asian immigrant, his support of the Rwanda policy proves that he has no empathy for those looking to follow the same path. Furthermore, Sunak has reinstated Braverman in the Home Office role despite her recent resignation after breaching ministerial code.
Braverman claimed her ‘dream’ and ‘obsession’ was to see a front-page image in a newspaper of asylum seekers taking off on a flight to Rwanda.
Even more, Sunak’s personal fortune of £730 million rivals that of King Charles’, showing us that he is a world apart from those he feebly represents. Sunak grew up in a privileged environment, enabling him to have a private education worth £60,000 at elite boarding school, Winchester College, and then attend the likes of Oxford and Stanford. Following his education, he enjoyed a successful career at Goldman Sachs and then worked at two hedge funds.
Whether or not his career and education came wholly from academic merit, Sunak has proven to be out of touch with the average Briton, particularly South Asians. For instance, British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are three times more likely to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. And on average, children from these communities have the highest child poverty rates.
Sunak has been heavily criticised and embroiled in several scandals, many of which implicate his wealth. Most notably, his wife, Akshata Murty, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in India, is said to have avoided paying tax up to £20m in the UK by claiming non-domiciliary status.
It doesn’t help that a clip also emerged of teenage Sunak priding himself on having friends from different social classes. He includes ‘aristocrats,’ and the ‘upper-class’ amongst his friends then feebly mentioned ‘working-class,’ before correcting that it wasn’t the case. To further prove his apathy for the poor, a recent video features him boasting about taking funding and grants from poorer boroughs and transferring them to wealthier ones.
During his time as Chancellor, he was unwilling to increase benefits but opted for widespread tax cuts and support for energy bills. Benefits like Universal Credit are a lifeline for some of Britain's poorest, but it has hardly remained in line with inflation in recent years. As a result, many are anxiously waiting for what support will be available amidst the highest rates of inflation.
All in all, Sunak’s skin colour matters little for the South Asian community if he cannot relate to us and deliver a government that truly supports us. Any moment of joy at seeing a prime minister of colour ought to be short-lived. All that matters now is if he can rescue Britain from the economic crisis left behind by his predecessors.
Currently, energy bills have tripled with warnings of winter blackouts, more households are relying on food banks, and essential workers like railway staff, health workers, and teachers are on strike, fighting to get wages in line with inflation. Time can only tell if Sunak can provide stable leadership in one of the most challenging times for the British people.
Kushie Amin is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Metro, Glamour (UK), Refinery29 and The Independent.
Follow her on Twitter: @kushieamin
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.