Next UK PM Rishi Sunak on being British, Indian and Hindu at the same time

Sunak, son-in-law of Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy, will be the first person of Indian origin to be sworn in as the UK's PM

Rishi Sunak

Anjali Puri New Delhi
This 'Lunch with BS' interview was first published on August 10, 2015, when Rishi Sunak, who is set to be the United Kingdom's next Prime Minister, had been elected a Member of Parliament.

Rishi Sunak, son-in-law of Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy, is one of the three Indian-origin faces who have got key posts in Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Cabinet. Hampshire-born Sunak, 39, an MP for Richmond, Yorkshire, since 2015, has been appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury.  

When this interview was conducted in August 2015, Sunak was a newly elected MP. 

Over salmon and trout at the Strangers’ Dining Room, down the corridor from the House of Commons, he had told Anjali Puri that it was perfectly okay to feel British, Indian and Hindu at the same time.  

Here’s Puri’s account of her meeting with Sunak: 

I arrive an hour early for my appointment at Westminster Palace, not realising these places are rendered secure with a lighter touch than the one we know so well. No register entries, no checking of ID, no repeat frisking. So, time to kill waiting for Rishi Sunak in the central lobby of British parliament. But it’s really no chore. Once you’re done gazing at statues and gold leaf, you amuse yourself by covertly staring at the politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens milling about this octagonal hall.   

British-born Sunak is turning into the kind of  picture-perfect  PIO (person of Indian origin) Indians love to track.  Easy on the eye; married to a billionaire’s daughter (his wife Akshata’s father is IT czar NR Narayana Murthy); made his mark early (he was the first Indian-origin headboy at  Britain’s oldest public school, Winchester College, which is not a hotbed of diversity); overachiever (took a first at Oxford, went on a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford, where he met his wife, in an MBA programme);  and now, a Member of Parliament (MP) belonging to the Conservative Party, which was returned to power with a majority in the May general election.

The 34-year-old investment fund entrepreneur was selected, after a rather short career in politics, for a seat given up by foreign secretary William Hague, and won with over 50 per cent of the vote. He and some others in the new House of Commons represent an interesting trend in British politics --  ethnic minority Tory MPs in  “non-minority” seats.  Sunak is a particularly conspicuous example. He fought as a rank outsider in the 97 per cent white, prosperous rural Conservative bastion of Richmond in Yorkshire where, the joke goes, there has been no immigration since the Norman conquest in 1066. 

Andrew Whitehead, the BBC’s former South Asia chief, now based in London, tells me that the political mobility achieved by ethnic minority Tories, from Sajid Javid, the Pakistani-origin cabinet minister who is sometimes spoken of as a future prime minister, to newcomers like Sunak,  reflects prime minister David Cameron’s “genuine and quite strong  commitment to equal opportunities”. It also reflects the party’s desire, he says, “to attract minority-community middle classes who will increasingly vote Conservative if the  Tories show them respect”.  And it also perhaps suggests a British public becoming more inclusive, even while it rages over “too many” immigrants.

Sunak, who appears on time, in a dark suit, keeps up an easy flow of conversation, mainly about parliamentary traditions, en route to the Strangers’ Dining Room (strangers = MPs’ guests). It is grand in a British way with crimson flock wallpaper, wood paneling, portraits and a fabulous view of the glimmering Thames. But its establishment feel and unhurried service  remind me of shabbier colonial clubs in India. I feel quite at home when our sweet, grey-haired server takes forever to amble across with menus.

Sunak, apparently a more prudent man than his pictures with pork pies in Yorkshire might suggest, side-steps all the hearty, meaty stuff on the menu, choosing smoked salmon  and trout. I feel envious when his pink, fresh-looking trout arrives, outshining my beer-battered cod.

Rishi Sunak
How does a right-wing Indian-origin politician in Britain deal with his ethnicity, I ask, compared to the American politician, Bobby Jindal, who is perceived (by Indians) as having fashioned a “white” religious and cultural identity.
Sunak  is too circumspect to be drawn into being even mildly critical of Jindal (or later, the scandal-prone Keith Vaz). But he sturdily defends the idea of having a strong British and  minority identity at the same time. “British Indian is what I tick on the census, we have a category for it. I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu,” he says. He points out, for instance, that he doesn’t eat beef “and it has never been a problem”. As for America, it is different:“Religion pervades political life there, and that is not the case here, thankfully.”

Sunak speaks basic Hindi and Punjabi, and an accented  desiword pops up occasionally, among awfully Brit expressions like “Brilliant”  and even “Oh crikey”. His links with India, growing up, were tenuous because all his close relatives had emigrated. Still, there were childhood visits. He has a vivid memory of trying to play cricket in a Delhi park, and “being blown away” by the standard. Both his Punjab-born grandfathers emigrated first to East Africa, then to Britain in the 1960s with their families, and got administrative jobs. His “nanaji” (maternal grandfather), says Sunak, received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) “after decades and decades” working for Inland Revenue, the tax office.

Sunak, the eldest of three, was raised by a general practitioner father and pharmacist mother, and pitched in at the family pharmacy in Southampton in southern England. When I ask if his parents voted Labour, he surprisingly says he doesn’t know; he never talked politics with them. His parents took on extra work to help pay for his public school education because he “just missed” the expected full scholarship and they couldn’t bear to deny him the opportunity. The school was “completely intimidating” at first, says Sunak, recalling  his early awkwardness at wearing second-hand uniforms, but he came to love it. “It was intellectually transforming,” he says, “it put me on a different trajectory.”

Would he have fitted into the Murthy family, I ask,  in an aside, had he not been an over-achiever? He laughs quite a lot, then replies quite firmly, “ Yes I would have, because that’s not what matters. The most important thing to my  in-laws is, is their daughter happy?” On family interactions, he says: “We are not competitive, except about cricket. My brother-in-law, Rohan, has more IQ and degrees coming out of his ears than anyone I know (other than my wife’s uncle) and I learn a lot from him.”

He influences them too, he points out. “They quite like the United States, have done a lot of business there, but I believe I have shifted them over time to very pro-UK approach.”

Putting down his fork, he looks at me intently and says,“Which one is more pro-entrepreneurship, which supports education better, which offers a better business climate, where is corporate governance better, which is the best place to bring up a family, where are society values better?” and then repeats, with a nod: “I think I have swung them to a pro-British outlook on life.”

Sunak says Narayana Murthy ardently supported his political dreams, and tells a story about the billionaire’s tryst with retail campaigning.“Akshata, who had been campaigning steadily in the constituency for two months, gave him a brief," says Sunak with a grin. “She told him that his job was not to expand on his opinions to everyone, but to do what he was told, which was to deliver leaflets in a team Rishi sweatshirt. He thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Was it hard, I ask, campaigning as a southerner in rural northern England, and a South Asian in white Yorkshire?  He says Britain is largely a society at ease with itself, but concedes: “It is politics so wherever you are, anyone will try to use anything against you, it is an easy card to play.” In much the manner he  described making good at Winchester, he says you just have to get out there and work hard.

Sunak flatly rejects suggestions (in some media reports) that ethnic minority candidates were put up in safe seats by what we in India would call “the party high command”. He says he went through a rigorous, competitive selection process, by the local party unit, and was not a “token”. “It is a huge cause of celebration,” he asserts, “that you don’t have to fix things, that good people are competing and winning.”

There’s a story Sunak likes to tell, and even told it in his first speech in parliament. It’s about a farmer in Yorkshire who remarks, when Sunak is introduced to him as “the New William Hague”. “Ah yes Haguey! Good bloke. I like him. Bit pale, though. This one’s got a nice tan.”

Did he keep retelling the story because it showed race doesn’t  matter, I ask. “It was showing a comfort level with it,” Sunak says, sipping his Earl Grey tea. “ It was not ignoring the elephant in the room. There were not a million people like me running around (in Richmond). There’s no point hiding that, it is what it is. We can have a good laugh on it, and move on.”

First Published: Aug 07 2015 | 10:32 PM IST

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