A South-Asian Descent Takes the Helm of Power in Britain: Why Does India Celebrate?

Rishi Sunak became Britain’s third prime minister and the first person of color to lead the former imperial power, vowing to overcome the political and economic crisis evoked by the global pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war. Prime Minister Sunak was very much confident that he was not daunted by the myriad challenges pledging to lead the country through an economic crisis and rebuild trust in politics. The 42-year-old was born and raised in Southampton, but his appointment as his country’s first premier of color has been cheered by many South Asian countries and their people. Many in the South Asian country were quick to congratulate the new leader after Rishi Sunak made history this week by becoming Britain’s first prime minister of Indian heritage. The youngest Prime Minister’s parents were born in East Africa, but his cultural affinity lies with his Indian roots. Whatever the mixed feelings are around his fortune, becoming the first non-white leader of Brittan has profound significance. While Truss has received considerable criticism for her “disastrous” mini-budget and subsequent financial U-turns, former chancellor Sunak, who is generally well-liked, is viewed as a voice of composure, reason, and economic competence. Many believe that he has the steady pair of hands our country needs at a time of economic turmoil.

Much of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy won’t change with this new government, but there is an opportunity to revisit United Kingdom’s soft power strategy and relationship beyond trans-Atlantic solidarity. Unlike his two predecessors, he is expected to take a more pragmatic approach to foreign relations, particularly with Indo-Pacific countries. The new prime minister is expected to continue promoting Britain’s engagement with Asia in line with the country’s ambitious “Indo-Pacific tilt,” which calls for the U.K. to become “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence” in Asia, despite Sunak having made very few statements about his goals for Britain’s relations with the region. 

Watershed Moment for India? 

Rishi Sunak has many feathers in his political crown including the first non-white, youngest, South-Asian origin prime minister which has enormous implications against the backdrop of the UK and South Asia relations. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi was very prompt to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the living bridge” of UK Indians. In an indication that the new Tory leader wants to prioritize his government’s relationship with India, the leaders spoke on the phone just before James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign secretary, departs for India on Oct. 28 for a two-day discussion on counterterrorism efforts in the capital Delhi and Mumbai. Additionally, is scheduled to meet with Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar to discuss clinching the free trade agreement.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his UK counterpart Rishi Sunak aim to swiftly conclude a “comprehensive and balanced” free trade agreement between the two countries which has not been signed amid the tenure of Liz Truss. By lowering import and export restrictions, the deal is expected to increase bilateral trade to more than $100 billion by 2030, as hoped for by the two parties. The growing relationship between India and the UK can be explained in many ways both economic and strategic. 

Economically, London has been expanding its market since the UK withdrew from the EU in January 2020 and has secured a number of free trade deals. Asia-Pacific countries have drawn a lot of attention since their economies are among the fastest-growing in the world. Hence, Premier Sunak must focus on Asia-Pacific, particularly on India for exploring alternative markets. Following the UK’s exit from the EU, London has frequently turned to its former colony for support, courting it to strike a free-trade agreement and issuing more visas to Indian nationals than any other nation. India is the 5th largest economy in the world which unleashes a vista of economic opportunities between these two countries. The second-largest FDI investor in the UK is India and it can play the role of a gateway in South Asia. 

Strategically, the Tory Leader has openly called China the biggest enemy of the UK. Earlier in August Sunak doubled down on his stand regarding the necessity to be very robust in defending the UK against Beijing’s aggressiveness. It can give India strategic leverage against its rivalry with China.

Even before the tenure of Rishi Sunak, India and the UK were engaged in strengthening their bilateral arrangements. Since the controversies surrounding Brexit, the UK’s arduous exit from the EU trading bloc, London has been increasing its markets and signing free trade deals, especially with nations in the Asia-Pacific area, which are among the economies with the quickest growth rates. At the same time, owing to the global pandemic and the Ukraine war, the entire West is devasted by the energy crisis, price hikes, and cost of living crisis. Moreover, the United Kingdom can’t harness the economic benefits from its former EU pals due to the BREXIT policy. Since it was introduced in 2022, the roadmap has sparked economic negotiations, increased defense and security cooperation, and collaborative training to improve cybersecurity cooperation. The largest and most powerful aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, led a flotilla of British ships into the Bay of Bengal last year as a sign of international cooperation. Sunak in August said that he wanted to make India-UK relations more of a two-way exchange that opens up easy access to UK students and companies in India. India is the largest democracy in South Asia and a crucial partner in the Indo-Pacific Strategy brainchild by the West. The prime minister appreciated Prime Minister Modi’s efforts in addressing climate change, and the leaders welcomed possibilities to strengthen security, defense, and economic collaboration, according to No. 10’s statement about Mr. Sunak’s conversation with Mr. Modi.

Against, such a backdrop, Premier Sunak can be worked as a bridge between India and Britain by ushering in a new era of ties. There needs to be a convincing, positive vision for how the UK can navigate a world where the center of global economic and geopolitical gravity is moving eastwards. The UK government must continue to pivot in the Asia-pacific while maintaining increased levels of engagement in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Looking Ahead 

Despite India’s hailing Sunak’s appointment as a historic moment for South Asia, the political and economic mayhem he inherits has muted expectations for his tenure. While Sunak’s success will boost the aspirations of young people throughout Britain, it also put him under huge responsibility. It will be a difficult job for him to balance the domestic demands and Britain’s growing aspirations in the international arena. Hence, it will be given the fact that the UK is going through its greatest cost-of-living crisis in a decade, not all people are delighted about the thought of his being the new leader of the country owing to his extremely affluent financial background. Even though his Asian and Hindu identities are viewed as significant and a symbol of increased hope for ethnic diversity in the UK across party and political lines, it is unclear whether this will influence how ethnic minorities vote. A growing number of Hindu Britons are likely to support the Conservative Party, but much will depend on Sunak’s performance and how his ideas affect regular citizens over the next few months. Although he has a very affluent academic background, his political career is limited only to 7 years which can be a matter of concern in dealing with the volatile economic condition the UK is going through. 

Sunak will have to navigate the same thorny policy challenges including tension over the same political and economic pressures that bedeviled Truss and Former Premier Boris Johnson. In the difficult waters of domestic as well as international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands.

[Photo by Rory Arnold / No10 Downing Street, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Saume Saptparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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