As Rishi Sunak steps into 10 Downing Street, don’t forget the other ‘Indians’ holding Europe’s top posts

As Rishi Sunak steps into 10 Downing Street, don’t forget the other ‘Indians’ holding Europe’s top posts

Sunak joins a select club of Indian-origin legislators at the top of politics and government in Europe: Antonio Costa, Prime Minister in Portugal since 2015, and Leo Varadkar, currently the deputy head of government in Ireland

By Prasun Sonwalkar in London

Published: Tue 25 Oct 2022, 10:13 PM

It was just a matter of time, as former Conservative leader David Cameron predicted as far ago as 2012, that a British Indian would become the prime minister of the United Kingdom. The day arrived on Tuesday, when King Charles appointed Rishi Sunak as the country’s 56th prime minister.

Sunak, 42, joins a select club of Indian-origin politicians at the top of politics and government in Europe: Antonio Costa, Prime Minister in Portugal since 2015, and Leo Varadkar, currently the deputy head of government in Ireland, due to take over as prime minister on December 15 as part of a power-sharing arrangement between the ruling coalition partners.

All three share Indian heritage, but were born and grew up outside India: Sunak in Southampton, Costa in Lisbon and Varadkar in Dublin. Each of their back stories resonate with periods and elements of the Portuguese and British empires since the early sixteenth century.

Of the three, Costa was the first to reach the top of government, but given the larger and more integrated Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, leaders of Indian heritage have been elected to the House of Commons since the late 19th century.

Progress was slow initially over most of the twentieth century. The first three Indian-origin MPs elected to the House of Commons were Parsis: Dadabhai Naoroji (elected in 1892, Finsbury Central), Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1895, Bethnal Green North-East) and Shapurji Saklatvala (1922, Battersea North).

Parliamentary records say that after Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929, 1987 is the year when the next ethnic minority MPs entered parliament: Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Paul Boateng (Brent South), Bernie Grant (Tottenham) and Keith Vaz (Leicester East), all representing Labour.

Since then, the number of ethnic minority MPs increased at each general election, most notably from 2010 onwards: 1987 (4 MPs), 1992 (6), 1997 (9), 2001 (12), 2005 (15), 2010 (27), 2015 (41), 2017 (52) and 2019 (65).

The increase is partly due to efforts by parties to field more candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds in successive elections, and partly the result of campaigns by groups such as Operation Black Vote (OBV) that encourage participation in politics through voter registration, leadership and mentorship programmes, besides lobbying parties on the benefits of representative bodies.

Soon after Boris Johnson formed the government after winning the 2019 election, he appointed what was hailed as the ‘most desi cabinet’ in British history, with four MPs of Indian origin were appointed to key cabinet roles: Rishi Sunak (chancellor), Priti Patel (home secretary), Alok Sharma (business secretary), and as the attorney-general, Suella Braverman attended cabinet.

The 2019 election returned the highest number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds: 65, or 10 per cent of the strength of the House of Commons. Given that the ethnic minorities comprise 14.4 per cent of the UK’s population, parliamentary experts believe that if the ethnic make-up of the House of Commons were to reflect that of the population, there would be about 93 MPs from minority backgrounds.

Several of the 65 MPs won from constituencies that do not have large number of voters from minority communities, reflecting the success of policies of multiculturalism, and increasing comfort in British society with non-white individuals at various levels, even though racism continues to exist to various degrees.

But it is no longer rare to see Sunak batting for the Conservative party or the government and Labour’s Lisa Nandy countering him in widely-watched mainstream news programmes. Sunak, Patel, Sharma, Braverman and others have been lauded and pilloried in the British news media just like any other politician.

Labour’s shadow cabinet has also seen more members from the community, including Preet Kaur Gill, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Valerie Vaz, Thangam Debbonaire, David Lammy, Seema Malhotra and Khalid Mahmood.

Sunak’s meteoric rise through the Conservative party since 2015 is a historic, symbolic moment and a matter of pride for Britain, but challenges related inequalities, racism and immigration remain; for example, he will preside over immigration policies that would have prevented many from his parents’ immigrants from east Africa and India from moving to the UK.

In the eyes of the Indian and Asian diaspora, therein lies his challenge: to doff his hat to his heritage, but also respond effectively to concerns over immigration and racism.

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