‘Bittersweet’: south Asians in UK reflect on Rishi Sunak’s historic term as PM

With Rishi Sunak’s tenure as the first prime minister of Indian heritage having come to a crushing end, south Asians living in the UK have had cause to reflect. The Conservative party’s general election capitulation ends a shortlived but historic period for the country, which for the first time was led by a person of colour, and a Hindu.

In his last address to the country, Sunak reflected on the significance of his family background. “One of the most remarkable things about Britain is just how unremarkable it is that two generations after my grandparents came here with little, I could become prime minister, and that I could watch my two young daughters light Diwali candles on the steps in Downing Street,” he said.

For some, Sunak’s ascent to the highest office in the British politics spurred a sense of pride, but for others those feelings were metered by his record.

Sunak visits Akshardham Hindu temple, Delhi, in September 2023. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“What it meant to me was that was a moment of aspiration” said Sanam Arora, the founder of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union. “It was really a moment of ambition and a shattering of many glass ceilings.”

The issue of racism gave rise to a more complex set of emotions for some. Sunak was the target of racist language during the campaign, but one of the biggest scandals to blight his term in office was the decision to accept a reported £15m in donations from Frank Hester, the businessman revealed to have said looking at Diane Abbott, Britain’s longest-serving black MP, made you “want to hate all black women”, adding that she should be “shot”.

Chetan, an advertising strategist who lives just outside London, who did not want to include his surname, said: “It’s been a really bittersweet pill to [swallow]. Of course, there’s pride in seeing not just Rishi but other south Asians in high office. I’ve been encouraged by his handling of the inevitable racist abuse he’s directly received. I don’t think I’d have the courage to confront it the way he has.

‘I’m sorry’: Rishi Sunak’s final speech as prime minister in full – video

“His handling of the comments from Frank Hester, the anti-immigration rhetoric, the lack of empathy for most people from a working-class ethnic background, and a complete lack of connection with ordinary people. That’s probably what disappoints me most.”

Raza Effendi, 48, a chartered accountant from Leeds, described Sunak as a “huge disappointment”, in relation to his handling of Islamophobia and the response to the conflict in Gaza.

“As a Muslim of Pakistani heritage I felt he did not represent people like me, and in fact reinforced prejudices against Muslims when it came to such matters.

“He will not be missed. It’s been a big issue with Islamophobia in the Conservative party, I would have thought that having an Asian prime minister [that] would have been recognised.”

A pharmacist from Oxford, who preferred to remain anonymous, said family members often referred to the Conservative leader as “our Rishi” but he had ultimately felt let down by his performance.

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“I wanted him to come out and say I’m the son of immigrants to this country, we have succeeded and other immigrants just want the same as those who came earlier. A life for their kids and money to buy a home.” he said.

Sunak speaks to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, during a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in New Delhi last year. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA

Transnational issues were also of significant concern. Some criticised Sunak for failing to support the release of the British national Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been detained in India since 2017 and is facing eight charges of conspiracy to murder linked to political violence in India. Johal denies the charges and said his arrest and trial were political.

Sunak raised the detention of Johal with Modi in September but did not provide further details, adding: “The Foreign Office is continuing to provide support to Mr Johal’s family and will continue to do so.”

The principal adviser of the Sikh Federation, Dabinderjit Singh, said: “Rishi Sunak failed to follow through on British government policy on British nationals held in arbitrary detention with respect to Jagtar Singh Johal held in an Indian jail … It is an understatement to say Rishi Sunak has been a total disappointment as PM.”

The Guardian

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