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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On July 31, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    The fact that Rishi Sunak could be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom is a clear and irrefutable indication of how much that country has changed. But the fact many doubt he’ll get the job – a view very substantially endorsed by a YouGov poll of the Conservative Party’s membership – raises the question: is the last obstacle still immovably, if invisibly, in place? Will the Tory Party vote for a prime minister of Indian origin?


    Boris Johnson was not the first to include members of the ethnic minorities in his cabinet. Tony Blair was. But 20 percent of Johnson’s first cabinet was of black or asian origin. Later, two of the most powerful portfolios, Home and the Exchequer, were in ‘Indian’ hands. Now, as his time ends, all three men who’ve served as Chancellor in his government have been of asian origin. Earlier, even the Chairman of the Conservative Party was black. The gentleman is now Education Secretary.


    The truth is Johnson’s government reflects a deeper and wider change in British society. The most obvious example of this is the media. Many of the faces on BBC World and many of the by-lines in British papers are asian or black. We don’t read British papers but we do see the BBC. Here’s a partial list of the anchors and correspondents you can’t have failed to encounter: Matthew Amroliwala, Geeta Gurumurthy, James Coomaraswamy, George Aligiah, Secunder Kermani, Nomia Iqbal, Sameera Hussain, Rajini Vaidyanathan, Amol Rajan, Yogita Limaye.


    So, when Andrew Mitchell, a former cabinet minister and Tory MP of thirty years standing, says Britain has “changed”, he’s right. Four of the 8 initial candidates competing for the Conservative leadership were from ethnic minority communities. Rishi Sunak is himself an MP from the very english and rural Yorkshire constituency of Richmond. He inherited it from former party chairman and foreign secretary William Hague. And right through the six rounds of voting by MPs, he was their most popular choice. He ended up with 137 votes to Liz Truss’s 113.


    Yet the question remains: will the Tory shires, where the majority of the party’s membership lives, vote for an ethnic minority prime minister? The issue at the core is not just colour-prejudice and racism – though you certainly cannot exclude it – but do the British want one of their own as PM rather than the grandson of an immigrant? It’s an obvious and understandable question. In 2004 we faced a not dissimilar choice ourselves. Sonia Gandhi opted out but would India have accepted a PM of Italian origin?


    Let me put it differently. Why do YouGov polls of Conservative members suggest Liz Truss is 24 percentage points ahead of Rishi Sunak? He is, by a mile, the more intelligent, the better economist, the superior television performer, the more charming personality of the two. ‘Dishy Rishi’ was what they called him not so long ago. Today, by his own admission, he’s the underdog. Why is there such a marked difference between how colleagues in the Commons view him and his party membership?


    Andrew Mitchell, who remains confident Rishi will win, says two factors will tilt the vote in his favour. First, “his qualities, experience and character will propel him to the prime ministership of the United Kingdom”. In other words, the party’s membership will recognise and reward the better of the two. Second, polls also show “Rishi Sunak is most likely to beat Keir Starmer”, the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party and of the opposition. Rishi, not Liz, gives the Conservatives a better chance of winning an historic fifth consecutive election.


    Perhaps Mitchell is right. Ireland, next door, has had a PM of Indian origin and will again soon. Portugal has one at the moment. And yet, and yet, and yet … Britain is different. Rishi winning could be akin to the ‘Empire striking back’! But of one conclusion I’m certain. Whether Rishi wins or loses, Britain will never be the same again. We need to applaud that.

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