The World Today for November 04, 2022


The Empire Strikes Back


Until 1947, the UK lorded over the Indian subcontinent, stealing its wealth and subjugating its people as the oh-so-superior colonial master.

No one even a decade ago would have ever thought that a man whose ancestors were part of that all-but-enslaved history would one day hold the top job of the former colonial power. Yet Rishi Sunak, 42, the country’s former finance minister, last week became the first person of color – and the first Hindu – to become prime minister.

Indians in India, Great Britain and elsewhere rejoiced.

“Indian son rises over the Empire,” went a headline on NDTV, an Indian broadcaster. “History comes full circle in Britain.”

“It’s our Obama moment,” said some in the Indian community in the UK.

The United Kingdom is not the United States, however. Race and racism have been defining factors of the American experience since the country’s founding, while class divisions have attracted less attention in American life, at least since the end of World War II. In the constitutional monarchy of Britain, however, the class hierarchy has been central to the nation’s essence for at least 1,200 years, while race today is mostly intertwined with the legacies of the country’s relatively more recent imperial past.

The New York Times attempted to grasp this tricky subject with a headline that celebrated Sunak’s rise after the short, disastrous tenure of Liz Truss, with a caveat: “Sunak’s Ascent Is a Breakthrough for Diversity, With Privilege Attached.”

As the Encyclopedia Britannica explained, Sunak was born in Southampton. His grandparents hailed from Punjab in northwestern India. His parents, a doctor and a pharmacist, were born in Tanzania and Kenya. He grew to admire the conservative principles of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a fervid free marketeer and anti-communist, while keeping the books for his mother’s pharmacy – even though his father worked for the state-owned National Health Service. Between his work at hedge funds and his wife’s wealth – she’s the daughter of the cofounder of Infosys, an Indian tech giant – he’s worth around $1 billion.

The irony that a man of Indian descent is now running the country that once colonized the Indian subcontinent understandably makes some people emotional, wrote Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor, who was born in Singapore to Indian parents. Tharoor described Sunak’s rise to the British premiership as an example of the “curious arc of history.”

That a billion Hindus around the globe were celebrating Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, when Conservative Party lawmakers picked Sunak made the event more momentous, added NBC News. The Indian media declared the beginning of the “Sunak era,” though Indian business news outlet Mint also listed five controversies where Sunak appeared aloof and out of touch with the lives of working- and middle-class Britons.

Marcus Ryder, the host of the podcast Black British Lives Matter, was less forgiving. Writing in the Guardian, he argued that “trickle-down diversity” wouldn’t allay the frustrations and indignations that people of color experience in the UK. The Atlantic magazine also contended that Sunak’s riches were more important to understanding his character than his race.

Still, those issues are for another day. Today, what matters to many goes beyond Sunak as an individual. Instead it’s about the delicious turn of history that allowed the grandson of a man ruled ruthlessly by Great Britain to become the leader of that power.

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