The UK leadership race and the coverage of Rishi Sunak’s heritage

There has been a flurry of commentary about the finalist in the race for the UK’s top job, who has Indian and East African heritage.

Rishi Sunak standing in front of supporters
Rishi Sunak meets supporters as he arrives to attend a Conservative Party leadership election hustings [Rui Vieira/AP Photo]

Rishi Sunak reached the last round of the contest to replace current British PM Boris Johnson last month and since then, there has been a flurry of coverage, critique and commentary around the potential that Britain may have a prime minister of Indian origin.

For Sunak, the Hindu-practicing, Southampton-born son of Indian and East African parents, much of the focus has been on the former banker’s class and wealth background.

The combined wealth of Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of one of India’s most successful and richest IT entrepreneurs, is estimated to be 730 million pounds ($852m).

Throughout the campaign, 42-year-old Sunak has been forced to downplay his privilege, having to admit that he was “silly” after a video emerged of him making comments when he was a student nearly 20 years ago, in which he said he did not have any working-class friends.

He was also called out after saying he eats a McDonalds breakfast wrap that the fast food chain later confirmed they had stopped serving two years ago.

His Hindu religious identity has also been an aspect that the PM hopeful has been keen to highlight, most recently posting an image of him and his wife marking an auspicious Hindu religious festival by praying at an Indian temple.

Sunak positioning himself as a devout Hindu has been well received by Hindus in the UK, US and India, and reports of Hindus praying for him have been among the consistent shows of support for him on and offline in recent weeks.

As Rima Saini, a senior lecturer in sociology at the school of law at Middlesex University London, told Al Jazeera: “In the UK, there is a growing, cosmopolitan South Asian Hindu middle class which in recent years has been leaning increasingly more towards the Conservative Party. Amongst this demographic, he has been very well received.”

Saini said, however, that this support does not necessarily extend to other parts of the UK’s South Asian diasporic communities.

“Bangladeshi and Pakistani populations are still much more economically challenged than the Indian population in the UK so it’s likely they would prefer a more left-leaning candidate,” she said.

“Due to historical events like the Partition [of the colonised British Indian territories], there is still animosity between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian community here, and I think Sunak very much aligns himself with being critical of so-called radical Islam, something that was seen again when he talked during the campaign about cracking down on extremists. And so I don’t think Sunak is naturally going to have the same cachet amongst Muslim populations.”

Rishi Sunak speaking at an election hustings
Sunak addresses Conservative Party members during election hustings [File: Rui Vieira/AP]

In India, commentators say his bid has been eagerly watched by English-language mainstream media and online.

The story of his bid, as well as his political ascent as the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer within the last couple of years, have taken a celebratory tone, with pieces about the rise of the Indian diaspora and the strength of British multiculturalism.

Professor Harsh Pant, the vice president of studies and foreign policy at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi told Al Jazeera: “There are two ways in which this story has been approached. One has been: Look –  this is the real strength of multicultural democracies, where you have equal opportunities for someone like Rishi Sunak who’s not viewed as traditionally British, but who has still climbed up political ranks.”

“There has also been an undercurrent that some of the attacks on him have been very seemingly racist but by and large, it has been a positive reception,” he said.

Professor Pant said that Sunak’s relationship with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, albeit indirect through his wife’s family, has not been hugely unpacked or critiqued.

“Among the wider narratives, there has been some pushback that while it is good to see this as a success story, let’s not overdo what a PM of Indian origin could mean for Indian-British ties,” he said.

East African heritage

One aspect of his identity that has not been highlighted as much is that of this East African heritage – Sunak’s parents, Yashvir and Usha were born in Kenya and Tanzania respectively during the days of the British empire.

The story has received general coverage in East Africa, with one piece in The Nation newspaper in Kenya drawing on comparisons with when Barack Obama was running for president in the US.

Yet beyond that, analysts say that the story on Sunak has received very little attention, potentially speaking to the wider existing relationship dynamics between the two communities.

Fridah Naliaka, a digital journalist with prominent Nairobi-based news site Citizen Digital, told Al Jazeera that the Nation story received little engagement online.

It was a similar reaction from readers when Naliaka published her piece in which she mentioned Sunak’s Kenyan roots.

The story received just two comments on the media organisation’s Twitter feed, a significantly low figure amid a Twitter following of nearly five million.

“Indians are still a minority in the country and there is still huge social disparity between the African and Indian communities, so for the majority of Kenyans, Sunak’s story has not been relatable. Coverage has not blown up in the region in the same way it did when Obama was running,” Naliaka said.

“This may change if he wins, there may be more of a buzz around his Kenyan identity but from a journalistic perspective, it’s about looking at how the audience engagement. And right now, I don’t see this story as being particularly useful to our audience,” she added.

British Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership campaign candidate Liz Truss speaks during her campaign launch event, in London
Truss speaks during her campaign launch event in London [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Britain’s new prime minister will be announced on September 5, with polls showing Sunak’s rival, Liz Truss with a significant lead. Analysts say whatever the outcome, Sunak’s run is likely to have an impact.

“The Indian diaspora have been doing well in politics recently, so I think this may now galvanize Indians in the UK to do more in terms of political mobilization. There is a sense that you can do well in British politics if you are someone of Indian origin now and I think that that sentiment will strengthen,” Pant said.

Yasmin Nair – a writer and human rights activist who has been following the story from the US, where Sunak admitted earlier this year that he had permanent residency with his Green card up until last year – told Al Jazeera that Sunak’s run could come to represent a moment to look beyond a political candidate’s religious and ethnic identity.

“What we can hope for in the long run from this is a more complicated way of thinking beyond racial and ethnic identity and integrating it within the context of class, capitalism, diaspora and Empire,” she said.

“These identities are not separate entities and should be with more nuance. The Sunak story affords us the opportunity to look at identities in a much more complicated way.”

Source: Al Jazeera