It is interesting how we take the success of every desi bachcha in the world as our personal success. And we take their narrative into our hearts.
It is almost like every Indian belongs to a large global family, bound by invisible strings. Sometimes even if the strings originated from the pre-partition era, we can tug at them. And so when a few months ago, both Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak resigned within minutes of each other―forcing Boris Johnson to resign―someone pointed out the irony: one Indian and one Pakistani bringing down the British prime minister.
As far as conspiracy theories go, that was an interesting moment of speculation and now, of course, as a novelist I can appreciate the magical realism behind the appointment of the first UK prime minister of Indian origin in the 75th year of India’s partition and independence. What a wonderful postcolonial fantasy!
However, even though I am the chair of the trust that set up the world’s first and only Partition Museum in Amritsar and is now setting up the second one in Delhi, I have to admit that these are just amazing coincidences with which history is replete. Sunak has risen to the top in British politics not because his grandfather is from Gujranwala―which is now in Pakistan―but because of his very capable handling of the economy, and the manner in which he was able to infuse confidence in his fellow parliamentarians during the very difficult time of Covid.
And is the UK “ready for Rishi”? (That was one of the slogans which was used to propel him to power). Yes, we are. Across the board, in the UK, I have not heard of any comment on his ethnicity that would worry us as “people of colour”. Let us not forget that “white” is also a colour and, therefore, it is only a matter of time before even our language will become colour blind and we will stop referring to those who do not look like the majority in the UK as “Black” or “Asian”. And they will all be simply, as Rishi already is, British. He will normalise being a “Black Asian” face of Britain. He also cannot, as prime minister, represent only “India”, as he also has to represent all Asians and all non-Asians.
Was he meant for greater heights and did his parents know he would be prime minister one day? My brief meeting with Usha Sunak reminded me very much of the down-to-earth women who have become legendary in migration stories. These are women who have brought up families and run businesses in a UK which, previously, was never very welcoming to migrants. All of us have had our share of being called “Paki” and many have undergone worse racist treatment.
Usha and her husband, Dr Yashvir Sunak, however, made their children stoic, and prepared them to live not as a minority in a ghetto but as a proud part of the community, and the country they were all contributing towards.
Rishi was sent to the elite Winchester College where he was able to connect with those who dot the ruling class (a bit like the Doon School was, once upon a time). It reminded me of Kate Middleton’s story, who also came from a middle class family and met her prince within an elite educational institution. Rishi’s later meeting with Akshata Murty at Stanford has also become the stuff of legend. He wooed and married her and yes, she is now an essential part of his success.
However, the query whether this is sweet revenge for India―and whether we are somehow subjugating the British with a prime minister of Indian origin―is a pure postcolonial fantasy. Britain is a diverse country and has many members of parliament, not only from the UK, but also from many erstwhile colonies. When my husband entered parliament more than 30 years ago, the colonial hangover was still very strong for his relatives to be impressed that “white” people were being respectful. But not now.
Also we must remember that unlike the colonial exploitation that was inflicted on the Indians in very different circumstances, the UK is a very modern egalitarian democracy and Rishi is only there as long as he delivers the goods. And right now he has inherited a country fraught with problems.
He has only two years before the next general election, maybe less, to not only undo much of the economic damage inflicted by the Covid years and ‘Trussonomics’, but at the same time to ensure that he is loved by the British people. Unlike the colonial dictators who ruled India, he cannot subject the UK to suffering as the British will not elect his party if there is a misstep.
This is then certainly a sweet post-partition, postcolonial fantasy. And that is all there is to it. While in the past Britain had bled India dry, the reality is that in this reversal of fortunes in which Rishi is in charge of the UK, he will need to ensure that the king gets to keep the Koh-i-Noor. In case you thought he was going to suddenly charge into the Tower of London and return it, remember he is a very “British” prime minister, even though he looks just like us.
Kishwar Desai is an award-winning author, whose latest book, The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani, has just won the national award for the best book on Indian cinema.