When Joe Biden assumed office as President of the United States on January 20, 2021, here in India there was much excitement. Not because anyone in India gave a toss about Joe Biden. The appeal of American Presidents to the Indian public, both domestic as well as the diaspora, depends largely on whether they are good looking or so ridiculous that you have to pay close attention. On that score both John Kennedy and Donald Trump, for those very reasons (you can work out which applied to whom), merited our keen interest. In the case of Biden, our curiosity in India had much more to do with his vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris because of her Indian antecedents. That she was also part West Indian on her father’s side did not seem to matter. Perhaps some sections of the Indian public interpreted West Indian to mean Mumbai and not Jamaica. However, for a few, brief shining moments, those of us from south India, particularly Chennai and its environs, went ballistic with joy. Reams were written in Indian newspapers about Kamala’s maternal family background from a conservative Tamil Brahmin household. Unknown relatives crawled out of the woodwork. Which also meant that her love of the cuisine from that part of India, including idli, vada, dosa and curd rice received as much billing as her untested political nous. If she also enjoyed spare ribs and beef steak, we did not mention it.
All very droll. That was over a year ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in. In that period, even if she was not being publicly sworn at, it was a near thing. At any rate, she appears to have gone clean off the radar. Not even a blip. No one talks about ‘our Kamala’ any more. Not even in suburban Chennai. Lotus (Kamala in Sanskrit) is unlikely to become POTUS, unless Biden decides to throw in the towel before his term ends. I have heard tell that a soothsayer has predicted the lady could get the top job before Biden’s term ends! Such is the fickle, ephemeral nature of fame.
That preliminary introduction about Kamala was prompted by the current hullabaloo we are witnessing over the possible ascension of an Indian-origin candidate, Rishi Sunak, as a potential successor to the ousted Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson. The Indian media, social circles, our neighbours, friends, relatives and possibly their pet dogs, are all waiting with bated breath to see if young Rishi (he is only 42) can become the first non-white Prime Minister of Great Britain, albeit a tad wet behind the ears. Incidentally, my friends who are clued up on these things, assure me that the terms United Kingdom and Great Britain (and by inference, even England) are freely interchangeable. The golden rule appears to be that if they win the football World Cup, which they did against West Germany 4 – 2, in 1966 at Wembley (aided by a controversial third goal), or an Olympic gold, the cry will ring out, ‘another triumph for Great Britain.’ Whereas if they lose, it will change to ‘England loses again.’ It’s complicated but it is what it is. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t count.
Let’s get back to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Rishi Sunak. Straight off the bat, let us recognize that the aspiring PM is no more Indian than Boris Johnson is Punjabi. Sunak’s parents came over to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s, as did thousands of others of their ilk, thanks to the tender ministrations of Idi Amin, and ran a successful if modest pharmacy, which may or may not have been a traditional corner shop. Sunak was born in Southampton and the rest of his meteoric academic and political career has been well documented. I shan’t go over them again. My preoccupation is more to do with why we in India are going all gaga over someone who is attempting to become the Prime Minister of a nation that ruled India for close to 200 years. Is it the Indian origin thing? I haven’t even heard of a family in India called Sunak! Nasser Hussain captained England’s cricket team and worked overtime to convince his countrymen that he was English, and not just a fair-complexioned lad from Madras with a posh public-school accent. Is it the pigmentation? Could be, but if you walk around Central London and hurl a brick randomly into the middle distance, you are more likely to bean someone of an Asian, African or Middle Eastern descent. Let’s cut to the chase. I’ll tell you why we in India are getting super excited about Rishi. He is married to a true-blue Indian girl. That’s why! He is our son-in-law; Daamaad, Jamai babu or Maapillai, depending on which part of India you hail from.
There’s more. Rishi’s father-in-law, N.R. Narayana Murthy can safely be described as one of the fathers of India’s IT revolution. A highly principled, self-made man, he is one of the many poster boys in India’s rise as an economic power house, thanks to the company he founded, Infosys. Not that Mr. Murthy would himself care to be described as a poster boy, he being of a somewhat modest and self-effacing disposition. His educationist and philanthropist wife Sudha Murty (she drops the ‘h’ in her surname, insists her husband’s name is spelt incorrectly!), is a woman of substance in her own right, seen as a role model for the betterment and upliftment of women, children and the downtrodden. She is a prolific writer having authored many books, in particular for children, and is ever ready to reach out to the needy with a helping hand. And their daughter Akshata it was who said ‘Yes’ to Rishi Sunak when he popped the question to her on bended knee in the sylvan surrounds of Stanford. And now, dear reader, can you at all be surprised that in India, it is a completely different kind of rishi all the way from the UK who is hogging the headlines as opposed to the ones we are so accustomed to seeing? This one is suited, booted and clean-shaven, and speaks with an Oxbridge accent. Not a tinge of saffron anywhere.
The rishi double entendre is even more apt when you consider the fact that Rishi Sunak is reportedly a practicing Hindu, and that he took his oath as Chancellor of the Exchequer with his hand placed firmly on the Bhagavad Gita. Should he ascend to the exalted office of Prime Minister and take that short hop from No.11 to No.10 Downing Street, Britons will be counting many ‘firsts’ in their rich political history. This also raises a pertinent question. When push comes to shove, is a predominantly Christian nation such as the United Kingdom ready to entertain a devout Hindu (one assumes he is devout) as their chief executive? In order for that to happen, Sunak has to take on some stiff headwinds from his shortlisted colleague, Liz Truss, who is fond of saying, ‘we’ll hit the ground running.’ While the lawmakers from Britain’s Conservative party have selected these two worthies, the complex voting process will take place through a balloting system involving some 200,000 party members in early September. Notwithstanding Sunak receiving more votes than his rivals in the initial phase, Liz Truss could well be holding all the aces. She could be following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May as the third woman Prime Minister of ‘this sceptered isle.’ There’s everything to play for. At some point during these proceedings, erstwhile Prime Minister Boris Johnson will quietly make his way out of what can surely be described, in his case, as ‘10 Drowning Street.’ If you read that gag in one of the British tabloids, remember you saw it here first!
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, we in India are witnessing our own history in the making. The ruling dispensation’s candidate, Droupadi Murmu, is all set to take the oath as India’s 15th President, and the second woman to do so. The uniqueness is derived from the fact that President Murmu (get used to that name) hails from a tribal community in the state of Orissa. The BJP has once again caught everyone, particularly the opposition parties, completely off guard. The move is seen as being far-reaching, statesmanlike and above all, a sure-fire vote catcher – depending on whether one is a supporter or a cynic of the government in power. India’s Prime Minister, meanwhile, sits back comfortably and smiles beatifically. Like the cat that’s had its cream.
A final thought on what it could mean for India if Rishi Sunak does, indeed, make it to 10 Downing Street, provided he can get past Liz Truss. Not very much, I don’t think. Rather like Kamala Harris, Rishi will need to keep an arm’s length distance from his ancestral nation, lest his countrymen come down on him like a ton of bricks. The British press are already pooh-poohing his ‘humble-humble’ background claims. His wealth and their sources are being closely examined with a fine toothcomb. In other words, he will have enough problems running the country without pointedly cosying up to India. This may create some domestic unrest at the Sunak household at No.10, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles when you sit on the hot seat. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. As I put this piece to bed, the smart money has Liz Truss with her nose in front as the odds-on bookies’ favourite. She may well pip Sunak to the post in this two-horse race, in what could be a photo finish. Sunak’s nick name to some of his close friends is ‘Hedgie,’ derived from the fact that he had earlier worked in the hedge fund business. He will certainly be hedging his bets now. But just in case Sunak defies the odds and pulls through, is India, in the words of his campaign plank, ‘Ready for Rishi?’ Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I shan’t be holding my breath.
Postscript: This could be apocryphal, but a group of Indian tourists to the UK, visiting Winston Churchill’s burial site at St. Martin’s Church, just outside Blenheim Palace grounds, swore they felt something turning in his grave!