NEW DELHI: Rishi Sunak taking over as the prime minister of the United Kingdom has triggered a debate on the status of minorities and people of foreign origin far away in India. Leaders of opposition parties have alleged domination of majoritarianism in the country.
The debate started soon after it was clear that Sunak would succeed Liz Truss as the leader of the Conservative Party which would pave the way for him to get anointed as the British PM.
Sunak was born in Southampton in the UK in 1980. Both his parents are of Indian origin and had migrated to the UK from east Africa. He is a three-time MP from Richmond in Yorkshire, having won for the first time in 2015. He repeated the feat in 2017 and 2019, rising quickly to become the chancellor or finance minister in February 2020 under Boris Johnson.
His wife Akshata Murty is the daughter of Indian billionaire businessman Narayana Murthy.
Sunak has publicly claimed that though he is a British citizen, he is a “proud Hindu”. He took oath as an MP on the sacred Bhagwad Gita. He wears the Lord Ram-printed scarf and is a cow worshipper. Most recently, he was seen wearing the sacred thread while making his first speech as British PM on October 25.
Sunak has become the first Hindu and the first person of Indian origin to become the UK PM. Hindus are a minority in a country where Christians are in majority.
This has led the opposition leaders in India to ask whether a minority community leader could lead India as Sunak has done in the UK.
BJP and Modi government attacked
The opposition leaders have accused the ruling dispensation at the Centre of practising majoritarianism. They ask whether a leader of minority community in India could similarly lead the country.
Senior Congress leader and former Union finance minister P Chidambaram said India needs to learn a lesson from the UK. “First Kamala Harris, now Rishi Sunak. The people of the US and the UK have embraced the non-majority citizens of their countries and elected them to high office in government. I think there is a lesson to be learned by India and the parties that practise majoritarianism,” he said.
Terming the development in the UK as “very rare”, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who earlier this month ran for the party president’s post but lost to Mallikarjun Kharge, asked whether it could be repeated in India.
“If this does happen, I think all of us will have to acknowledge that the Brits have done something very rare in the world, to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office. As we Indians celebrate the ascent of Rishi Sunak, let's honestly ask: can it happen here?” he said.
Tharoor said this while tagging George Osborne, chair of the British Museum and former chancellor of the Exchequer who wrote: “Rishi Sunak will be prime minister by the end of the day. Some think, like me, he’s a solution to our problems; others think he’s part of the problem. But whatever your politics, let’s all celebrate the first British Asian becoming PM and be proud of our country where this can happen.”
Perhaps the most controversial statement came from PDP supremo and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. “Proud moment that the UK will have its first Indian origin PM. While all of India rightly celebrates, it would serve us well to remember that while UK has accepted an ethnic minority member as its PM, we are still shackled by divisive and discriminatory laws like NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act),” she said.
Another opposition leader, TMC MP Mahua Moitra asked when would India become more tolerant. She was quoted as saying: “Proud of the UK, my second favourite country for placing a British Asian in Number 10. May India be more tolerant and more accepting of all faiths, all backgrounds. May India be more tolerant and more accepting of all faiths, all backgrounds.”
Alleging marginalisation of the minority communities, former Congress leader Sanjay Jha also asked when would India get inspired from the UK. “Rishi Sunak becoming UK PM shows the true democratic diversity of a society. Well done, lovers of football and fried fish and chips. As did Barack Obama becoming President in the US. When will we in India be inspired, where marginalisation of minorities is the prevalent mood?”
Opposition leaders slammed
The accusations of the opposition leaders were countered not just by BJP leaders but also by independent personalities. Most of them attacked Mufti.
Union rural development and panchayati raj minister Giriraj Singh said India has always been the custodian of the principle of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is a family). “In India, people from the minority community have held the highest positions five times. If Mufti ji had kept minorities at the highest posts of his state, then Kashmir would have been different today, where social harmony would have been fully established,” he said.
Responding to Mahua Moitra, BJP leader co-in-charge of West Bengal Amit Malviya suggested that to start with, the state CM Mamata Banerjee should hand over the post to her trusted aide Firhad Hakim. “As expected, TMC wants to see a Muslim Prime Minister. A good start would be to ask scam tainted Mamata Banerjee to step down and make Firhad Hakim, a Muslim, and her trusted aide the CM of West Bengal. There is talk of it in Bengal’s power circles anyway. Walk the talk. Now.”
Malviya also responded to an interesting anecdote of the 2004 Lok Sabha election by Tharoor who is seen in a short video clip talking about the unique inclusivity of Indian society. “The fact is that the last election five years ago, gave the world an extraordinary phenomenon of an election being won by a woman political leader of Italian origin and Roman Catholic faith Sonia Gandhi, who then made way for a Sikh Manmohan Singh, to be sworn on as prime minister by a Muslim President (APJ) Abdul Kalam, in a country 81 per cent Hindu.”
Malviya tagged the clip and said, “…election being won by a woman leader of Italian origin and Roman Catholic faith, Sonia Gandhi, who then made way for a Sikh Manmohan Singh, to be sworn in as PM by a Muslim President Abdul Kalam, in a country 81% Hindu… ST’s (Shashi Tharoor's) politics is often at divergence with his glib talk.”
BJP MP and former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad lashed out at Mufti. He lamented that some leaders were trying to score brownie points over the development.
He said in a series of tweets, “Saw Mahbooba Mufti’s tweet commenting on the rights of minorities in India after the election of Rishi Sunak as PM of UK. Mehbooba Mufti Ji! Will you accept a minority in Jammu and Kashmir as Chief Minister of the state? Please be frank enough to reply. Some leaders have become hyper active against majoritarianism after the election of Rishi Sunak as PM of UK. Gently reminding them about the extraordinary presidency of APJ Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh as PM for 10 years. A distinguished tribal leader Droupadi Murmu is now our President.”
Prasad further said, “A competent leader of Indian origin Rishi Sunak is becoming the Prime Minister of UK. We all need to compliment him on this extraordinary success. It is tragic that some Indian politicians are unfortunately trying to make a political brownie point on this occasion.”
Another BJP leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa too took on Mufti. He said, “Mehbooba Mufti is weak in History as she conveniently forgets India had 3 Muslim, 1 Sikh President & a Sikh PM for 10 yrs. India has shown the world how to honour cultural & ethnic diversity.
Can she say the same about herself? Would she support a Hindu CM in Kashmir?
Political analyst Tehseen Poonawalla attacked the opposition leaders for their advocacy of a “Muslim PM”.
Poonawalla said, “Should our India elect a ‘Muslim PM’? India needs to elect a competent PM, irrespective of the PM's religion or gender! Our Indian PM must have a vision does not matter if our PM is Hindu, Muslim, Jain, atheist, bisexual, homosexual, asexual, male, female, tansgender! Electing a 'Muslim PM' is irrelevant as our India has a parliamentary form of democracy not presidential! People elect a political party, whose MPs then elect a PM! If someone has the support of a majority of MPs, there is no constitutional bar on becoming PM! Eg: Dr MMS (Manmohan Singh)!”
Poet and former Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Kumar Vishvas mocked Mufti in his tweet. He said, “That's right aunty. India has made a lot of progress under the leadership of many minority Indians like Dr Zakir Hussain, Mr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Dr Manmohan Singh, Dr Kalam sahib. Now you should also start trying to make the chief minister from a religion that has been forcibly made a minority in Jammu and Kashmir.”
Deputy secretary in the central ministry of culture Shah Faesal said Muslims enjoyed equal opportunities as the majority community. In a series of tweets, the 2010 civil services topper said, “It's possible only in India that a Muslim youngster from Kashmir can go on to top the Indian Civil Service exam, rise to top echelons of the government, then fall apart with the government and still be rescued and taken back by the same government. Rishi Saunak's appointment might be a surprise for our neighbours where the Constitution bars non-Muslims from top posts in the government, but Indian democracy has never discriminated ethnic and religious minorities from the rest. As equal citizens, Indian Muslims enjoy freedoms that are unthinkable in any other so-called Islamic country.”
He said his own life-story was about a journey, shoulder to shoulder, with each fellow citizen of this nation of 1.3 billion people, where he has felt owned, respected, encouraged and at times pampered at every step of the way.
Faesal, who had quit the civil services in 2019 only to be reinstated by the Modi government earlier this year, said, “From Maulana Azad to Dr Manmohan Singh and Dr Zakir Hussain to President Droupadi Murmu, India has always been the land of equal opportunity and the road to the top is open to all. Won't be wrong if I say I have been to the mountain top and seen it for myself.”
The debate over the issue is likely to grow in the days to come.