ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO: Will diversity play a role under Sunak’s administration?

Rishi Sunak became Britain’s first prime minister of color! Congratulations!

Sunak, 42, is the first Hindu and the first person of South Asian descent to lead the country. He replaced Liz Truss, the short-lived prime minister, at a time that the country’s economy is declining and is facing many international problems such as the Russia-Ukraine war where almost all nations now are indirectly involved in the “global war”.

The UK and its allies condemn the Russian government’s unprovoked, premeditated and uncalled for war against Ukraine. Will Sunak carry on its policy on the war? Perhaps, yes because in his first speech he said he will continue what the previous administration has started, put the economy back and will venture on other programs that will keep the nation moving.

According to Danica Kirka (Associated Press), the news that Rishi Sunak has become Britain’s first prime minister of color was welcomed by many among Britain’s large Indian and South Asian communities, although we found out that some sectors too are not happy about it.

In London, Harmeet Singh Gill was excited to hear that Rishi Sunak became Britain’s first prime minister of color — news that came as he celebrated the Diwali festival in a London neighborhood sometimes called Little India. Diwali is the five-day festival of light celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

“It’s almost a watershed moment,” the 31-year-old said as he volunteered at the cavernous dome-topped house of worship that serves the Sikh community in west London’s Southall neighborhood. “It’s just a sign of 21st-century Britain, where it doesn’t matter what background you’re from now, that you can rise up the ranks to the positions of power.”

But this is not simple, as many people of color in the U.K. due to their history in racism and violence. Sunak, 42, whose parents moved to Britain from Africa in the 1960s, has inherited a long history of colonialism and has often struggled to welcome immigrants from its former colonies — and continues to grapple with racism and wealth inequality.

A practicing Hindu, Sunak spoke earlier this year about the significance of lighting Diwali candles outside the official Downing Street residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the post for two years until he resigned in July.

He told the Times of London: “It was one of my proudest moments that I was able to do that on the steps of Downing Street. And it meant a lot to a lot of people and it’s an amazing thing about our country.”

Sunak’s win is evidence of this progress — a step toward something better,” said Tariq Modood, director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

He added: “I would say the most important thing about today is that the majority, the overwhelming majority of Conservative members of Parliament, chose as their first choice a youngish man of Indian descent, making him the first British prime minister of color. And I think that other parties will note that, the Labour Party most certainly, and will want to catch up with that, if not try and do better.”

Sunak is a well-learned man and a man of experience. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Oxford and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University. Then he worked for Goldman Sachs and then moving into the hedge fund industry, where he made a fortune in finance.

Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak —  is rich, ultrarich. To some, he is way too rich. The Times of London estimated that PM Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, were worth more than $800 million, and this week, as Mr. Sunak emerged as the winner of the Tory leadership contest, critics immediately picked up on that. They accused him of being out of touch and wondered how a multimillionaire was going to preside over a country where more and more people face tough trade-offs between affording basic goods and warming their homes.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet when she served in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, said she thought Sunak would be a unifying figure for all British Asians.

Warsi told the BBC: “But there has been a huge debate on whether or not this is something that we should celebrate, and I think we do celebrate the fact that this is visible diversity… although it has to go beyond visible diversity. There have to be young children today from poor homes, going to ordinary state schools, who say that they, too, could become prime minister.”

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank focused on immigration, identity and race, called Sunak’s victory a “historic moment” that wouldn’t have been possible just a decade ago. But, he said, the struggle to end discrimination isn’t over. (ABC News)

Katwala said. “Rishi Sunak reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy. While there is more to do, this is a hopeful sign of progress against the prejudices of the past.”

A columnist for the Times of London, Sathnam Sanghera said: “Sunak’s promotion was ‘amazing’ as he recalled the hatred and violence faced by Black and Asian people in Britain in the past. Immigrants of his parents’ generation still remember the white gangs that roamed the streets “looking for West Indians, Africans or Asians to assault,” and coming home to find excrement stuffed through their mailboxes. But while Sunak’s success will boost the aspirations of young people throughout Britain, more work needs to be done,” Sanghera said.

Commenting further, Sanghera said: “Just because we have one British Hindu in charge, and just because some brown ethnic groups are doing well, it doesn’t mean that Britain has defeated racism… No more than Barack Obama’s election as president represented the defeat of racism in America.”

Plenty of people have been born in one country and come close to governing in another, or actually achieved the feat. For example, Julia Gillard, was born in Wales and became the prime minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013. Golda Meir, originally from Kiev, served five years as the prime minister of Israel from 1969, and Shimon Peres, Israeli president between 2007 and 2014, was born in a village that was Polish at the time, and is now in Belarus.

Valdus Adamkus, became president of Lithuania in 1998 while he was still an American citizen (though he later gave up his American citizenship). The current president of Estonia, Swedish-born Toomas Ilves, also grew up in the US though renounced his US citizenship three years before becoming Estonia’s foreign minister – and 13 years before ascending to the presidency.( BBC News Magazine’s email newsletter)

 And… of course, Barrack Obama, the first US president of color, became the President in 2008.

In his first address as Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak vowed to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”

In his speech, he said: “Right now, our country is facing a profound economic crisis. The aftermath of Covid still lingers. Putin’s war in Ukraine has destabilized energy markets and supply chains the world over. I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda. This will mean difficult decisions to come. But you saw me during Covid, doing everything I could, to protect people and businesses, with schemes like furlough

I will unite our country, not with words, but with action. So, I stand here before you ready to lead our country into the future, to put your needs above politics, to reach out and build a government that represents the very best traditions of my party…”

So, will Sunak transform UK into a diversified country in action?

(ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments, email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.)