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Rishi Sunak: UK's new PM embraces India connection

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 25, 2022

Rishi Sunak is the UK's first prime minister with South Asian origins. Leaders in India are holding him up as a Hindu success story for the Indian diaspora.

UK's new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech outside Number 10 Downing Street
Sunak, who in 2015 was first elected as an MP in Yorkshire, was born in Southampton to parents of Indian descentImage: Hannah McKay/REUTERS

With the downfall of British Prime Minister Liz Truss after less than six weeks in office, the ruling Conservative party quickly tipped Rishi Sunak, a former finance minister, to take her place.

The 42-year-old Sunak is both the UK's wealthiest prime minister and its youngest in over 200 years. He is also the UK's first Hindu and British Asian prime minister, which has made him immensely popular in India.

Coincidentally, Sunak was chosen as the Tory leader in the British Parliament on the occasion of Diwali, the most important festival of the year for Hindus.

India's ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party has especially sought to highlight how Sunak has embraced and displayed his Hindu culture. 

"He may be British, but I am happy that he believes in such traditions and that makes us Hindus proud and happy," Parmajeet Singh, a BJP leader, told DW.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sunak and said he looked forward to boosting ties between the UK and India.

"Special Diwali wishes to the 'living bridge' of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership," Modi said.

His personal wealth may become a problem for Britain's new PM: DW's Birgit Maas

Opposition Congress party politician Palaniappan Chidambaram praised the UK for embracing "non-majority citizens" and "electing them to high office."

As prime minister, Sunak will likely enjoy the backing of the Indian diaspora, one of the largest ethnic minorities in the UK, numbering close to 1.5 million people.

"His elevation to PM signals the coming of age of the Indian diaspora. Unlike the US, where young professionals form the bulk of the diaspora, in the UK, for generations they were part of the underbelly of the country. He is part of this success story that is commanding attention now," international relations expert Amitabh Mattoo told DW.

A practicing Hindu

Sunak embraces his Hindu religion and took his oath of office as finance minister in 2020 by placing his hands on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text. He said lighting Diwali oil lamps outside 11 Downing Street in November 2020 as Britain's first Indian-origin finance minister was one of the "proudest moments" of his life.

"I am now a citizen of Britain. But my religion is Hindu. My religious and cultural heritage is Indian. I proudly say that I am a Hindu and my identity is also a Hindu," Sunak said in 2017, when former prime minister, Theresa May, made him a minister in her cabinet.

Rishi Sunak standing in the doorway of 11 Downing Street
As finance minister in 2020, Sunak lit Diwali candles outside the residence of the exchequerImage: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/picture alliance

In August 2022, when Sunak was considered a likely candidate to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, he was spotted performing a "gau pooja" (cow worship) in London.

Videos went viral of Sunak holding a brass tumbler in hand offering holy water to the cow, and then performing a ritual seeking blessing from the cow.

Who is Rishi Sunak?

Sunak, who in 2015 was first elected as an MP in Yorkshire, was born in Southampton to parents of Indian descent.

His father, Yashvir, was a general practitioner for the National Health Service (NHS) and his mother, Usha, ran a local pharmacy. He has spoken frequently of the sacrifices they made to ensure his success.

"From working in my mum's tiny chemist shop to my experience building large businesses, I have seen firsthand how politicians should support free enterprise and innovation to ensure our future prosperity," Sunak writes on his website.

Sunak attended Oxford University and then Stanford University in the US, where he received his MBA and won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. He has worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and various hedge funds.

In 2009, Sunak married Stanford classmate Akshata Murty, a fashion designer and daughter of billionaire Indian tech entrepreneur, Narayan Murthy, who is the co-founder of Infosys. Sunak and Murty have an estimated net worth of £730 million (€838 million, $825 million). 

The couple had a traditional Indian wedding spread over two days in southern Bengalaru and took their vows on a traditional temple porch.

Rishi Sunak's wife Akshata Murty (2L) and parents Yashvir and Usha Sunak (R, 2R)
Sunak's wife, Akshata, and his mother and father attending a rally in August 2022Image: Wiktor Szymanowicz/AA/picture alliance

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11