The world has watched in appalled fascination as the UK’s ruling party scrapes the bottom of its human resources barrel: it found there its first Black chancellor of the exchequer and then, to clear up his mess, its first Hindu prime minister. Yet exultant noises from India as well as Britain would make us believe that some historic milestone has been reached.
Hindu supremacists have pounced on the possibility that Rishi Sunak, a self-proclaimed devout Hindu, is a desi bro, even an undercover agent of the “Global Indian Takeover” – the title of a once regular feature in the Times of India. Evidently, he observes upper-caste taboos against beef and alcohol and always keeps his statuette of Ganesha, the guarantor of worldly success, close to him. “Indian son rises over the empire” was one typical headline in India this week.
Never mind that Sunak’s carefully trimmed career pathways to plutocratic chic make him resemble a human pinstripe rather more than the devout Hindu in loincloth – Mahatma Gandhi – who helped the sun set on the British empire. Sunak’s deeper pieties are revealed by his professional choices: credential-stockpiling and network-formation at Winchester, Oxford (PPE) and Stanford (MBA), stints at Goldman Sachs, and then bank-raiding and tax-dodging hedge fund firms, directorship of his billionaire father-in-law’s investment company, a US green card and eager membership of a traditionally nasty political party.
His hasty promotion to 10 Downing Street now emboldens insolent racists to present themselves as the purveyor of racial diversity, and to scoff at Labour’s nearly immaculate frontbench whiteness. Such opportunistic political correctness is validated by a Labour leadership that is quick to reprimand those who discount Sunak as a “win for Asian representation”. Hollow notions of social diversity and racial justice are further affirmed by members of a non-white intelligentsia, who have been trained by the ideology of meritocracy to see success and power, no matter how dubiously achieved or brief, as the measure of all things.
A columnist in the Financial Times this week wrote: “As a British Asian of the same generation, intense feelings overwhelm me when I see Rishi Sunak cross the door into 10 Downing Street.” The same writer had, while celebrating Liz Truss’s “diverse” cabinet, reverently recited the first names of recent British chancellors – “Kwasi, Nadhim, Rishi, Sajid” – and then added: “This is to say nothing of Kemi and Ranil, of Alok and Suella.”
And, presumably, Priti, another Tory daughter of immigrants who seemed as keen as Suella to fulfil the dreams of Enoch Powell. As it happens, the first Hindu prime minister is destroying, more rapidly and comprehensively than Boris Johnson’s and Liz Truss’s diverse cabinets, the pitiful visions of diversity relaunched by his coronation. Sunak’s immediate resurrection of the disgraced Braverman tells us that we should quickly abandon wishful thinking in order to be truly ready for Rishi.
True readiness for such overpromoted Tory desis will consist in recognising that collaboration with white ruling classes or political passivity rather than struggles for social justice largely defines the history of the Indian diaspora, especially of its highly educated and upper-caste members. The over-zealous persecutors of refugees and the “tofu wokerati” today resemble, disturbingly, the Indian immigrants in A Bend in the River, VS Naipaul’s novel about decolonsing east Africa, who regard their Black and brown compatriots as the losers of history and escape to London to join its white winners. As one character sums up his bleak hyper-individualistic ethic: “The world is a rich place. It all depends on what you choose in it … I know exactly who I am and where I stand in the world. But now I want to win and win and win.”
Winning was always easier for a people who spoke English relatively well and avoided political conflict while pursuing their obsessions with educational achievement and social mobility. While the Chinese diaspora, the world’s largest, remains less visible, many Indians in the west have steadily improved their prospects, becoming, as the 1980s arrived, poster people for the neoliberal ideology of meritocracy – the “model minority”.
Even as Sunak’s Punjabi middle-class parents sent him to Winchester, such far-right political office-bearers of Punjabi origin as Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal started to sing in the US from Ronald Reagan’s songsheet about hard work and dreams. In particular, twice-migrants, such as Patel’s and Sunak’s families, have been much better placed than any diasporic community to benefit from three decades of neoliberal globalisation under American and British auspices.
These proto-globalisers were helped at the same time by fresh personal and professional networks with a “New India” that swiftly discarded its pretensions to Gandhian values while rushing to embrace power and wealth. Sunak, now married to a Indian citizen richer than King Charles, shares his glossy biography with many men (and some women) of Indian ancestry who today own the world’s biggest industries and run major banks, hedge funds and Silicon Valley companies.
Many of these still strangely unexamined winners of globalisation have assumed power-broking positions in several countries. Take, for instance, the Gupta brothers, who managed to get South Africa’s ruling party on their payroll and nearly ruined the country’s economy. Sunak, whose in-laws’ company Infosys has made more than $120m in public sector deals in Britain since he entered government, belongs to this serenely diverse global plutocracy rather than any community demanding reparative justice for damages sustained in the white man’s world.
What’s truly unprecedented about the new occupant of 10 Downing Street – who held on to his green card while living next door with his then-non-dom wife to Boris Johnson, and who owns a penthouse in Santa Monica, and may soon jet off to sunny California – is not his showy Hinduism or brown skin, but his multiple identities as a ferociously networked transnational that allow him to operate simultaneously in several countries..
That this “citizen of everywhere”, a devout Hindu in a tie and cashmere hoodie, should now be chosen to mollify financial markets and caress the Brexit fantasy of absolute sovereignty says a great deal about the ideological dementia of the Tory party. The turd-polishing abilities of centrist-Dad liberalism, too, are in plainer sight as the logrollers of the BBC, Times and Financial Times work hard to present merciless enforcers of austerity as “grown-up moderates”. But we should be in no doubt about what an immoral and inept political class wants us to celebrate: “Asian representation” leading a cruel Tory programme of mass impoverishment.