By Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON -Rishi Sunak is set to become Britain's first prime minister of colour on Tuesday, an achievement that many, particularly in the Asian community, held up as a cultural milestone standing out above the economic chaos and political tumult.
News that a Hindu son of Indian immigrants had won the race to lead the ruling Conservative party raised cheers from the streets of New Delhi, packed with Diwali-celebrating crowds, to the shopping thoroughfares of west London.
Out on Southall High Street, pensioner Asma Choudry said she had been living in Britain for 42 years. "So it’s a long time ... Anything can happen, you know, when you are living in a multicultural society."
“Yeah it’s a proud feeling as an Indian, I like him," said 25-year-old businessman Rishabh Sharma.
Further afield, Sunak's ascent drew admiring comments from across the English Channel - a rare thing since Brexit.
"It’s worth noting Sunak will be the first British prime minister of Asian descent. I find it fascinating that it doesn’t seem to cause any problem in Britain," a senior European diplomat told Reuters.
"Let’s imagine the same situation in France or Germany. It’d be much more complicated. I find this remarkable."
In Britain, recognition even reached across political divides. Anas Sarwar, leader of the opposition Labour Party in Scotland, tweeted that it was important to mark the significance of the moment.
"It’s not something our grandparents would ever have imagined when they made the UK home," he wrote.
YOUTH, WEALTH AND RACE
Sunak's family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a time of social upheaval and widespread racism.
They joined a small but growing slice of society. There were 1.66 million people of Indian ethnicity living in England and Wales in 2019, equivalent to 2.8% of the population, according to official statistics.
Sunak was born in southern England and rose through some of the country's top educational institutions - Winchester College and Oxford University - before rising higher still through a career in finance and a marriage to the daughter of the billionaire founder of IT firm Infosys.
Some suggested that his upward mobility may have at least eased his way across racial barriers. Articles from newspapers across Britain's political spectrum focused on his youth and riches as much his ethnicity - the 42-year-old is one of the wealthiest politicians in Westminster.
"The change in British politics really is that it is more open across ethnic and faith grounds and gender grounds to people with the right professional credentials," said Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future.
Whatever the driving forces, Sunak will climb even further on Tuesday to take the top job in the land.
Rishi Trivedi, 50, a chartered accountant and Conservative Party member from West Drayton in west London, said he was "happy beyond belief", though worried that wealthy Sunak might lack the common touch.
"He's part of the global elite ... He's not an ordinary person who goes to work and faces the problems which I face."
Jignesh Patel, a 49-year-old mural painter and another Conservative Party member from nearby Hounslow, just saw "a proud moment" and a potential turning point.
"As Indians ... we are peaceful people, we come here, we do our job, we pay taxes, we earn money. But we are very far from politics from some reason," he said.
"I truly believe the time has come for Indians to be part of politics, no matter the ideology. If we have a problem, we can't just complain. We need to be part of the solution too."