Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first Hindu prime minister

Image credit: Number Ten. Open Government License

When Rishi Sunak gave his first address as prime minister, he looked into the camera and pledged to serve with integrity and humility.

Outside 10 Downing Street, he said: “When the opportunity to serve comes along, you cannot question the moment, only your willingness.”

His frequent reference to values is rooted in his Hindu faith, according to contributors to a Religion Media Centre briefing. Mr Sunak has publicly acknowledged many aspects of Hindu culture and practices, such as lighting Diwali candles, being teetotal or being seen to pray during a visit to a temple.

His grandfather founded a Hindu temple in Southampton, which his father continued to look after as a trustee and which Sunak still visits every year to cook a meal for the community — a family tradition. To this day, it has a vibrant community life.

Akhandadhi Das, a Thought for the Day contributor and director of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, said Hinduism strove to see everyone equally, to be fair, compassionate and see oneself as a servant of God and the community.

He suggested that if there was a negativity towards Mr Sunak, it would be not because of his ethnicity or religion but because of his unimaginable wealth.  He and his wife are reported to have £700 million in assets. But Akhandadhi Das said that because of the way his family had worked since arriving in the UK, it would be wrong to think he could not identify with the public.

Mr Sunak’s openness about his faith freed him to focus and concentrate on big issues, a necessary skill hen facing the enormous economic challenges that the country faced.

Though his religion was widely known, Professor Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, from Lancaster University, suggested it was more significant that Sunak was the first person of colour to lead a European country.

“As far as being a Hindu, I’m not sure whether this has any great bearing on the kinds of crises confronting this country, nor do I think it will have any impact on … relationships with India,” he said.

Mr Sunak, he added, may be able to invoke a sense of identification with Hindus and shared ancestral religious tradition, but this may not be borne out in votes, where other features of common identity — for example, wealth — are at play.

Professor Ram-Prasad cautioned that Mr Sunak should not be seen in any sense as a prime minister who would pursue policies in the name of Hinduism. It was important to be clear about what was being celebrated in his appointment. It was more important to celebrate an achievement in diversity than religion, and to see the importance of economic solutions than identity politics.

There are Hindus who believe in radical redistribution of wealth or would always vote Labour: others more concerned with inflation or the cost-of-living crisis than his religion. “If you’re broadly on the left, you’re going to say, this is a prime minister for billionaires. That’s got nothing to do with whether he’s a Hindu or not,” he said.

Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, agreed that Mr Sunak’s election was an historic moment indicating that race and diversity were the new normal in British politics. His appointment showed a rapid change in British society.

He pointed to a recent survey in which six out of ten people said race and religion were irrelevant, a key finding for Professor Ram-Prasad.

He said: “There’s been a shift in the understanding of religion in British society, one of whose consequences has been the relative non-importance of Sunak being a Hindu.

 “There is a diversification of what it means to be religious, in terms of people’s self-identification, as spiritual rather than religious, or to have multiple religious affiliations, or to think about secular spaces as not militantly atheistic, but one that where cultural and racial identities stand proxy for religious diversity.

“These trends we have been seeing over the past 30 to 40 years in British society. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that, finally, politics too is showing this opening up, where letting people be is going to become, in fact, the norm.”

It was an historical coincidence, he said, that Mr Sunak was appointed in the reign of King Charles III. Charles had been an advocate for multiculturalism and had expressed his interest in the diversity and spiritualisation of private lives in public spaces in Britain today. The presence of a Hindu Prime Minister would have a bearing on the faith dimensions of the coronation.

Mr Katwala said a Hindu prime minister fitted very much with the new king’s approach, that he was head of an established church with a duty to all in diversity. This was important for the king’s community approach to multiculturalism.

It was very interesting, he observed, that there was not much discussion in the UK about Mr Sunak’s faith, especially as he was the first non-Christian in the role — there had been agnostics, atheists, a Roman Catholic (Boris Johnson) and Benjamin Disraeli, Jewish by birth, who converted to Christianity to pursue a political career.

He could think of no legal impediment affecting the PM’s role in the governance of the established Church of England. Since 2007, when vacancies arise for bishops, the prime minister’s office is given two possible candidates ranked in order and forwards the top name to the monarch for affirmation, so the PM has no choice or say.

The panel was asked whether there was concern that Mr Sunak would be overly detached from the recent conflict in Leicester.

Mr Katwala said the PM would not want to be seen through the prism of Hinduism either in the domestic tension between communities, or in the UK-India relationship. He would want to work across communities.

In Leicester, external actors had polarised communities, creating narratives of villains and victims. It could happen that Sunak was placed in that narrative, with questions about his father-in-law’s relationship with the Modi government in India, making Sunak an object of suspicion. If such Modi narratives were promoted, it would make it harder for him to do his job and he would have to find ways to manage it.

He said this would be dangerous and unfair. In seven years in parliament, Sunak had shown no interest in a right-wing agenda of links with Modi’s BJP party, compared with his interest in the farming agenda in North Yorkshire.

For the Hindu community in the UK, two contributors thought the appointment was “absolutely significant”, especially for young people.

Nilesh Solanki, founder of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers Hindu network, said Sunak’s rise to power had made young British Hindus “feel empowered, aspirational, that we’re able to take the highest office because of our cultural values”.  Inclusivity, diversity and sewa (service), giving back to the community, had led to Mr Sunak’s career success.

PhD student Tilak Parekh believed it was a significant moment whatever political views were held. He agreed the impact would be felt most among young people.

It was a signal for more Indian young people to get involved in politics and the civil service. The expectation of Indian families that their children would become a lawyer, doctor or engineer was shifting.

View the briefing on our YouTube channel below:


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