LONDON – Harmeet Singh Gill was excited to hear that Rishi Sunak would become Britain's first prime minister of color — news that came as he celebrated the Diwali festival in a London neighborhood sometimes called Little India.
“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, for many people of color in the U.K., it's not so simple. Sunak, 42, will be the first Hindu and the first person of South Asian descent to lead the country, which has 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.
King Charles III asked Sunak, whose parents moved to Britain from Africa in the 1960s, to form a new government Tuesday, a day after he was chosen leader of the governing Conservative Party.
The milestone is doubly significant for many people with Asian roots because it comes during Diwali, the five-day festival of light celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.
Earlier this year, Sunak, a practicing Hindu, spoke about the significance of lighting Diwali candles outside the official Downing Street residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the post he held for two years until he resigned in July.
“It was one of my proudest moments that I was able to do that on the steps of Downing Street,” he told the Times of London. “And it meant a lot to a lot of people and it’s an amazing thing about our country.”
It wasn’t always that way in Britain.
In 1968, Conservative lawmaker Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “rivers of blood” speech decrying mass migration and advocating assistance for immigrants to “return home.”
As recently as 1987, there were no people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the House of Commons. One Asian and three Black members were elected to Parliament that year.
Numbers have increased steadily since, with 65 people from ethnic minority groups, or 10% of the House of Commons, elected during the last general election in 2019. That still isn’t fully representative of the U.K. as a whole, where 13% of the population identify as ethnic minorities.
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.
“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,’’ he said Monday. “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.”
But Sunak isn’t typical of the millions of people from Asian, African and Caribbean backgrounds who still face barriers in employment and education.
The son of a doctor and a pharmacist, Sunak earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Oxford and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University before going to work for Goldman Sachs and then moving into the hedge fund industry, where he made a fortune in finance. He is married to Akshata Murty, daughter of Indian billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of the global information technology company Infosys.
Sunak was criticized earlier this year when British news media reported that his wife took advantage of rules allowing her to avoid U.K. taxes on her foreign income. She has since promised to give up her “non-domiciled” status and pay all her taxes in Britain.
On a broader level, Indians have fared better economically than other minority groups in Britain.
Indians earned an average of 14.43 pounds ($16.29) an hour, or 15.5% more than white British residents, in 2019, the latest figures available from the Office for National Statistics. By contrast, people from Pakistan and Bangladesh earned about 15% less than white people, and Black people earned 6.9% less.
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.
“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,” Warsi told the BBC.
“But 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.
“I hope that Sunak will acknowledge that not everybody has enjoyed his advantages in life,” 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.”
Sathnam Sanghera, a columnist for the Times of London, 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.
“Some people on the left appear to be reluctant to say it, but it is undeniably a great thing that, in Rishi Sunak, Britain has its first brown prime minister,” Sanghera wrote. “Frankly, I never expected to see such a thing in my lifetime.”
But while Sunak’s success will boost the aspirations of young people throughout Britain, more work needs to be done, 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,” he wrote. “No more than Barack Obama’s election as president represented the defeat of racism in America.”
Those challenges are on display in Southall, where two-thirds of the people have roots in South Asia and real incomes are about 20% of the London average, according to the local governing council.
That means people in this community will be disproportionately hit by soaring energy prices and rising food bills that have pushed inflation to a 40-year high of 10.1%.
But shopkeeper Pratik Shah was optimistic as he stood before a wall of saris in glittering pink, mint and silver and talked about the potential for progress he sees in Sunak’s leadership.
“It might help the country in getting to a higher position,’’ he said. “And I feel that the whole Asian community has that trust in him.”
Jo Kearney contributed.