The United Kingdom was the world’s leading economy through the 20th century, but the resignation of Prime Minister Liz Truss, after just 6 weeks in office, signals the kind of chaos associated with an emerging economy.
Amidst an ongoing cost of living and energy crisis, Truss initiated large scale borrowing; unfunded tax cuts; drove the pound to historic lows; caused the Bank of England to intervene; and spooked the Conservative Party, financial markets and country. On 20 October 2022 Truss resigned — after 45 days in office — making her the shortest-serving prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom.
She’s the 4th Prime Minister in 4 years to resign as the leader of the Conservative party; each and every ministerial crisis mired in Brexit. Predecessors Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss all reacted to Brexit in the spirt of Thatcherism, but this week’s newest arrival at the revolving door at Downing Street is a darker horse. An outlier whose very sinews are steeped in British India.
Rishi Sunak’s grandmother, Sraksha, sold her wedding jewelry in 1966 to emancipate her family from Africa, and his mother, Usha, is an immigrant from Tanzania. Don’t be fooled by the pedigree from Oxford that he’s an anglophile, or the stint at Stanford or Goldman Sachs that he’s libertarian. He’s a center-ground politician and his billionaire father-in-law, N.R. Narayana Murthy, with whom Sunak is in business at Catamaran Ventures, is a byproduct of the British Raj.
On August 15, 1947, India won their independence from Britain — with a caveat. East and West Pakistan were hacked off the stooped shoulders of India by the departing British; thoroughly dividing the nation; and rendering Sunak’s Pakistani grandparents’ outliers in their own country. Following nearly 100 years of British occupation, Sunak’s ancestors immediately began emigrating from India via Africa to the UK and if we’ve wandered from the week’s headline, apologies.
It’s precisely and profoundly where this story begins.
The Man Who Would Be King
Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s first Indian Prime Minister, met King Charles III at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, where the monarch officially asked the newest leader of the Conservative Party to form a government in his name (October 25, 2022).
“I fully appreciate how hard things are,” Sunak began, ascending 10 Downing Street as prime minister. Of the United Kingdom’s 56 prime ministers, Robert Walpole served 20+ years, Liz Truss 45 days, but the majority have logged 3 to 6 years, respectively. Their legacies are tethered to the times.
Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George were wartime leaders, Clement Attlee oversaw reconstruction, and Margaret Thatcher overturned the post-war consensus. It was a day and time when the major political parties largely agreed on the central themes of Keynesian economics, nationalized industry, close regulation of the economy and high taxes. Lady Thatcher alights on the welfare state in Woman’s Own Magazine:
People must look after themselves first; only then can they look after their neighbor.
FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933 may have emphasized cooperation and trade over military force between the U.S. and Central America, but for a peek into that sort of diplomacy its worth remembering India: the Land of the Black Pagoda.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857, a skirmish between the East India Company and a mutiny of sepoy, was driven by invasive British-style social reforms; harsh land taxes; summary treatment of wealthy landowners and princes, and skepticism about the improvements brought about by British rule.
It led to the Government of India Act 1858: a parliamentary act calling for the liquidation of the British East India Company — who’d been ruling British India under the auspices of Parliament — and the transference of its functions to the British Crown.
No longer able to afford the country, the crown split 87 years later and spliced India into two separate nations on its way out the door — India and Pakistan — consequently displacing 15 million people along religious lines; triggering a refugee crisis; and precipitating nearly one million deaths. Considered the largest human migration, Sunak’s grandparents were among the refugees.
As Treasury Chief in 2020, Sunak was popular with the public when handing out billions in support to shuttered businesses and laid-off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but entitlements trigger higher taxes; spending cuts; a return to the post war consensus. Bold tax cuts and borrowing are the veritable bible of economic growth for which Truss, even until the abrupt and very bitter end, remained unapologetic. Think Tank UK in a Channing Europe observes, “Sunak is seen as someone broadly out of touch.”
Broadly out of touch? A full blooded first-generation Indian presiding over the very nation that occupied, colonized and partitioned his ancestral country? Maybe not a Trojan Horse, but definitely game, set and match to Sunak; who insists on the steps of Downing Street that his government “will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” But can a first generation Indian and rising billionaire consolidate the Conservative Party?
Having arrived in the public square out of relative obscurity, Sunak emerged as Treasury chief during the pandemic and was popular when handing out subsidies. He’s already busy banning fracking, expects the UK to be energy independent by 2045, and intends the UK to be "the safest and greatest country in the world for the LGBT+ community.” A self-described Thatcherite, he’ll need to fill a £50 billion black hole in the economy to stave off an energy crisis and looming recession, and while he stumps for lowering net immigration recall that he took his oath on the Bhagavad Gita: the holy scripture of Hinduism. M. K. Gandhi explains in “The Essence of Hinduism:”
Hinduism differs from other faiths like Christianity and Islam in two ways; it does not believe in any dogma; and rejects the exclusive claim of any individual to the monopoly of Truth. It believes your Supreme Being may be approached through several paths such as Knowledge (Dnyana), Devotion (Bhakti), Action (Karma), and Yoga (Psychical Control), and that in practical life the path is a daily combination of two or more of these disciplines in consonance with the seeker’s spiritual development.
Going For Broke
Though Sunak’s parents hail from former British Colonies like Kenya and Tanzania, his father, Yashvir, is an NHS General Practitioner. His mother, Usha, runs a local pharmacy. On his website Sunak says, “I grew up watching my parents serve their local community with dedication.”
Even his little brother, Sanjay, is a doctor in psychology, sister Raakhi works at the United Nations. But it was at Stanford University that he met Akshata Murthy, the daughter of India’s Steve Jobs, believed to hold 0.91% of Infosys, making her one of the wealthiest women in Britain. The couple married in Bangalore, 2009.
The Sunday Times Rich List (May 2022) reports the couple has a combined fortune of £730 million and while Sunak is the first politician ever to appear on the list, he’s also the first of Pakistani decent. They’ve two daughters — Krishna and Anoushka — the very collateral of the British Partition. Sunak Tweets on July 28:
When my grandparents emigrated here they emigrated to the United Kingdom. That’s because it represented a set of values and ideas, and it’s those values and ideas that are precious and that form the bond of the Union.
Rudyard Kipling storied the adventures of British India in 1888, concurrent with the British Raj, and observed in the attitudes of wealthy landowners and princes a maxim. In "The Man Who Would Be King," the Nobel laureate in literature writes:
“If I want a crown, I must hunt for the values and ideas of that Crown.”