India eyes a model of civic equality

Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was selected for his qualities and ideals, not his Indian and Hindu background. That has sparked wonder in India.

An art teacher in Mumbai, India, makes paintings to congratulate new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Oct. 25.

For nearly a decade, India has been ruled by a political party rooted in Hindu nationalism. Many of its actions, critics lament, threaten a constitutional principle of secular rule by marginalizing people of other faiths, especially Muslims. Yet that sort of identity politics took a subtle hit this week from, of all places, Britain.

Rishi Sunak, whose family heritage lies in India, was chosen as Britain’s prime minister by the Conservative Party. Almost immediately, his entry into No. 10 Downing St. jolted debates among Indians around the world about their country’s treatment of minorities. Some, including prominent members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, celebrated Mr. Sunak’s rise as a justification for their brand of politics. Others saw it as a moral prompt.

“Indians in India have greeted the news of Sunak’s elevation with a feeling of awe and pride,” wrote Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu, India’s national English-language newspaper. “But instead of feeling happy for themselves,” he wrote, Indians should be asking what has happened “to the religious diversity and cultural pluralism that has been part and parcel of Indian life for thousands of years.”

The debate in India reflects the breadth and subtlety of Mr. Sunak’s biography. As the grandson of immigrants, he says he is more British than Indian. “I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu,” he told Business Standard in 2015.

Mr. Sunak’s combined identity marks a sharp distinction from the assertive ethnic nationalism of rulers in China, Russia, and India, as well as the nativism of a few political movements in Europe and the United States. In the same interview, Mr. Sunak drew an observation from his time as a graduate student at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. Religion pervades political life in America, he noted, “and that is not the case here, thankfully.”

He enters office not just when Britain’s economy is reeling from record high inflation, but also at a tumultuous time for its democracy. His unique identity – shaped by a mix of experiences across countries – explains why so many in India have sought this week to claim his rise as their own. Some latch on to his Hindu faith. Others to the possibility that India might follow Britain in putting high ideals over race or religion.

For now, Britain has crossed an important threshold. Mr. Sunak’s “elevation is welcome, even precious,” wrote Janan Ganesh, a columnist for Financial Times. “His virtue isn’t competence. It is rectitude. If all he does for a couple of years is give institutions their due and obey the law ... he will be a reprieve for British democracy.”

For India, meanwhile, a debate has been renewed over treating all citizens as equal, even able to become a prime minister.

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