U. K. Prime Minister
Sunak to focus on economic stability and Tory unity, impact on India-UK ties minimal

Rishi Sunak

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Question Time at the House of Commons in London.

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Jessica Taylor

Rishi Sunak’s ascent to power in the United Kingdom has naturally generated interest and excitement in India. He is not only the first British Prime Minister of Indian origin but also a practising Hindu. 

Despite being relatively new to British politics, Sunak has played his cards well. Within a few years of becoming a Member of Parliament, he was first appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and now the Prime Minister. This is despite the fact that he is non-white and a descendant of immigrants from India and East Africa. 

He is the third Tory Prime Minister in 2022. The political turmoil within the Conservative Party, the disastrous performance by Liz Truss, and broader economic difficulties created an opportunity for Sunak. Still, this is a huge achievement for British democracy. 

A person of colour becoming Prime Minister does not mean that racism is finished in Britain, or suddenly the UK has become a successful multicultural society. Still, this indicates further maturity in British politics, attitudes, and democracy. 

Sunak is not an underdog. He is very much part of the British political and social elite. He is also the son-in-law of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy, founder of tech giant Infosys. He is perhaps richer than the British royals. He is a technocrat who studied at Winchester College, Oxford, and Stanford Universities. Sunak is chosen mainly because of his efficient handling of the economy during the pandemic. This also shows that merit and competence get rewarded in a free British society.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Sunak highlighted that the country is “facing a profound economic crisis”. Without specifying details, he asserted that through “integrity, professionalism, and accountability” he would bring stability and fix mistakes made by his predecessor. 

Apart from tough economic management, his real challenge is political. As a leader, he has to unite a badly divided party. Since Tories are in no mood to go for elections (which they are likely to lose), he has two years to provide economic stability, unite the party, and lead Tories in the next general elections. His appointment has brought some calm to financial markets. But how he is going to sell his forthcoming fiscal plan to the parliament and markets still needs to be demonstrated. 

Since Brexit, India and the UK have been trying to strengthen ties further. The relations have been elevated to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ and an ambitious Roadmap 2030 has been adoptedThe British foreign policy’s ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific has brought it closer to India. The upward momentum will continue. Despite some immediate euphoria in India, Sunak’s impact on bilateral ties will be marginal at best.

Although the Diwali deadline has already been missed, the most important deliverable expected is a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). As per reports, 16 chapters across 27 policy areas have been agreed upon so far. Still, the mobility of skilled Indians to the UK could be a sticky point. Another Indian-origin MP, Suella Braverman has been re-appointed as Home Secretary. She earlier branded Indians as the largest group of migrants who overstayed in the UK.

Sunak has also been an early backer of Brexit, wants more control of its borders, and favors deporting of asylum seekers to Rwanda. So tough negotiations on mobility issues are expected under the Sunak administration. Although UK economic conditions are not very favorable towards a new trade agreement, both have again “agreed on the importance of early conclusion of a comprehensive and balanced FTA”.

Although Sunak has no experience in dealing with foreign policy issues, he may adjust due to his international exposure. No change is expected in Britain’s prominent role in support of Ukraine. But not attending the COP27 summit in Egypt may not be a good beginning. 

Sunak has got an opportunity to prove his capability to repair British public finances. The accumulated problems are the result of Brexit shocks, the pandemic, and the Ukraine war.  Some problems can be tackled through domestic responses but many issues need wider coordination within Europe and beyond. Brexit is done. But Tories are fast losing popularity. His main job is to unveil a credible financial plan, keep the party united and arrest the British decline.  In the meanwhile, his appointment has also opened a new debate on minority rights in India, which are seen under stress in recent years.