By Sheikh Saaliq
NEW DELHI (AP) — The next prime minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, has embraced his Indian and Hindu heritage — and on Monday, Oct. 24, people across the former British colony proudly celebrated his victory.
Social media and TV channels in India were awash with congratulations for the 42-year-old Sunak, who is set to become the first person of color to lead Britain. The former Treasury chief was chosen by a governing Conservative Party desperate for a safe pair of hands to guide the country through economic and political turbulence.
For many Indians, who are celebrating Diwali, one of the most important Hindu festivals, it was a instance to say: He is one of our own.
“It is a moment of pride for India that the country which ruled us for many years has now a prime minister of Indian heritage,” said Manoj Garg, a New Delhi businessman.
Sunak’s grandparents hailed from Punjab state before the subcontinent was divided into two countries — India and Pakistan — after British rule ended in 1947. They moved to East Africa in the late 1930s before finally settling in the U.K. in the 1960s. Sunak was born in 1980 in Southampton on England’s south coast.
His ancestral link is not his only association with India. He is married to Akshata Murty, whose father is Indian billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of tech giant Infosys.
In April 2022, it emerged that Murty, who owns a little less than a 1% stake in Infosys, did not pay U.K. taxes on her overseas income. The practice was legal, but it looked bad at a time when Sunak was raising taxes for millions of Britons as chancellor of the Exchequer.
Indian TV channels appeared star-struck by Sunak’s victory. Across the bottom of the screen on New Delhi Television ran the words: “Indian son rises over the empire.” India Today news channel, meanwhile, took a jab at the U.K.’s economic and political turbulence, using the Hindi term for someone of Indian background: “Battered Britain gets ‘desi’ big boss.”
Last year, Indians celebrated Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage when she became U.S. vice president.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Sunak on Twitter and said he is looking forward to “working closely together on global issues.”
“Special Diwali wishes to ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians as we transform historic ties into modern partnership,” Modi wrote.
Some said Sunak’s selection was particularly special for the country with its recent celebration of 75 years of independence from British colonial rule.
“Today, as India celebrates Diwali in its 75th year as an independent nation, the U.K. gets an Indian-origin Prime Minister. History comes full circle,” lawmaker Raghav Chadha tweeted.
Others celebrated Sunak as a “proud Hindu,” saying he did not shy away from embracing his faith and Indian culture. They shared videos on Twitter showing Sunak taking his oath of allegiance as a lawmaker in 2020 on the Hindu holy book Bhagavad Gita.
Other videos shared on Twitter showed Sunak praying to a cow, considered holy by Hindus, when he was running for Britain’s top job for the first time in August. In a Hindu ritual conducted in London, Sunak touched the cow’s feet while his wife offered carrots to it. Sunak also performed “aarti” in front of the cow — a Hindu ritual involving the waving of oil lamps.
Sunak has been public about his Indian origins — and his love for cricket. He has also talked about his abstinence from beef on religious grounds.
“I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my cultural heritage is Indian,” he told reporters in 2020.
Associated Press video journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.