The Blankness of 'Identity'
The Rishi Sunak moment
In all probability, Rishi Sunak may just lose out on being the first Prime Minister of 'colour' in the United Kingdom.
Mary Elizabeth Truss, the former Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and Minister for Women and Equalities, could well pip him to the post – in a very close call nonetheless.
In a perfect parallel to James Adams' American Dream of equal opportunity towards prosperity and success in a barrierless society, Rishi Sunak seems to have scripted the alternative, British Dreams. An ironic reality for a bunch of sparring politicos from a party literally called the Conservative Party, who have just scripted the Brexit – where the current of hostility towards foreigners or perceived foreigners, is undeniable.
This evolutionary narrative is quite spectacular when viewed from the lens of a land that recently voted the former prime minister (also from Conservative ranks), Winston Churchill, as the 'Greatest Briton, Ever', shrugging off the likes of Shakespeare, Darwin and Brunel.
As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom just 67 years ago, Churchill's ignoble views about India and Indians would seem unimaginable today. Another Tory, self-confessed fan of Churchill and departing prime minister Boris Johnson describes in his book on Churchill, "Die-hard defenders of the Raj and of the God-given right of every pink-jowled Englishman to sit on his veranda and… glory in the possession of India".
Charmingly romantic for some, certainly not for Indians, Churchill is also believed to have said that Indians 'breed like rabbits' and that he 'hated Indians' and considered them 'a beastly people of a beastly religion'.
From the normalcy of such unmitigated racism to reaching a point where the politics of the same nation could potentially accept a person of Indian ethnicity becoming prime minister is considerable progress for a democracy! Importantly, some other candidates included Kemi Badenoch (Black Nigerian ethnicity), Suella Baverman (Indian ethnicity), Nadhim Zahawi (Iraqi Kurdish ancestry), Sajid Javid (Pakistani parentage) etc.
Meanwhile, India, ruled by the 'biggest political party in the world', has over 300 members in the Lower House, and another 100 odd members in the Upper House – all without a single member, elected or nominated, from the largest minority community, in the ruling party. A first in the history of independent India.
It is difficult to imagine an India today, which is able to accommodate a cliched 'other' like Rishi Sunak, into realistically aspiring for a leadership position, any more. That too, one who wears their minority ethnicity, culture and religiosity as a matter of preferred personal faith.
Rishi Sunak did take his oath as a Member of Parliament and later as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the Bhagwad Geeta. He also kept his personal faith delinked from his electoral spiel or relevance when he famously stated, 'I am now a citizen of Britain. But my religion is Hindu. My religious and cultural heritage is Indian. I proudly say that I am a Hindu, and my identity is also a Hindu'.
Such public ownership and de-hyphenation of personal beliefs from electoral considerations is simply unfathomable in Indian politics now.
This is a fast deterioration in the norm of unshakeable inclusivity, even from standards set by the previous Prime Minister from the same ruling partisan-persuasion of today i.e., Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had loftily reiterated, 'If India is not secular, then India is not India at all'.
By comparison, secularism in the 'new normal' is routinely subjected to ridicule and sniggers, and believers of the same mockingly derided as 'pseudo-seculars' (sic).
It is not that our civilisational history was always 'secular', perfect and flawless – indeed it had its share of wounds, bigotry and abhorrence that are natural to any land of antiquity, but we were fortunate that our founding fathers/mothers (who actually fought for the freedom) invested in an enlightened 'Idea of India', deliberately adopting 'visionary rejection' of the divisive pieces from history, in favour of an now increasingly forgotten expression of 'Unity in Diversity'.
It was a moral choice for the sake of a modernist and progressive future – one that was generously respected and adopted by even the most extreme strains of left-wing or the right-wing partisan thoughts, till very recently.
Now, revisionist investments in the 'politics of identities' pertaining to individual religion, caste, region, language or even eating habits, dominates popular passions. What was on the fringes or at least confined to regional levels, is now unabashedly mainstream.
The growing normalcy of 'us-versus-them' has ensured frighteningly limited choices onto the designated 'them' or 'others'. The decidedly small spirited throes that fuelled the 'two nation theory' that rationalised an illiberal, regressive and puritanical justification for an imperfect country like Pakistan, now ironically stare at us.
Despite all its shortcomings, failures and inefficiencies, the marvellous experiment of Indian democracy had historically persisted, and in many ways was even ahead of the so-called advanced democracies of the West. Such as, in terms of truly empowering its religious/ethnic minorities (the US has till now not had a 'minority' Head of State), empowering women (with women adorning the highest offices much before the West), by affording progressive societal policies (think, the latest overturning of Roe versus Wade vis-à-vis Indian laws on abortion) etc.
But that was the past, what of now? Are we still on the same path, or one of undeclared majoritarianism? Is 'the majority' more inclusive today? Do the 'minorities' feel safer than before? Have our rankings in the global indexes of meaningful parameters like Freedom of Press, Democracy, Human Development etc., improved or deteriorated?
Can our current normal of 'manufactured emotions', reinterpretative history and make-believe destiny allow a commensurate 'Rishi Sunak' moment, in terms of electoral considerations? Are we accommodating enough, or would we be tempted to name-shame such a person's religious or ethnic status, cast personalised aspersions, such as about migration, or even casually use terms like 'anti-national'?
Even the fact that Rishi Sunak's wife still holds her Indian passport, instead of opting for a British one, is seemingly not germane (concerns on tax evasion certainly exist, but his wife's Indian passport does not make Sunak's electoral bid any less patriotic).
Despite its bloody and shameful history of undeniable racism and colonisation, the United Kingdom has seemingly healed and altered for the better – but where are we, with our civilisational and moral moorings, headed?
The sun may have truly set on the British Empire, and its former colonies may have indeed powered their way through the benefit and tailwind of wisdom, progressive thinking and politics of its founding fathers/mothers – but are we walking on the same path, even today?
These are hard questions to answer and will depend on whom they are posed, but hand it to the British for once, for they nearly made an ethnic Indian who proudly wears his religious beliefs on his sleeves, occupant of 10 Downing Street.
Churchill may be turning in his grave on the recent developments in Great Britain – but they are certainly better for recognising all their citizens as equals, irrespective of their religion, colour, ethnicity, language or whatever bland (or spicy) food that they eat!
So, while we seek vicarious pride on the success of the Indian diaspora – ponder on the plausibility of a reverse 'Rishi Sunak', in our context. The consideration should always be meritocracy and not 'identity'.
Lt. Gen. Bhopinder Singh (born 30 June 1946) is the former Lieutenant Governor of The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Pondicherry and an Indian Army officer who was awarded the PVSM. Views are personal.