Rishi Sunak and the reverse cultural colonisation of the UK

Will British kids now spurn the charms of Peppa Pig and turn to the exploits of Chhota Bheem instead?
Last Updated : 25 October 2022, 09:08 IST
Last Updated : 25 October 2022, 09:08 IST

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I remember tearing up as I watched Barack Obama on television, coming on stage amidst a shower of confetti after winning the US Presidential election in 2008. It was a huge moment in the fraught, often brutal, racial history of the United States— a Black man being elected to the highest office in the land — and you felt its monumental historic and emotive impact even from half a world away.

The election of Rishi Sunak to Britain’s premiership feels somewhat different, though. While it is certain to set off a tsunami of ecstasy amongst Britons of Indian descent as well as much cheering amongst Indians here in the old country (TV screens began flashing headlines like “Sunak Sarkaar in Great Britain” the moment he won the leadership race), and while it is indeed momentous that he is the first person of colour to be UK’s Prime Minister, his ascent to the country’s top job doesn’t have quite the emotional draw of Obama’s election as US president back in 2008.

There is, of course, a sense of delicious irony that people from a big part of Britain’s former empire have slowly, smoothly and inexorably overrun the country of their erstwhile colonial masters to such an extent that today a man of Indian origin is to be sworn in as its Prime Minister. It almost feels like sweet revenge, a fitting answer to Winston Churchill’s racist remark that “all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw”. (Although, to be fair, Sunak, born and bred in the UK, is not an Indian leader.)

But for all the historical import of his elevation as the UK’s PM, for all the talk about how his feat is a testament to the country’s inclusivity, the 42-year-old Sunak is too much a part of the establishment to be regarded with starry-eyed wonder and awe.

For one, he is the richest politician in the UK, and that has its baggage of exclusivity and elitism. He and his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, have a combined wealth of £730 million, and have often been slammed for their lavish lifestyle.

More critically, though, Sunak’s rise comes amidst a shambolic — and to the rest of the world, almost comical — game of thrones in the UK. His decision to quit as Chancellor of the Exchequer in July triggered the domino effect that resulted in the resignation of the deeply controversial Boris Johnson as PM; then came his leadership contest with other front-runners in the Conservative party, a contest he eventually lost to Liz Truss; she, in turn, managed to make such a hash of her premiership that she chose to resign after just 45 days in power. And so it is finally Sunak’s hour — he is to be UK’s third Prime Minister in as many months, even as a beleaguered Britain stares at a looming post-Brexit economic crisis.

In short, Sunak isn’t exactly starting the job with a halo around his head or with the wind beneath his wings. But while Britons wonder if he will sink or swim, and if he can lead them out of political and economic instability, maybe we home-grown Indians could focus on whether or not his rise as the country’s most powerful man would give a fresh fillip to the reverse cultural colonisation of the United Kingdom.

Mind you, that process has been underway for decades, and nowhere more emphatically than in British food habits. Look at the way natural-born, non-immigrant Britons have been utterly seduced by stuff like chicken tikka masala, ‘balti’ chicken, naan, lachha paratha, poppadom, and that spicy, tomato-rich gravy that goes by the generic name of ‘curry’. But if Sunak bucks the current trend and manages to stick around in office for a decent amount of time, maybe India’s culture clamp over Britain will get tighter? Despite his sharp suits and Prada shoes, maybe his Indian roots will spark a newfound interest in all things Indian? Who knows, perhaps we shall see British kids spurning the adventures of Peppa Pig and turning to the exploits of Chhota Bheem instead. Perhaps the soaring musicals playing in theatres in London’s West End will witness a creeping replacement with Bollywood song-and-dance extravaganzas. Perhaps the beer-batter fried fish-and-chips will start losing out to besan-dipped veggie fritters (think baingan and palak). Or Cornish pasties to outsized, masaledaar samosas. And now that the British have seen for themselves the infinite grace of Goddess Lakhsmi, who blessed Sunak (a practising Hindu) with the premiership on the auspicious day of Diwali, perhaps the festival lights will become as big a festive deal as Christmas.

The prospect is a pleasurable one. And if it were indeed to happen, imagine how our political dispensation would crow and take full credit for this globalisation of India’s soft power. Personally, I’m all for spreading our cultural tentacles over Britain. But I might shed a tear or two if our cultural hegemony spreads to its press as well, and the British media, which ruthlessly interrogates its politicians and speaks truth to power, begins to ape large swathes of its Indian counterpart and transforms itself from watchdog to lapdog.

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 25 October 2022, 06:22 IST

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