Will Rishi Sunak be a ‘living bridge’? Meet the many other world leaders of Indian origin

November 02, 2022 12:56 pm | Updated 07:01 pm IST

(Clockwise from centre) Rishi Sunak, Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi, president of Suriname; Pravind Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius; Mohammed Irfaan Ali, president of Guyana; Antonio Costa, Portuguese prime minister; Wavel Ramkalawan, president of Seychelles; and Halimah Yacob, president of Singapore. 

(Clockwise from centre) Rishi Sunak, Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi, president of Suriname; Pravind Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius; Mohammed Irfaan Ali, president of Guyana; Antonio Costa, Portuguese prime minister; Wavel Ramkalawan, president of Seychelles; and Halimah Yacob, president of Singapore.  | Photo Credit: The Hindu

While Indian origin leaders around the world — from U.K. and Portugal to Suriname — are helping strengthen diplomatic ties, they also bring attention to India’s current politics of division

“I hate Indians, they are beastly people with beastly religion,” Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister, once said about his country’s colonial subjects. Both the world and Britain have changed such a great deal since the Churchill era that a man of Indian origin, a devout Hindu, was elected as his latest successor in 10 Downing Street. Rishi Sunak was born in 1980, 15 years after Churchill died, and grew up in a country that was a pale shadow of what used to be the mighty British Empire.

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Sunak has several firsts to his credit. He is the first non-White leader of the Conservative Party, founded in 1834. He is the first non-White and first Hindu prime minister of the U.K. Understandably, his appointment was welcomed in India. For many in India, there is a historical fulfilment in a man of Indian origin becoming the prime minister of India’s former colonial masters. For many others, who are concerned about the social divisions and majoritarian tendencies in India, a devout Hindu with brown skin becoming the prime minister of a predominantly Christian and White nation is a great political statement.

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minster, departs 10 Downing Street

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minster, departs 10 Downing Street | Photo Credit: Bloomberg

But besides the political arguments, does the rise of Sunak also offer any particular opportunity or lesson for Indian diplomacy? India’s government has been keen to develop close ties with the Indian diaspora. Prime minister Narendra Modi has addressed several rallies of the diaspora abroad, both in the West and the East. Modi’s reference to the “living bridge of U.K. Indians” in his congratulatory remark for Sunak comes from the cultural diplomacy his administration has been promoting. Earlier, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s former ambassador to the U.S., had termed Indian Americans “an organic bridge between the world’s two largest democracies”. So for India, the rise of Sunak offers an opportunity to strengthen the ‘living bridge’ narrative and a boost its cultural diplomacy.

The global community

Sunak is not the only Indian origin leader of a foreign country. Portugal, Guyana, Mauritius, Suriname and Seychelles all have Indian origin leaders. Antonio Costa, who has been Portuguese prime minister since 2015, is of Indian descent. Costa’s father Orlando da Costa, an author who was raised in Goa, had written extensively about the Indo-Portuguese community. Mohammed Irfaan Ali, who was elected the president of the South American republic of Guyana in 2020, is from an Indo-Guyanese Muslim family. The Indo-Guyanese are the descendants of those who migrated from British India to British Guyana in the mid-19th century and settled in the South American colony. The Indo-Guyanese are the largest ethnic group of Guyana, making up some 40% of the country’s almost 8,00,000 people.

Pravind Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius since 2017, is another leader of Indian origin. The Indo-Mauritians have been an influential community, both politically and culturally, in the Indian Ocean island nation. The stories of Suriname and Seychelles are no different. In Suriname, a former Dutch colony located in the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, with a population of just above 6,00,000, the largest ethnic community is Indo-Surinamese, the descendants of those who migrated from British India in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi, president of Suriname since 2020, is part of the community.

Mauritius prime minister Pravind  Jugnauth

Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth | Photo Credit: Reuters

Wavel Ramkalawan, president of Seychelles, also has strong Indian links. His grandfather was from Bihar. Indo-Seychellois are a minority ethnic group in the Indian Ocean archipelago, which is predominantly Christian. Hinduism is the second largest religion in Seychelles. Halimah Yacob, the president of Singapore (the country’s first female president), is also of Indian origin. She was born to an Indian father and Malay mother in 1954, joined politics in 2011 and rose to the ceremonial presidency of the Southeast Asian island city state in 2017.

Seychelles president Wavel Ramkalawan and first lady Linda Ramkalawan

Seychelles president Wavel Ramkalawan and first lady Linda Ramkalawan | Photo Credit: AP

Cultural diplomacy

These leaders are of different political inclinations. If Sunak is a conservative, Portugal’s Costa is a socialist. Mauritius’s Jugnauth is the leader of the centre-left Militant Socialist Movement, while Seychelles’ Ramkalawan, a former Anglican priest and an admirer of Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid hero of South Africa, has been a strong advocate of human rights and freedoms. But irrespective of their political and ideological differences, India has sought greater ties with all these countries, especially with Portugal, an important European power, and the Indian Ocean islands, where the country faces strong competition from China. Take the case of Portugal. When Costa visited India in 2017, Modi called him the “best representative of the Indian diaspora” worldwide, and gave him his overseas citizenship of India.

“Since then, India-Portugal ties have been flourishing, with a record number of visits, exchanges, and new agreements,” says Constantino Xavier, research fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi. “India’s new diaspora policy, since the early 2000s, that balances cultural narratives with strategic interests, is a growing pillar of its cultural diplomacy, showcasing India as an open, global power with living bridges,” to other countries, he adds.

While this approach would give hints to India’s policy towards Sunak’s Britain, India might also face questions, both within and abroad, whether its minorities are properly represented at home. The rise of Indian origin leaders in these countries is also a story of modern territorial nationality and citizenship breaching the old notions of ethno or cultural nationalism. While their rise in their respective countries strengthens India’s living bridges and opens avenues for its cultural diplomacy, for it to succeed, the homeland from where the bridges originate should stand tall over the current of the politics of division.

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