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There are many reasons why Rishi Sunak lost UK PM chair. But race isn’t the main one

From his ‘mansplaining’ tendencies to his disloyalty to Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak went wrong on several counts.

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So, Rishi Sunak lost. In the same week that India edged out Britain to become the fifth largest economy in the world, Conservative Party members denied Britain its first Indian-origin prime minister. That he came so close to taking the mantle only highlights the difference between the place of diversity in India and Britain. An apt comparison would be if India were to have a Muslim prime minister, as ethnic and racial minorities in Britain occupy a similar place to that of religious minorities in India.

The outcome was widely expected. The result will be disappointing to many Indians who turned out to be Sunak’s loudest cheering squad and to add to their disappointment, but I will say that his race and origin was not the main reason he lost. Yes, identity matters but this time it was gender that trumped race.

Why Rishi Sunak lost

Wildly popular as chancellor, Rishi Sunak was widely tipped to be Boris Johnson’s successor through the rocky year of 2021 as the latter kept running through his proverbial nine lives—courting, and surviving scandal after scandal. Sunak became popular mainly due to the strong steer he gave to the economy and via big-State spending to ease the worst effects of Covid. But the long, hot summer of 2022 proves to be not too sunny for Sunak’s meteoric political career. There are three main reasons why Sunak has been furloughed out of office.

First, no one loves a Brutus. Loyalty is the principal sign of the political follower, but disloyalty will cost the crown to both the leader and the contender. Sunak led the charge of mass cabinet resignations against Johnson. Tory members were quick to paint Sunak’s ‘disloyalty’ to Johnson as a character flaw. And history has repeated itself perfectly. The much-revered Tory stalwart, Margret Thatcher too was knifed mid-term in 1990 by her chancellor, the charismatic and ambitious Michael Heseltine, only for the bland underdog John Major to become prime minister.

Second, and to my mind the more important reason, is that Sunak behaved too much like a man we—especially women—sadly know all too well. In the first television debate with UK’s now prime minister Liz Truss, Sunak repeatedly and incessantly interrupted her. When he did speak, Sunak adopted a patronising tone as he aimed to mansplain the economy and whatnot to her. This cost Sunak more than most of his Indian supporters want to admit. After all, it is quite routine to have ‘manels’ on Indian television and in conferences, with little airtime given to women participants. Unless of course, you are discussing divorce or sexual violence. Little wonder that this critical point has found little to no mention in the Indian commentary that has otherwise kept an eager and watchful eye on Sunak’s campaign. Team Rishi, though has admitted that his entitled antics in the first debate cost them a significant number of fence-sitters, and indeed it damaged any appeal of Dishy-Rishi.

Also read: First US, now UK, democracies giving up on strongman leaders. Why it’s unthinkable in India

Turning tables on race

This is not to say that race did not play any part at all. If anything, over the last decade, the Conservative Party has quietly but all too visibly turned the tables on race. It has found top Asian and African origin talent to make the most exclusive policies on asylum and immigration while also making aggressive arguments on imperial denialism. Whether it is the now benched Priti Patel or the rising star that is Kemi Badenoch, Tory political ideas on race, immigration and empire that have only hardened with Brexit, are now voiced loudest by Asian and African origin leaders.

Moreover, Ladbrokes, Britain’s top betting agency, has placed two African-origin Tories—Kemi Badenoch and Kwasi Kwarteng—as the two most likely successors to Truss. It is safe to surmise then that identity battles now have been kicked firmly to the Opposition benches. For a start, the Labour Party has yet to have a woman leader and Truss as the third woman conservative prime minister shames them on this score immediately. Labour has traditionally banked on African and Asian minority votes yet it has not promoted any minority figures to frontline leadership, barring Sadiq Khan, who is the current Labour mayor of London. To be sure, culture wars took more space than they warranted in the Tory leadership debates and hustings. They will only heat up as the British economy cools over the dreaded winter that awaits the country.

Finally, the economy was Sunak’s strongest suit, but instead became the single reason for his failure to get the top job. Sunak’s big spending over the pandemic via the state exchequer pushed the Tory members back to their core identity. Tax cuts! Truss’s only mantra signalled the retreat to conservative ideology. The Tories of the Sunak mould have for sure become too indistinguishable from New Labour and Britain’s last prime minister with a big legacy, Tony Blair, whose many economic policies and cosmopolitan style they have adopted all too seamlessly. Sunak’s political demise from the frontbenches now opens a more turbulent political season. The change of guard will force both political parties, Conservative and Labour, in two contradictory directions of ideological clarity and political compromise.

Also read: The great paradox of Indian democracy: citizen uprisings but no opposition

What next?

One thing is clear, the personality-driven populism that marked Boris Johnson’s premiership is truly over. With a brute majority and riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, Johnson, like Trump and many other populists, aimed to subvert both parliament and party. In clawing back control, the issue now is wide open. What does the Conservative party stand for? Brexit is done and that will remain Johnson’s legacy.

Singularly lacking in charisma, Truss promises that she will cut taxes, a cherished Tory principle, and will spend big on welfare. She will need godly powers to square this circle. In the mortal realm of politics, it is more likely that the crisis-riven conditions of the economy and much of the public service infrastructure, notably health, will create a political restiveness. Britain’s trade unions have already alerted to strike action. The more likely scenario is a general election by next summer. Truss betrayed her anxieties by repeating not once but twice that she will be in government for the full two remaining years. Rest assured, if you follow politics, then stay tuned as Truss’s anointment is but a curtain-raiser rather than the concluding act of a high-octane political drama.

Sunak will likely join the global elite of billionaire clubs that he truly belongs to and do what they do—make money while spending luxuriously. As the man who nearly became the first Indian-origin prime minister of the UK, Sunak will above all be remembered for his wealth, at a time when Britain became much poorer and far more unequal.

His exit also marks another moment as Sunak’s country of origin, that is India, famed for its diversity has zero Muslim representation in the ruling benches in its parliament. Contra appearances, Sunak’s career marks the point of divergence between the once twinned politics of imperial Britain and the Indian nation.

Shruti Kapila is professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

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