Under a cloud
Rishi Sunak’s defeat in UK’s prime ministerial race can be attributed to three factors — his family wealth, Indian pedigree and hard-line economic stance
Rishi Sunak — Britain's first Indian-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer and resident of No.11 Downing Street for about 16 months — put up a good fight for the prime ministership till the bitter end. Though he lost the race for the country's top job to the winning Prime Minister Liz Truss, he scored a very respectable, even magnificent, tally of over 60,000 votes against the winner's 80,000 votes. He had declared his hand quite early in the contest over matters of policy differences and ambition, saying: "Enough is enough".
An earlier Chancellor, Sajid Javid (with Pakistani roots) had much less luck as his tenure lasted less than a few weeks over differences with Dominic Cummings, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson's adviser. Cummings himself had no better luck as he tried to dictate terms to Johnson — a case of trying to become more powerful than the king himself! Javid bounced back as Health Secretary for quite a while but lost the game with his failed bid to join the race for becoming prime minister.
Sunak, who ended up as a wounded loser, started with one big handicap — family wealth, not personal but through marriage as the son-in-law of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy. Himself a self-made man, Sunak happened to fall in love with Narayana Murthy's daughter who was a student in Princeton, USA. Becoming the son-in-law of billionaire Narayana Murthy, India's sixth richest man and head of IT business conglomerate Infosys, proved a mighty hurdle in Sunak's political journey.
Too rich to be prime minister? Wealth is no bar for the likes of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, but not so if you are British like Sunak. You might be the richest man in Britain or even richer than the Queen or King but not eligible enough to be modern Britain's prime minister! His wealth connection with his billionaire father-in-law Narayana Murthy overshadowed his personal achievements.
Sunak rose through ranks with family support in typical Indian style. Born in 1980 in Southampton in a family that ran a shop called Sunak Pharmacy which changed hands years later and became Bassett Pharmacy. Grandfather Ramdas Sunak had migrated from India to east Africa. Rishi Sunak's father was born in Kenya while his mother was born in Tanzania. Originally, the Sunaks belonged to Punjabi Kshatriya stock from Gujranwala in modern Pakistan. Rishi's admirers fondly call him "Punjabi Puttar" — son of Punjab.
For his education, his parents spared no effort or expense, and sent him to Winchester public school in Hampshire, a top fee-paying boarding school, and onwards to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he obtained a BA degree in PPE — Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He then went to Stanford University in America where he met Akshata Murty.
A successful hedge fund operator, Sunak was caught in a web not of his own making. He got trapped in the notorious "non-dom" web, applicable to people with non-permanent assets. First blow landed when tax sleuths found that his wife Akshata Murty had a small stake in a Russian company. Just to avoid any mud-slinging, she wound up the company, incurring a moderate loss. The dirt diggers then aimed at her British assets. Her non-dom status cost her 30,000 pounds sterling which she paid up, even though she wasn't legally obliged to do so. But the insinuation wouldn't go away. Rishi, in his own right, also possessed a US Green Card which he gave up on becoming Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The trouble that had dogged Rishi Sunak's political ambitions was that he was too rich to become prime minister. Another issue that blocked his path, according to his Indian fans, has been his Indian pedigree or origin. Dismissed by the British voters as a false accusation of racial prejudice and sour grapes, it nevertheless sticks in a lot of Asian minds. But his ability to stay as chancellor for more than a year and to fight for the prime minister's post till the bitter end should silence such detractors. It was a good fight. Winning prime minister Liz Truss garnered 81, 326 votes against Rishi Sunak's haul of 60, 399 in the grand contest among fellow Conservatives. The 57.4 percent score of Liz Truss against Rishi Sunak's 42.6 percent is a substantive victory for the winner but no landslide.
Sunak's downfall has a lot to do with his hardline economics. His point-blank refusal to make any "fairy tale" promises for easy publicity has proved costly. He seemed to relent by announcing to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to 16 per cent by the end of the next parliament, if he won the race to become prime minister. But the voters wanted tax cuts 'now.' They couldn't wait for "jam tomorrow."
He stuck to his guns declaring (on 10 August 2022): "I haven't been saying the easy things, and actually I'm prepared to lose this contest if it means that I have been true to my values. I'm fighting for the things that I think are right for the country. I would rather lose on those terms than win by promising false things that I can't deliver."
Brave words and fine. But that's not how politics plays out.
Expectedly, a spokesman for Liz Truss immediately hit back: "Rishi Sunak wouldn't know how people benefit from a tax cut because he has never cut a tax in his life. People didn't vote for the Conservative party to be subjected to old fashioned Gordon Brown style politics of envy.
You can't tax your way to growth and Liz's agenda is to build a high wage, high growth. low tax economy that supports people. Liz believes in people keeping more of their own money, not Rishi's socialist tax and spending which will lead us to recession."
Whatever, the banter on either side of recession talk has loomed larger than ever.
The die has been cast. Liz Truss is the Prime Minister and Rishi Sunak sits on the back benches of the Parliament.
As Member of Parliament for North Yorkshire, Rishi Sunak and his wife Akanshka Murthy own a grade-two listed manor house worth one-and-a-half million pounds in the ancient hamlet of Kirby Sigston where they have thrown many a garden parties with roast venison, canapés and champagne which have been the hottest ticket in the area. Curiously Sunak himself is known to be a tee-total, though often seen pulling pints of ale with Boris Johnson when they were on talking terms!
The writer is a freelance writer and author of 'India and Britannia' and other writings. Views expressed are personal