Can tall tales 'short' circuit Rishi Sunak’s campaign?

Contrary to popular belief, all British prime ministers have not been six-footers; the ‘greatest’ was shorter than Sunak. Whether or not “d...

Contrary to popular belief, all British prime ministers have not been six-footers; the ‘greatest’ was shorter than Sunak.

Whether or not “dishy” Rishi Sunak wins the run-off with Liz Truss to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Britain, he must be making a lot of people nervous considering they are now even pointing to his height—or rather, lack thereof—as a reason not to elect him! Social media is awash with random people claiming surprise, consternation, even alarm at the fact that the Indian-origin Conservative Party frontrunner is just about 5’6” (170 cm) tall.

The retort for that, of course, is the innocent query, “And how tall was Winston?” (Churchill, not the chimp.) The answer: “Shorter.” He was, in fact, 5’5”, just an inch taller than the man he called a ‘half naked fakir’, Gandhiji. Then there was Margaret Thatcher—we must be gender neutral when it comes to prime ministers—who was 5’4”, but there was no doubt at all about who was the tallest Conservative leader in her time though several people in her Cabinets had more inches.

There is cause for suspicion when photos serendipitously resurface of Sunak walking along side one of the tallest members of Parliament, Simon Clarke who is a lofty 6’5” (200cm). More so as they draw attention to the fact that Sunak rarely poses for photos where his height can be gauged in comparison to those around him, and his lean frame suggests he is taller than he actually is. Does that mean size… err height, really matters in the leadership stakes?

Surely less so if the candidate being ‘diminished’ is of Indian origin? The British should remember Gandhiji was just 5’4” and ran rings around them. Indira Gandhi was a political colossus at just 5’2” and her predecessor Lal Bahadur Shastri was also the same height; both led India to victory in wars with Pakistan. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose statue now rears 600 feet into the sky, was actually only 5’5” tall but there was no denying his ability to lead.

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Though Sunak’s height had been discussed last year too, the orchestrated surprise at his diminutive stature now implies an illogical correlation between his inches and his political prospects. Apparently, the thinking is that a tall frame indicates power (literal and figurative) and ability. It is more likely to denote certain genes, aided by a good diet. Had height denoted competence, The Netherlands would be ruling the world as the average height of males there is now 6’.

It is a measure of the maturity of the Indian electorate that height has never been brought up as a relevant factor when assessing leaders. Did the BJP-led NDA win the 1998 and 1999 general elections because Atal Bihari Vajpayee was taller than Sonia Gandhi? Should Mamata Banerjee’s claim to leadership of the anti-BJP grouping in the run-up to 2024 be less than Sharad Pawar’s simply because he is taller than her? In India stature is obviously more relevant than height.

A study of the US presidential candidates by the University of Groningen had revealed that taller ones have won 66 per cent of the time, but then there are many things about that country which are inexplicable. Just for the record, Joe Biden at 6’ is three inches shorter than Donald Trump. And while there is a popular misconception that most (male) British prime ministers have been six-footers, only four of the eight men who came after ‘little’ Churchill crossed 72 inches.

Interestingly, at least two of the world leaders that the western establishment and the English language media dislike the most today are subjected regularly to jibes about their (lack of) height: Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. And a historical precedent is there in Napoleon Bonaparte — long ridiculed as ‘Little Boney” — whose actual height was actually 5’7” and not 5’2”, as the French inch at that time was calculated to be 2.71 cm, while it is now 2.54 cm.

Talking of France, Charles de Gaulle was 6’5” but the current French president Emmanuel Macron is 5’7”, his predecessor Francois Hollande is the same as Sunak while Francois Sarkozy is 5’5”. Has France been lowering or raising its standards? Russian President Putin and Ukrainian president Zelensky share more than a first name spelt differently: they are also both 5’7”. But that is not why neither leader has been able to get the better of the other yet.

Liz Truss at 5’3” is 5 inches shorter than Theresa May, 2 inches less than Sunak and an inch below Thatcher too. Boris Johnson at 5’9” is much shorter than David Cameron at 6’1” and barely an inch taller than May but in 2019 still led the Conservative Party to its highest tally in Parliament since 1987 and the highest share of the popular vote since 1979. The narrative that height matters is clearly nothing but a tall tale to short-circuit Sunak’s high voltage campaign.

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

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