The Indian connection: How Rishi Sunak is a top contender for the post of British prime minister

The curtains finally came down on the Boris Johnson saga after the beleaguered British prime minister announced that he would quit as Britis...

The curtains finally came down on the Boris Johnson saga after the beleaguered British prime minister announced that he would quit as British prime minister after he dramatically lost the support of his ministers and most Conservative lawmakers, but said he would stay on until his successor was chosen.

In his announcement from outside 10 Downing Street in London, Johnson said, “It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister.”

He added, “And I’ve today appointed a Cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place. So I want to say to the millions of people who voted for us in 2019, many of them voting Conservative for the first time: Thank you for that incredible mandate, the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, the biggest share of the vote since 1979.

“And the reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue to deliver that mandate in person was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019.”

With his exit, bookmakers and much of Britain are speculating about the likely successor. Any candidates who run for the leadership will go through rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers until only two remain — at which point Conservative Party members nationwide will vote. The winner will be the new party leader — and prime minister.

Among the list of candidates in the running, many believe that the former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who quit the government two days ago, as the top contender to be the British prime minister.

Polls among Tory members show that Sunak has a high approval — a YouGov poll on 6-7 July put Sunak well above former Health Minister Sajid Javid and Home Secretary Priti Patel, with the support of 10 per cent. Sunak was placed third, behind only Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (13 per cent) and Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt (12 per cent).

We take a closer look at the rise of Sunak and why India has gone into overdrive over the possibility of him being the prime minister of the world’s fifth largest economy.

Who exactly is Rishi Sunak?

The 42-year-old Rishi Sunak was born in UK’s Southampton area to an Indian family of a pharmacist mother and a National Health Service (NHS) general practitioner (GP) father. His grandparents are from Punjab. Reports say that like many Indians, they had migrated to seek a better life in East Africa. When trouble began in the region and there was widespread feeling against Indians, his grandfather shifted to Britain.

An Oxford University and Stanford graduate, he met his present wife, Akshata Murthy while at school. For the uninitiated, Akshata Murty is the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy. The two tied the knot in 2009 and have two daughters Krishna and Anoushka.

An analyst with Goldman Sachs, he first became an MP in 2015. He was elected from Richmond, Yorkshire and rose through the Conservative Party ranks and backed calls for Brexit. He was one of the supporters of Boris Johnson during his ‘Leave EU’ campaign.

Sunak was barely known to the British public when Johnson made him Chancellor of the exchequer in February 2020.

However, UK’s first Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer charmed the citizens and his popularity star shone bright.

When Boris Johnson ordered the first nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, he crafted a massive financial rescue package to safeguard millions of jobs. His job retention scheme where the government paid 80 per cent of the wages of people who would otherwise be without a job won him accolades across the board. His popularity shot up and surpassed that of his boss Boris Johnson. His ‘eat out to help out’ scheme was also a huge success.

Known to be close to Johnson, Sunak has always cut a contrasting figure from the scandal-ridden outgoing prime minister in his public and private life.

While Johnson’s governing style has been described as chaotic, seemingly making policy on the hoof, Sunak is a details-oriented wonk.

Unlike Johnson’s tousled hair and dishevelled appearance, Sunak has crafted a carefully curated image on social media, with designer clothes, top-of-the-range gadgets and a photogenic dog.

Rishi Sunak joined politics in 2015 and has seen a meteoric rise within the Conservative Party. He backed calls for Brexit and was one of the supporters of Boris Johnson during his ‘Leave EU’ campaign. AFP

Sinking stock

Known as ‘Dishy Rishi’ by the British tabloids, his star was on the rise and he was considered to be Johnson’s successor for several months.

However, questions over his wife, Akshata’s, tax status and wealth along with his involvement in the Partygate Scandal and criticism from fellow Tories about his moves to increase taxes for millions, transformed him to ‘Fishy Rishi’.

Recently, the couple’s finances came under scrutiny when it was revealed that Akshata, still an Indian national, had non-domiciled status in the UK, allowing her to avoid paying tax on her foreign earnings as she planned to return to India to live.

Reports stated that her status as a non-domicile allowed her to save around £20 million in taxes on dividends from her shares in Infosys.

The outpour of outrage that followed forced Akshata to agree to pay UK taxes on her worldwide income.

Following the tax scandal, it was reported that Sunak and his wife had retained their US Green Cards after returning to Britain. While there’s nothing illegal about holding a US Green Card while being a British national, the optics of the Chancellor, one of the most senior members of the government doing it, was extremely embarrassing even for the Conservative Party.

His popularity has also taken a beating in recent weeks as Britain has suffered a cost-of-living crisis. The CNN reports that Sunak had struggled to keep down spiralling inflation and was criticised by opposition parties for what they call a slow and inadequate series of financial measures.

Rishi Sunak's stock saw a decline in recent times after questions were raised about his wife, Akshata’s, tax status. AFP

High odds for the job

Despite his recent downturn, many believe that Sunak is the top contender to the prime minister’s post and bookmakers and surveys back it up.

A survey by JL Partners, a polling company, suggests Sunak, the chancellor who quit Johnson’s government this week, is in the lead with the public out of the main candidates.

One Tory MP told The Guardian they suspected he would want to launch a campaign with a lot of big name MPs and a slick operation but only if they thought he had enough support.

Another MP from the party’s One Nation grouping was quoted by The Guardian saying they supported Sunak, a Eurosceptic and rightwinger, “purely on the basis that he is clearly the most competent”.

With inputs from agencies

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