Orange and pink fireworks colored the south London sky on Monday as members of the local South Asian community celebrated Diwali.
This year, the holiday coincided with 42-year-old Rishi Sunak, becoming Britain’s first Indian-origin prime minister, as Hindus like him celebrated the festival of lights.
Sunak’s rise to power has divided opinion among South Asians in the UK. For some, his historic appointment is a moment of pride and a sign of social progress in Britain, while others point to his enormous wealth, private education and hard right-wing politics.
Evidence of this wide range of views was clear when CNN spoke to South Asians in the London borough of Tooting – home to a bustling migrant community in the British capital.
Fascinating fabric shops, places of worship and food vendors offering Indian dessert syrups along with fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets, with family convenience stores on almost every corner.
The London borough is a diverse heritage of its residents, with people of color making up more than half of the population, according to the 2011 UK census.
The same figures found that almost 30% of people in Tooting identify as ‘Asian’ or ‘British Asian’, with Urdu and Gujarati among the most spoken languages after English.
“I think it’s a good thing and especially auspicious on Diwali to have him named,” said Raj Singh, a Punjabi-Sikh member of the Khalsa Centre, a local Sikh temple.
“It is a sign of progress, but only at the top. Rishi Sunak comes from a very privileged background,” said the 58-year-old lawyer, his glasses tucked behind his bright orange turban.
Singh said Sunak’s rise is a sign that only South Asian politicians with immense social and economic privilege can “break the glass ceiling”.
Earlier this year, Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List of the UK’s 250 richest people. The newspaper estimated it at 730 million pounds ($826 million).
Suna received congratulations from other politicians of South Asian heritage, including former Conservative cabinet minister Sajid Javid and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is from the opposition Labor Party. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent “special Diwali wishes” to Sunak, calling him a “bridge” between the two countries.
Outside the capital, Sanjay Chandarana, who heads a Hindu temple in Southampton, southern England, co-founded by Sunak’s grandparents in 1971, told CNN that Sunak’s ascension was “a Barack Obama moment” for the UK, a nod to America’s first black man. making one the president
“I think it’s something that’s important to the South Asian community… given that he’s the South Asian Prime Minister of the UK. I think all South Asians should be proud,” said Irtaza Nasir, a 24-year-old restaurant manager from Tooting. “I never thought this day would come.”
Anil Shah, a 75-year-old Gujarati Hindu shopkeeper, said Sunak’s leadership “proves that we have Indians who are smart enough to do the job”.
However, Nilufar Ahmed, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in western England, said Sunak’s leadership is “nuanced and complex”, and warned of the limits of racial representation at the highest levels of British politics.
“I think there was something nice about his appointment in conjunction with Diwali. I think it was very meaningful for a lot of South Asians to have that,” he said.
“But I also think it’s too simplistic to see Rishi Sunak as symbolic of a South Asian community in the UK. This is a man who has had many privileges and, therefore, he is not as representative as some discourses about representation present him.”
Ahmed said he remains cynical about comparisons between Suna and Obama’s deputy prime minister, citing the lack of a mandate from the general British population.
Suna was appointed Prime Minister, replacing Liz Truss, after her only rival, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew from the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He is Britain’s third prime minister in seven weeks, and his premiership sparked calls for a general election from across the political spectrum.
“Rishi Suna was not even elected by his own party, let alone the people of the UK. And so there will be resistance in the population against naming Sunak. He may not be seen as someone who represents Conservative Party members or voters,” Ahmed commented.
He added that his first charge could be “acted in a rather disturbing manner”, citing a viral video in which a Conservative Party member made racist criticism of Sunak, telling LBC Radio that he “doesn’t love England” and “isn’t even British according to most people”.
Sunak was born in the coastal city of Southampton and is a British citizen.
For Lubeena Yar, a 56-year-old businesswoman who lives in Tooting, Sunak’s appointment was “circumstantial”.
“Conservatives are conservatives. I don’t think it matters what color their skin is,” the 56-year-old mused as she sat on a plush pink chair inside the Pakistani clothing store.
Yar said he did not share Sunak’s Conservative Party values, but added that he identified with the sacrifices made by his parents when they immigrated to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s.
He recalled that around the same time his parents first came to the UK from Pakistan, his father was denied the chance to own a house because racist neighbors would say they didn’t want a person of color living on the street.
“I grew up in that time. And, you know, I remember what my life was or what my parents had to sacrifice so that we could get a good education and get degrees and do what we wanted to do. Our parents were not from that privileged background, but they did it for us.”
Sunak faces a number of challenges as the UK’s new leader, including the task of leading the country out of a severe cost-of-living crisis and calming financial markets after Truss’ short and chaotic government.
However, Sunak is also partly responsible for the economic turmoil engulfing the UK.
As the UK’s former finance minister in Boris Johnson’s government, he introduced measures worth 400 billion pounds ($452 billion) to boost the economy, including a generous licensing scheme, business loans and restaurant dining concessions. But that stimulus came at a high cost and left the government struggling to find savings.
He has pledged to bring “stability and unity” to the Conservatives by appealing to the party’s multiple factions, which have deepened divisions since the 2016 Brexit vote.
He has historically voted for stronger enforcement of immigration and asylum rules and opposed measures to prevent climate change and promote equality and human rights. Like his predecessor, Sunak promised a tough approach to illegal immigration and vowed to expand the government’s controversial Rwandan immigration policy.
Further north, in the Scottish city of Glasgow, Fariya Sharif said she did not see Sunak’s leadership as a sign of equality.
“The appointment of Rishi Sunak leaves me feeling deflated and devastated by the chaos of the Tories who continue to misrule our country, especially a prime minister who was not elected by everyday people,” the 30-year-old Pakistani Muslim chef said by email.
“I don’t see this as racial progress. I see this as an indication of how the Tories are trying to push their agenda on the wealthiest immigrant communities… it encourages an environment where brown people are only accepted if they meet the same tough rules on immigration and the economy.
Sunak’s first post has sparked debate among many British Asians at the intersection of race, class and politics.
The new Prime Minister has entered Downing Street as one of the wealthiest residents ever, yet she is tasked with leading a country whose communities have been pushed deeper into poverty by the coronavirus pandemic.
During his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Suna was criticized for proposing a paltry 1% pay rise for staff in Britain’s National Health Service, even as the organization collapsed due to government cuts and staff shortages.
Rina Patel, from South London’s St. A Hindu Gujarati doctor who works at Helier Hospital, said he has “very mixed views” about Sunak’s first charge.
“As for representing people, I don’t think it can represent the poorest people in our society. And as an NHS doctor, I see some of the poorest people in our society who are struggling,” the 43-year-old said in the background of a local jeweller’s shop.
“The fact that he’s smart, because he has a financial background, I think he’ll do better than what he’s done before, but that’s not a compliment,” Patel added. “I don’t think it represents me.”
“What I see in Rishi Sunak is, first of all… he’s an incredibly privileged person with enormous wealth and access to education and resources that most South Asians in the UK don’t have. So I have a lot more in common with white working-class politicians than I do with Rishi Sunak. Ahmed thought.
Sunak may be the first British Prime Minister of Indian heritage, but his race alone does not enable him to represent the diverse and nuanced perspectives of the 4.2 million people of South Asian heritage living in Britain today.
“Seeing someone brown become prime minister is something to be proud of, and yet it’s possible to disagree with the policy or the individual,” Jasvir Singh, a lawyer and co-founder of South Asian Heritage Month, wrote in an email.
“Politics is much more than color and race.”