Andrew's Column: Boris and his desi cabinet
Boris Johnson, after his recent emphatic election victory, has appointed Conservatives of Indian heritage to some of the top jobs in British politics.
Suddenly, stealthily almost, Indians seem to have taken over the show. Politics UK now sometimes appears to be a partly owned subsidiary of India plc.
If you think I’m exaggerating, reflect on this. In the past week, Britain’s finance minister – or to use the Olde Englande term, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – delivered the annual budget speech. Don't worry if you missed it; it’s not exactly a big Box Office release. Besides, there have been one or two other things happening.
However, for some of us, a UK budget speech is simply a must. I watched on TV – and it wasn’t so much the content of the speech as the array of faces on the government’s front bench that caught my attention. Britain’s new finance minister – delivering his first budget after less than a month in the job – is an Indian guy. (Okay, let’s be accurate about this: he is British and British-born, but his name and appearance tell you he’s Indian too.)
Sitting next to him was Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. We’ll come back to him. And on either side of the dynamic duo: the home secretary (Indian) … and the brand new attorney general, aka the law minister (ditto). So of the four most visible government leaders on TV screens during the budget speech, Boris was the only one not eligible for an OCI card.
And the PM has his own family link to India. His love life is a touch, well, messy. He’s just got engaged to his (pregnant) girlfriend, who will become wife #3. Wife #2, who he recently divorced, has a Sikh mum (who sadly died last month). Or put it another way, four of Boris’s children have a Sikh grandmother.
Coming back to Boris’s increasing reliance on Conservatives of Indian origin – his finance minister is Rishi Sunak, born in southern England into a Punjabi family (his father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist) and educated at one of England’s poshest schools and most elite universities. He took his oath as an MP on the Bhagavad Gita. And he’s married to Aksheta Murthy, the daughter of the billionaire co-founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy.
Suella Braverman, who was appointed last month to the government’s top law job, is the daughter of Christie and Uma Fernandes. She was born in Harrow, an area on the outskirts of London with a large South Asian population. Her father’s family came from Goa.
Priti Patel is the home secretary, one of the most challenging and high profile roles in British politics. She was born in London to parents of Gujarati origin.
All three of these high-fliers are young – Sunak and Braverman are not yet 40, while Patel is still in her forties. All have parents who migrated to England from East Africa. And all represent Parliamentary seats which have very small ethnic minority communities. Indeed Sunak’s constituency, a well-off farming region in northern England, is one of the least diverse areas of the British Isles.
Boris’s three Indian-origin cabinet ministers have another political bond: all campaigned in favour of Britain’s departure from the European Union. They are committed Brexiteers.
They are also a striking indication of the great Indian ‘moving right’ show – the clear shift of political opinion to the right among the Indian diaspora as they become more affluent. That trend is even more apparent in the United States than in the UK – and President Trump’s recent visit to India was in part designed to drum up support among Indian-origin voters back home.
There are about 1.5 million people in Britain whose roots lie in India – that’s under 3% of the total population. Until very recently, the community was less conspicuous at the top levels of politics than the Pakistani diaspora, among whom are the Conservatives Sajid Javid, who Sunak succeeded in the finance role, and Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.
The prominence of politicians of Indian origin in a determinedly right-wing, Eurosceptic government underlines the growing political clout of British Indians and their increasing comfort in a party which hasn’t always been welcoming to politicians from minority communities.
Priti Patel has faced some rough political weather of late. She has been publicly accused of bullying senior civil servants and, for the moment at least, her career is under a cloud. But Rishi Sunak’s maiden budget speech has won wide acclaim, as much for its confident delivery as for the huge amounts of public money he is pumping into Britain’s beleaguered economy to counter the twin threats of Brexit and coronavirus.
It was the Conservatives – not the more equality-minded Labour Party - that gave Britain its first woman leader. Could they also in time provide Britain’s first desi Prime Minister?