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High and low of UK’s new PM

Many Indians are excited about the Indian roots of UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak but the country’s first PM of colour faces a historic crisis in the politics and economy of the UK. After getting appointed, Sunak said he needs to fix the mistakes the government of Liz Truss made, but every step he takes carries grave downside risks.

After the Conservative Party declared Rishi Sunak as its leader and it became a mere formality that he would be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, many Indians went into an overdrive to claim that a person of Indian root is going to rule the British, who ruled India for 100 years. The Internet was flooded with funny memes — showing chappals left by visitors outside 10 Downing Street (because many Indians do not enter homes wearing shoes) and a swastika (the ancient Hindu auspicious sign) on the door. For Indians, Sunak is “one among us”; for the Hindus, he is a practising Hindu (remember pictures of him performing gau-puja during his campaign).

Sunak’s roots are in Gujranwala, north of Lahore, in present-day Pakistan. His grandfather, Ramdas Sunak, migrated to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1935, from the undivided India. In Nairobi, he took up a job as a clerk. Sunak’s grandmother travelled to Kenya two years later. Sunak’s father, Yashveer, was born in Nairobi in 1949. Yashveer Sunak moved to Liverpool in 1966. He married Usha Berry, the daughter of Raghubir Berry, a Punjabi who had moved to Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania), and Tanganyika-born Sraksha. Rishi Sunak was born to Yashveer and Usha Sunak, both pharmacists, in Southampton, England, in 1980. He was educated in Winchester College, a private boarding school, and at the University of Oxford.

Apart from the religion that he practises, Rishi Sunak may not know many things Indian. He is a born British. But for Indians, the fact that his family was once in India is a good enough reason to celebrate. Indians are also excited about the fact that a person of Indian root is ruling the British, who ruled India for 100 years. It is poetic justice, they claim.

However, it is unclear if the new UK PM will look after India’s interest in any way. His priority, obviously, will be to fix UK’s problems.

Rishi Sunak’s political rise has been meteoric – in a little more than seven years, he’s got to the PM’s post. He became an MP in May 2015 and the PM in October 2022. Rishi is 42; the youngest UK PM was William Pitt the Younger, who became the PM at age 24. Pitt the Younger also holds the record for making the journey from MP to PM. He got there in just two years.

Rishi Sunak is UK’s third PM in 50 days after Boris Johnson followed by Liz Truss were forced out of office by a rebellion within the ruling Conservative Party. But Rishi Sunak has taken over at a time when the country is facing one of its gravest economic and political crises in recent memory.

In his first address, Prime Minister Sunak said: “Our country is facing a profound economic crisis. The aftermath of Covid still lingers. Putin’s war in Ukraine has destabilised energy markets and supply chains the world over”.

He said that the goal of the Truss government to boost growth was a “noble one”; however, “mistakes were made”, and he had been elected leader of the Tories, and PM, “in part, to fix them”. A medium-term fiscal statement is to be presented before Parliament on October 31. The Tories won the 2019 elections under the leadership of Johnson with the promises to strengthen the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system, increase funding to schools and teaching staff, ensure a stronger economy and tighten controls on immigration (this was one of the key reasons why Britain voted for Brexit in the first place). However, the twin shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine dented the British economy and upended the government’s fiscal math.

The British economy has been stagnant since the start of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The decision to leave the EU made matters worse. It became tougher for the UK to trade with its closest trading partners in Europe. The higher compliance costs hit small businesses, and several businesses were forced to move out of the UK in order to protect their market share. In this phase of reduced GDP per capita and reduced GDP per person employed, the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine war hit the British economy.

Rishi Sunak as the Prime Minister has no time to settle into his job. He faces three major and immediate challenges. Containing inflation while addressing the cost-of-living crisis; improving the government’s fiscal health while preparing the grounds for growth; and re-establishing political stability. If the PM increases tax or introduces new ones, Britain may become less attractive to business investments, which translates into fewer jobs, at a time when it is struggling to create its foothold in the post-Brexit trading ecology. On the political front, Rishi Sunak faces the challenge to put his house in order. The Conservative Party is a deeply divided house today and uniting the Tories is the necessary first step for any economic decision-making to be taken seriously by the markets and the rest of the world.

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