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India applauds Britain's 1st Indian-origin leader Sunak, 75 years after colonial rule

Rishi Sunak meets members of the audience after delivering a speech during a Conservative Friends of India event at the Dhamecha lohana center on Aug. 22, 2022 in Harrow, England.
Leon Neal
Getty Images
Rishi Sunak meets members of the audience after delivering a speech during a Conservative Friends of India event at the Dhamecha lohana center on Aug. 22, 2022 in Harrow, England.

MUMBAI, India — Indians are calling it a Diwali gift.

On the Hindu festival of lights, Rishi Sunak — who is of Indian descent and a practicing Hindu — has become Britain's next prime minister. Sunak's face is splashed across the front pages of Indian newspapers Tuesday, as his ancestral homeland celebrates his achievement — 75 years after Indians cast off British colonial rule.

"Indian son rises over an empire," read a chyron on the leading English-language NDTV channel.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to those "historic ties" in a tweet congratulating Sunak. "Special Diwali wishes to the 'living bridge' of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership," Modi wrote.

Sunak will become Britain's newest prime minister on Tuesday and will immediately face economic and political crises in the United Kingdom.

Sunak was born in England, to parents born in East Africa. But he is of Indian origin. He's the first Hindu and first person of color to become British prime minister. That's being celebrated by Hindus around the world, but especially in Hindu-majority India, which is currently governed by Modi's Hindu nationalist party. Supporters are sharing photos on social media of Sunak in Hindu religious garb, and captioning them with Hindu devotional slogans.

A spokesperson for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party called Sunak's appointment "a moment of great celebration."

"We have seen in the United States, CEOs of major tech companies and people of Indian origin at the top of the game. So the appointment of Mr. Sunak as the prime minister of the U.K. is a welcome step," BJP national spokesperson Guru Prakash said early Tuesday. "As a party, as a government, we look forward to working closely with Mr. Sunak toward revitalizing our relationship."

That relationship was strained by comments earlier this monthby Britain's then-home minister, Suella Braverman – who herself is of Indian descent — alleging Indians are the worst overstayers of U.K. visas. She has since resigned (over another matter), and Indian authorities say they're working with British authorities to "facilitate the return of Indian citizens who have overstayed their visa period."

But the episode, along with political chaos in London, may have contributed to the scuppering of a Diwali deadline for a U.K.-Indian trade deal. Since its exit from the European Union, Britain is increasingly looking to countries such as India for investment. The Indian economy is now the fifth-largest in the world, having surpassed that of its former colonial master earlier this year.

Sunak's government will lead those trade negotiations, at a time of great economic upheaval in Britain.

In previous interviews with Indian media, the incoming prime minister recalled how both of his grandfathers were born in Punjab, in British India, and migrated first to Africa, then to Britain in the 1960s. Sunak's wife Akshata Murthy is an Indian citizen and the daughter of billionaire businessman N.R. Narayana Murthy, who founded the Indian IT outsourcing company Infosys. (A stakeholder in that company, Akshata Murthy is one of Britain's richest residents, and earlier this year said she would voluntarily start paying U.K. tax on all of her income, amid allegations she had taken advantage of a loophole to minimize how much she pays.)

Indians took a special interest in Sunak's political career even before his ascent to Britain's top office. Video of the then-U.K. chancellor of the exchequer lighting Diwali diyas – earthen oil lamps – on the steps of his No. 11 Downing Street residence two years ago went viral on social media in India.

Indian newspapers also covered Sunak's 2019 swearing-in ceremony at the British parliament, noting how he took the oath of office on one of Hinduism's sacred texts, the Bhagwad Gita.

While celebrating Sunak's achievement and what it reveals about Britain's openness to diversity, some Indians also cast doubt though on whether an ethnic or religious minority could have the same trajectory in India. Discrimination and attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have surged since Modi took office.

"The Brits have done something very rare in the world, to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office," tweeted Shashi Tharoor, an opposition lawmaker and fierce critic of Modi's Hindu nationalist government.

But he went on: "As we Indians celebrate the ascent of @RishiSunak, let's honestly ask: can it happen here?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.