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  • Jordan Maharjan

The Rise of South Asian Presence in UK Politics

The Conservative Government is struck again by instability as the Prime Minister (PM), Liz Truss, steps down from her position, opening the gates for the party to find its third leader this year.

Photo Credit: BBC News. Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons Chamber

Many individuals such as Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, and even Boris Johnson, the UK’s previous PM put their hats in the ring. But it was Rishi Sunak, the UK’s first South Asian and Hindu PM, who successfully grabbed the keys to No.10 Downing Street as the Tory party's new leader. Sunak’s climb to the leader of the government has exemplified the rise of South Asian political actors in some of the most senior governmental positions. Thus, many question if South Asians are becoming one of the dominant forces in the UK political sphere. If so, what does this really mean for the rest of the diaspora they represent?

South Asian Representation - Throughout the Times

South Asian representation in UK politics is not a new phenomenon experienced in contemporary Britain; in fact, the presence of South Asians in politics dates back to the 19th century. History recounts David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre [of Anglo-Indian background] as the first person of Asian descent to hold a position in Parliament in 1841, followed by Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892 as the second Member of Parliament (MP). Whilst the story of Sombre was short-lived as he was removed from Parliament on the basis of corruption 10 months after being elected, Naoroji ran an impressive term.

Dadabhai Naoroji

Naoroji began his political career in his home country [India] as one of the founders of the Indian National Congress—the main nationalist party that campaigned for India’s independence. Naoroji moved to the UK as a businessman; like many Indians of the higher classes, they exchanged places with the British to study and work due to the strong trading links under the British Empire. Although initially losing in the 1886 election, he stood for the Liberal Party in 1892 in Finsbury Central and joined the Gladstone government. As a positive representation of the South Asian community, he advocated for the right to vote for women, pensions for the elderly, abolition of the House of Lords, and Irish Home Rule and claimed to represent the South Asians who had no democratic government under British imperialism.

Rushanara Ali

Although the diaspora saw its first South Asian man in UK politics in the 19th century, it wasn’t till 2010 that the community finally saw its first South Asian women MPs, Rushanara Ali and Priti Patel. This is because women have been further compounded by legislation that prevented them to run for elected bodies as well as voting. These circumstances pushed back on any real South Asian representation for women till the 21st century.

Britain’s acceptance of Black people and South Asians, also collectively known as BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic), has been long and slow. Immigrants from the empire have been faced with strict immigration laws of the 1960s, the Notting Hill riots and Enoch Powell's infamous “River of Blood” speech, advocating for repatriation.

Photo Credit: UCL Notting Hill Riots

While South Asian presence stretched back two centuries, it is very sparse and minimal, and the South Asian population have lacked formal representation throughout British history. It wasn't until 1987 that 4 ethnic minorities were elected into Parliament, with one notable figure named Keith Vaz who is one of Britain’s longest-serving South Asian MPs. This sparked a new wave of brown faces in Parliament and currently, South Asians represent just over 5% of the seats in the House of Commons and are an accurate reflection of the total UK population.

The turn of the 21st century witnessed an accelerated growth of South Asian faces in some of the highest political positions.

Sadiq Khan

Sadiq Khan is the first South Asian to be elected the Mayor of London.

Priti Patel

Furthermore, Sajid Javid is the first of the South Asian diaspora to hold a position in the cabinet, along with Priti Patel, the UK’s first South Asian woman, and ethnic minority woman to join the government. With further South Asian faces such as Suella Braverman and Alok Sharma joining the ranks. In addition, of course, Rishi Sunak recently took the highest political position in the UK as the country’s first South Asian and Hindu man, marking a true milestone regarding how far South Asians have come in Britain.

What Does This Mean for the UK's South Asian Diaspora?

It is correct to suggest that Rishi Sunak becoming the UK’s first South Asian, and ethnic minority Prime Minister (PM) is a historic moment that many South Asians will view as a huge achievement for the diaspora. However, it begs the question: does the rise of South Asian politicians truly represent the rest of the UK South Asian population? Is this transcending beyond just skin colour and reflecting Brown voters and their political values?

Many British South Asians will identify better with Sunak than any other PM prior; however, the diaspora as a whole will find it difficult to connect with Suank beyond the issues of faith and ethnicity. Therefore, many are questioning if South Asian politicians truly have their best interest at heart and represent them and the diaspora.

Sunak is the son of a Doctor and a Pharmacist, attended Oxford University, made a fortune in finance, and married Akshata Murphy, who is the daughter of an Indian billionaire. Thus, Sunak has come from a background of an abundance of wealth, which doesn’t reflect the rest of the British South Asian Diaspora. The UK continues to be a deeply unequal society and this is reflected through its socioeconomic disparities. British Asians, along with the Black population, are three times more likely to be living with less than 60% of the average median income.

Photo Credit: Open The Magazine. Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murphy

Pakistani and Bangladeshi households [in particular] are paid around 16% less than their White British counterparts. However, studies have shown that the Indian community came out as the wealthiest and most economically affluent ethnic minority group in the UK. According to The Wire, 25% of Indian households belong to one of the wealthiest brackets, compared to only 24% of White British households, and are paid 16.5% more than their white counterparts.

One of the reasons for the disparities faced in the British South Asian community is the migration trajectories of the ethnic groups from the subcontinent. The UK 2011 Census displayed that almost 40% of the diaspora settled in the UK prior to 1981. A handful were Kenyan Asians or Ugandan Asians who were part of the entrepreneurial Indian communities working in East Africa. Due to the expulsion of Asians in the region such as from Uganda under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, many fled to the mother of the commonwealth—the United Kingdom. According to Amrit Wilson, a member of the South Asia Solidarity Group, a majority of them were of the middle strata and were usually businessmen and professionals who were able to bring over their capital. As a result, these members had the opportunity to better establish themselves.

This migration is relatable for a select few within the UK such as the South Asian political elite—Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman all had excellent economic opportunities from their earlier years which aided their political success.

However, the same story does not apply to several migrants coming from South Asia, many of which were feeling from poverty in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For instance, many of the initial Pakistani migrants originated from deprived regions such as Azad Kashmir where the Mangla Dam submerged 250 villages. Around the same time, Bangladeshi migrants [mainly from the Sylhet region] escaped the damage caused by the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Additionally, the profile of a great deal of Indian migrants from rural towns was very different from their East African-Indian counterparts. Many of these communities have not been afforded the same opportunities.

To add on to this obstacle, former Home Secretary Priti Patel welcomed the ‘Nationality and Borders’ bill, amidst the current migrant ‘crisis’ in Europe. This bill will also impact the growing number of people crossing the English Channel from war-torn countries. A bill like this would hit asylum seekers the hardest because oftentimes than not, they are usually travelling without permission to escape conflict from their homelands.

The continuation of this particular immigration policy has been further demonstrated through Suella Braverman and her stance to pursue the Rwanda policies from Patel which promises to send hundreds of asylum seekers to Rwanda. The ‘Migration and Economic Development Partnership’ is a five-year programme which allows the UK to send people to Rwanda who would otherwise claim asylum in the UK. Rwanda will consider them for permission to stay or return to their home country of origin, and they will not be eligible to return to the UK.

This policy has come under recent fire as it is “seriously unfair” and risks removing asylum seekers from the UK’s jurisdiction "without effective access to the court", the High Court has been told. Furthermore, countless activist groups and charities questioned the safety of Rwanda, arguing the scheme breaks human rights laws.

Suella Braverman

This is a very interesting stance considering how the individuals who are against the idea of more people migrating to the UK are the very same ones who benefitted from this system.

The British South Asian community has shown mixed feelings about the current South Asian dominance in politics, especially when Sunak became PM. Many have looked back to the history of colonisation of India by the British and assert that “we are breaking barriers” and it is a “great representation of our people”. Conversely, some have claimed that Rishi and others in government don't represent the community and the kind of politics our families stood for when they first came into the country. This is particularly important when observing Sunak’s political career. As one of the richest MPs in the House of Commons, he has consistently voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, most notably as Chancellor he axed the £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit that helped some of the poorest families through the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this heavily affected the BAME community the most.

Moreover, Sunak, along with Boris Johnson, presided over one of the worst COVID death tolls in the world which saw Black and Asian people disproportionately dying from the virus. Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are 1.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19, 1.6 times more likely for South Asian women and Black people are at almost twice the risk.

Photo Credit: BBC News. Rishi Sunak and his campaign ‘Eat out to Help out’ during COVID in 2020 - to help boost the economy at the expense of lives.

Sathnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland, once stated that “The most problematic thing for me is that Rishi has gone along with the culture war with the Conservative Party and this culture war has kind of ridiculed people like me who look into the British Empire”. This is especially true given the Tory Party's stance on immigration—they have adopted a ‘points-based system’ after the UK’s departure from the EU which further controls immigration to favour ‘high-skilled’ workers [those earning above the threshold of £25,600]. This system, unfortunately, prolongs the discrimination against ‘lower-skilled’ workers from South Asia that previously came over to aid the building of the country post-World War II and continue to migrate to the UK to support institutions such as the National Health Service (NHS).

Concluding Remarks

Recent years have shown that the UK political sphere becoming more ethnically diverse as Liz Truss appointed her most diverse Cabinet in history a few months ago—and of course Rishi Sunak becoming PM. From the years of the colonial past to leading individuals of the empire metropolis, the rise of South Asians in the realm of UK politics has been heralded as a milestone in British South Asian history. It’s safe to say that the future of world politics could see the increase of Brown faces in more political spheres. However, the diaspora still question whether South Asian representation in British politics is merely an observation of Brown faces as a method of saving the face of the parties which continue to ridicule the rest of the South Asian community.

With that being said, is the UK political elite weaponizing identity politics suggesting that the South Asian representation fails to go beyond one's skin colour?

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