As more than a billion Hindus around the world this week observed Diwali, “the festival of lights,” the appointment of one of their own as British prime minister offered a second cause for celebration.
“Nothing could be more auspicious than the appointment of Rishi Sunak on the day people are celebrating Diwali,” Rajiv Dogra, a former Indian ambassador to the United Kingdom, told NBC News by telephone from New Delhi.
Sunak, a former British finance minister and a practicing Hindu, won the race to lead the Conservative Party on Monday, and was officially appointed prime minister by King Charles III on Tuesday.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister of majority Hindu India, quickly congratulated Sunak.
“Special Diwali wishes to the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership,” he tweeted.
Indian newspapers and TV channels were already clamoring for the Sunak “era” on Sunday after scandal-ridden Boris Johnson, whom Sunak served as finance minister, dropped his bid to return as prime minister.
“The reaction is of admiration, aspiration that they could get to a similar position and happiness that one of their own has got the position,” Dogra said of the worldwide reaction among Hindus.
In the 1960s, Sunak’s family emigrated from Africa to Britain, which according to the 2021 census data, is home to almost a million Britons of Indian heritage. Born in the southern port city of Southampton, he attended Oxford University, worked at Goldman Sachs and later married Akshata Murty, daughter of the Indian tech titan and co-founder of the software giant Infosys, Narayana Murthy.
Many Indians are immensely proud when those who trace their roots to the nation of 1.4 billion do well abroad, including figures such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and the new Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
“It’s motivating that we have another Indian success story and he has a sense of class in the way he conducts himself,” Ricky Dhillon, 26, a London-based manager for an energy company, said via Twitter Messenger.
Sunak also joins a growing list of national leaders of Indian-descent, which includes Mauritius, Portugal and Jamaica. And while he’s often compared to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, many said his win was far more meaningful.
“Unlike Kamala Harris, Sunak is the numero uno in the executive,” said Dogra. “That position, not just in the U.K., has a symbolic value in Europe. After all, the Europeans were the colonizers.”
But despite his political achievements, Sunak has long avoided celebrity status in India. He only garnered attention when he practiced his religious faith “openly and publicly,” Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, said in a phone interview. Sunak visited different temples in London and was seen participating in a cow ritual during his losing campaign for prime minister against Liz Truss in August.
While his Hindu identity is what sets him apart and draws much fanfare, Sunak could also face intense scrutiny precisely of it, Swain added. As a result he will probably try to protect himself “from being branded as someone who always supports India and Hindus.”
Sunak will also have to grapple with rising tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Britain. In September, violence exploded on the streets of London, when fireworks were thrown, cars smashed and Muslim religious symbols desecrated. At least 160 people were arrested, according to Reuters.
The coverage of Sunak’s connections to India has not been entirely positive, however.
Revelations that his wife, an Indian citizen, had not been paying British tax on her foreign income through her “non-domiciled” status — available to foreign nationals who do not consider Britain as their permanent home — hurt Sunak in his race against Truss in the summer.
Murty, who owns a 0.9% stake in Infosys, later said she would start to pay British tax on her global income.