What Boris Johnson’s exit means for Indian-origin contenders and for India

The political crisis in the UK will put a lot of ongoing engagements and negotiations in limbo. With Boris Johnson relegated to a caretaker Prime Minister, consider the government lame duck till the party does not elect a new leadership to head the country. Until then, all policy decisions will remain on hold.

“It is clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party, and therefore a new prime minister,” said Johnson outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday.

The will of the party. That is the operative part. Not the will of the people or the opposition benches. Boris Johnson was ousted by his own party. So, the very same party will set the timeline and the process for a Tory leadership race which will be announced next week.

Is Britain ready for a non-Christian of Indian descent?

For now, the front runners for the Prime Minister’s position are former Finance Secretary Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and even Home Secretary Priti Patel has made a pitch.

But is the UK prepared to accept a leader of colour, of a different race, of a non-Christian faith? The country does have an opportunity to present itself as one that goes beyond the set criteria of the past and carve out a new path.

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It helps matters that this 42-year old Indian-origin leader’s resignation as the Chancellor of the exchequer triggered a series of resignations against Boris Johnson. He was leading by example by quitting after Johnson apologised for his February appointment of senior Conservative MP Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip who has allegations of sexual assault against him. Pincher was forced to step down following accusations of drunkenly groping two men.

The timely resignation of Sunak came soon after Downing Street conceded that the Prime Minister had known about Pincher’s behaviour as far back as 2019.

Not only the higher moral ground, it is also the keen financial acumen that Sunak brings to the table at a time when the country is fighting hard to recover financially from the COVID-19 pandemic, that works as an added advantage.

But, his stint in the Johnson administration is also mired with controversy. To begin with — he was also involved in the ‘partygate’ scandal and was fined along with Boris Johnson for attending a birthday party at 10 Downing Street.

Further, his wife, Akshata Murthy — daughter of Indian IT tycoon Narayan Murthy — faces income tax scrutiny for avoiding payment of taxes. To make matters worse, it was later learnt that Sunak had not surrendered his US green card whilst serving in the UK government. This flouting of rules has not been forgotten.

But, it is not just Sunak, the Tories have lost a lot of popularity and goodwill among the people of the country. However, this contest is within the party, since they have the numbers to form a government and nobody for now is considering snap elections.

In order to take part in this race, a Tory MP should be nominated by 8 colleagues. If over two MPs put themselves forward and secure the required nominations, then, a series of secret ballots are held to select a leader.

Sajid Javid, former Mayor of London, was the first to resign from his position in the government, followed by Sunak after the Pincher controversy blew up. The 52-year old Pakistani-origin Conservative leader was among the top four candidates when he made a bid for the Conservative Party’s leadership in 2019. He subsequently dropped out of that race and backed Johnson. He is a contender yet again, although numbers don’t favour him much.

ALSO READ | Boris Johnson quits as British PM: What led to the political crisis in UK?

Is Britain ready for a woman of Indian descent?

The other top contender of Indian-origin — Suella Braverman — currently the Attorney General in the UK Cabinet, is among the first Tory MPs to formally declare her leadership bid following the resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The 42-year-old barrister and the government’s senior-most legal official is likely to command some support within the pro-Brexit wing of her party.

“I am putting myself forward because I believe that the 2019 manifesto is fit for purpose, presents a bold and inspiring vision for our country and I want to deliver on the promises contained in that manifesto. I want to embrace the opportunities of Brexit and tidy up the outstanding issues and cut taxes,” said Braverman, who is of Goan ancestry, in a report by PTI.

Home Secretary Priti Patel (50) — the daughter of Ugandan-Indian parents who came to the UK in the 1960s — is known to be a Johnson loyalist and was one of the last of the Tory leaders who met the British premier to ask him to step down. Although she didn’t follow Sunak and Javid in resigning from her post, she does look like a contender for the post.

However, Patel polled just 3% in the YouGov survey.

According to reports, a YouGov poll of Tory members conducted during July 6-7 put Sunak well above former health minister Sajid Javid and home secretary Priti Patel, with the support of 10% of those surveyed. Sunak was placed third, behind only secretary of state for defence Ben Wallace (13%) and minister of state for trade policy Penny Mordaunt (12%).

ALSO READ | After scandals, Boris Johnson quits as UK prime minister

India-UK Ties

There are multiple facets to ties between India and the UK. Today, both countries hold the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two nations very dearly. Therefore, a leadership change will not adversely impact ties in the long run. But, in the near future, many important issues like the trade deal might have to wait till a new government is in place.

During his weekly media briefing, to a question on Boris Johnson quitting, Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “These are internal developments. We, of course, keep a close watch but the developments are internal to the UK. On the larger issue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Modi have shared a close friendship, but the UK is a strategic partner with whom we have a multifaceted relationship. It is important that the ties continue. It is based on various links and engagements.”

Further, responding to a question about the impact of Boris Johnson’s resignation on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) deal between the two countries, Bagchi said that the negotiations between India and the UK on FTA are going on and India hopes to sign the deal soon.

“There is some degree of optimism that it could be done soon. We are speculating if Boris Johnson’s resignation will impact the deal, but India hopes to carry forward the good momentum in the talks that are underway,” he added.

— ENDS —

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