Sunak versus Obama: Different Strokes

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BY YASHWANT RAJ

Washington– Barack Obama became a historical figure when he took office in January 2009 as the first African-American President of the United States.

Rishi Sunak put his own stamp on history last week when he became the first coloured Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Add a few more firsts here in the same vein: The first person of Indian origin to hold the same post, and the first South Asian descent person to do the same.

Both Obama and Sunak’s elevation to the their respective country’s top positions created waves across the world. Sunak’s elevation was especially sweet for the former colonies of the British empire, whose response was aptly captured in a headline that was commonly used there: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

The two leaders also share their relative youth for the age — Sunk is 42 and Obama was 47 when he was elected as US President, and both have two daughters.

But there are crucial differences between the two. In fact, too many to list out here.

Most critically — and one that escaped notice among Sunak’s fans in the Indian diaspora around the world, and the Hindu Diaspora — while Obama kept his ethnic background as an African-American up front even as he tried to be a unifying figure, Sunak cut himself a starkly different path.

There was no mention of his Indian-descent or Hindu faith in Sunak’s first speech from 10 Downing Street upon being invited to form the next government to replace Liz Truss’.

He spoke of economy as being the main challenge, integrity – in a nod to Boris Johnson’s scandal-ridden premiership – and professionalism, which was sorely lacking from Truss’ 44 days in office. But there was no mention, once again, of his Indian-descent or Hindu faith, neither of which he has been shy to acknowledge in the past.

Sunak’s father and mother were born in Kenya and Tanzania to parents from Punjab (Pakistanis have claimed some ownership as Sunak’s paternal grandfather was born in Gujranwala, which is in Pakistan now) and Delhi, respectively.

Sunak himself was born in England. He also wears, as has been noted by the Hindu diaspora, a thick band of ‘moily’ (the red Hindu ritualistic thread) around his wrist. But he did not wear it specially for his inaugural speech, as has been wrongly portrayed in some reports.

In his victory speech on November 5, 2008, Obama had harped on the transformational nature of his election.

“This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election, except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old,” he had said and gone on to devote several paragraphs to an African-American who was born into a slave family who could not vote in the pre-civil rights days because of the color of her skin.

“And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.”

The last three words of his campaign slogan have become iconic since.

In his inaugural speech on January 21, 2009, Obama focused largely on the economy – the US was going through a recession at the time – and the challenges were similar but more dire than to those in Sunak’s United Kingdom now, but the first African-American President made sure to remind the listeners of his background.

“And so, to all the other people and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born (Barack Obama Sr was from Kenya), know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seek a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.”

Sunak, by contrast, has presented himself as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from the start, who intends to extricate the economy from its present crisis and lead a government that governs with integrity, unlike Johnson, and with professionalism, unlike Truss. (IANS)

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