The election of Hamza Yousaf as the First Minister (Chief Minister) of Scotland a few days ago, marked a significant transformation of the British Isles and their relations with South Asia.

In colonial times, Whites from the British Isles ruled South Asia. But now, the British Isles are being ruled by South Asians. Indian Rishi Sunak is the Prime Minister of the UK, Pakistani Hamza Youraf is the First Minister of Scotland, and Indian Leo Varadkar is the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Republic of Ireland. Further, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is a child of migrants from Pakistan. The Empire has struck back, well and truly.

Other noteworthy features

First, the rulers from the ex-colonies represent three different religions prevalent in the Indian subcontinent – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. This is a rare example of India’s ancient credo “Unity in Diversity” propagated by Jawaharlal Nehru.

If Sunak is the first Indian and Hindu to be British PM, Yousaf is the first Muslim politician to be chosen to serve as a “national” leader in a Western democracy. Varadkar, though half-Irish, is the first Indo-Irish to be the Prime Minister of Ireland.

Second, neither Sunak nor Yousaf is hiding his faith to please the Christian majority in these countries. While Sunak openly performed Hindu rituals at 10 Downing Street, in 2016, Yousaf wore the Scottish kilt with a Sherwani (an Indian coat) as he took his oath of loyalty in the Scottish Parliament, in both English and Urdu. And Varadkar has made no secret of his close links with India has been an intern at Mumbai’s KEM hospital.

Different from their countries of origin

However, the scenario in the British isles is different from that in the leaders’ countries of origin. While in South Asia, majoritarianism has become the dominant creed replacing the multi-culturalism of the early years of independence, the British Isles are becoming more and more multi-cultural, yielding top leadership positions to ethnic and religious minorities with each passing year.

India has been in the grip of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism aiming to make it a “Hindu Rashtra” or “Hindu nation” since the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi. In Pakistan, the minorities have no place because Islamic radicals call the shots. In Sri Lanka, governments primarily represent the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, and in Myanmar, the Buddhist majority rules the roost to the total neglect of the minority Christians and Muslims.

Indian leaders have abandoned the practice of celebrating Islamic festivals since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister and BJP-ruled governments at the Center and the States no longer hold Islamic Iftar parties during the Ramazan month. But an Iftar dinner was held this year at the British Prime Minister’s official residence 10 Downing Street. Prayers were said in response to Azan or a call to prayer by a muezzin. The dinner was hosted by the chairman of the ruling Conservative Party. The Foreign Office also held an Iftar dinner, sending a message to the world at large about the British thrust towards religious harmony in a world torn asunder by religious animosities.

Flash in the Pan

However, the question to whether the rise of South Asian/non-White leaders to the pinnacle is a flash in the pan remains. Does the phenomenon represent a fundamental change in the socio-political and ideological make-up of societies in the British Isles or is it passing fancy, a temporary choice in the absence of suitable White candidates for the top leadership?


It is too early to give a definitive answer as these personalities have just begun their innings. It is yet to be seen if they will be accepted over the long run. A point to bear in mind is that these countries are democracies that throw up leaders based on their acceptability to the single largest section of the population. And in the British Isles, the single largest section is overwhelmingly White and Christian.

The leaders’ performance thus far, or their statements of intent made thus far, indicate that they will play according to the wishes of the majority. They are playing safe.

Sunak and his Home Minister, Suella Braverman (also a person of Indian origin) have taken a tough stand against opening the floodgates to immigrants in response to fears of being overwhelmed by immigrants. Yousaf is vigorously championing the cause of Scotland’s independence from the UK. As First Minister, the first thing that he did was to write to the UK Prime Minister Sunak seeking a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Ironically, as in pre-independence India, when Muslim leader M.A. Jinnah sought Pakistan independent of Hindu India, a British Muslim First Minister of Scotland is seeking independence from the UK whose Prime Minister is a Hindu! Is Indian history being played out in the UK?

Be that as it may, though a Muslim, Yousaf stands for gay and transgender rights in tune with the emerging culture in the Western world. And Varadkar is resolutely opposed to abortion given the fact that the majority of the Irish population is Catholic.

Bumpy Start

However, neither Sunak nor Yousaf got off to a smooth start. Sunak was riled for being a compromise candidate and not a PM in his own right as he was the product of a leadership struggle in the ruling Conservative party following the exit of Boris Johnson.

Although Sunak was described as best qualified to solve Britain’s economic problems, he was criticized in the media for his “elitist” remarks and lifestyle apart from his Indian wife’s efforts to dodge UK taxes. He faces a rough road ahead with the UK’s bid to sign a free trade agreement with India in the context of a strain in the bilateral relationship.

A controversial BBC documentary on Modi’s alleged complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the UK’s failure to protect the Indian High Commission in London from a group of hooligans demanding an independent Sikh State of Khalistan have strained Indo-British ties.

Sunak is in a fix. While freedom of expression (but not violence) is basic to the British creed, Sunak needs the Indian market and capital to rescue UK’s failing economy.


Yousaf’s Woes

Stuart Nicolson of BBC Scotland pointed out that Humza Yousaf’s victory in the election to the First Minister’s post had been narrow. Additionally, his push for Scottish independence through an urgent referendum and for his controversial gender recognition reforms could come up against opposition.

Nicholson quotes critics to say that Yousaf has few accomplishments to show for his time in government as a cabinet minister. Labor’s Jackie Baillie described him as “the worst Health Secretary on record” who “now aspires to be the worst First Minister on record”.

According to Nicolson, the most withering assessment has come from his fellow SNP leadership contender Kate Forbes, who told Yousaf during a live STV debate that: “You were transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister, we’ve got record high waiting times”.

Yousaf had also faced questions over his failure to take part in the final vote on gay marriage in 2014, which he said was due to having a vital meeting about a Scot who was being held on death row in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. But Alex Salmond, who was First Minister at the time, told Sky News that Yousaf had missed the vote because of religious pressure from a Glasgow mosque – an allegation Yousaf strongly denied.


All in all, it is a hard road ahead for Yousaf as well as Sunak.







Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here