• Thursday, July 18, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

Exclusive interview with Rishi Sunak: ‘My faith drives me to serve Britain’

The prime minister speaks about the challenges of occupying the highest office in the land.

SENSE OF DUTY: Rishi Sunak with HH Madhavpriyadas Swami during his visit to the Swaminarayan temple (Picture by Edward Massey / CCHQ)

By: SHAILESH SOLANKI and BARNIE CHOUDHURY

THE prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has told Eastern Eye that his faith and dharma have helped to guide him through difficult times.

He also revealed how the “mantle of the office” adds weight to his responsibilities.

Sunak spoke exclusively to Eastern Eye during a visit to the Shree Kutch Satsang Swaminarayan Temple in Harrow, in northwest London, the constituency of fellow Conservative, Bob Blackman, who was elected MP in 2010.

He explained that Hindu ‘dharma’ (sense of duty) drove him to accept the most challenging job in the UK.

“I was raised with values of service to your community and particularly dharma as you’ll understand it,” said Sunak.

“It’s about doing one’s duty, and that’s how I approach this job.

“I’m so grateful to everything that this country has done for me and my family, and that’s why I love it, and I work very hard in this job to try and help other people.

“That philosophy gives me a sense that, even when things are difficult, of which there are plenty of difficult times in this job, having something that you can kind of anchor with, get support and courage from, and strength and resilience from, is really important.

“It teaches me to work as hard as I can, do what I believe is right, and try and not get as fixated on the outcome, because I’ve got to focus on doing what I think is right, and putting as much into it as I can, and doing my duty right, and even if it’s difficult, that’s what I’m here to do.”

LEAD Inset 2b pic credit Edward Massey Copy
Rishi Sunak with AMG’s Kalpesh Solanki (left) and Shailesh Solanki (Pic credit: Edward Massey)

Duty to lead

The prime minister took over leading the country and his party at a time when Britain’s economy went into a tailspin caused by his predecessor, Liz Truss.

Her mini budget included £45billion of unfunded tax cuts, which led to Truss’ downfall and promoted her resignation after 49 days.

In 2022, during the Tory party leadership contest, Sunak warned members that his opponent’s tax cut plans would “tip millions of people into misery”.

The markets panicked and sterling hit a record low.

Even so, Sunak said he had no choice but to accept responsibility to guide his country to a better future.

“It was clearly going to be very difficult,” he recalled, “that wasn’t me [saying it], someone else described it as the worst hospital pass (someone put in a difficult or unpleasant situation) for any incoming prime minister.

“But I didn’t feel I had any choice, I felt it was my duty, given what I said over the summer about the economy, and that’s what I focused on.

“Then making sure we restore that economic stability, which we have now done, 11 per cent inflation now back on target, the economy growing faster than our competitors, wages rising, interest rates on the verge of being cut.

“So, I think we have on the thing that was most important, really made good progress.”

It was Conservative MPs who elected Sunak as their party leader, after Penny Mordaunt and former prime minister, Boris Johnson, dropped out of the contest in October 2022.

In doing so, he became the first PM of south Asian heritage to occupy Number 10.

The mantle of office, he admitted, weighed heavily.

“I feel an extra sense of responsibility, because I know lots of people are looking up to me and being the first at something, it does come with that,” said Sunak.

“I don’t want to let people down, and I want to do a good job for everyone, but you do have that extra kind of mantle of responsibility, a lot of people are looking up to me to do a good job.

“So, you try and do the best you can.”

Spiritual guidance

The spiritual head of the Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratishthanam (SGVP) Gurukul in Ahmedabad in India, Madhavpriyadas Swami, blessed the prime minister in front of about 500 devotees.

The temple also gave him a statue of Lord Hanuman, who non-Hindus call the ‘monkey god’.

“I’m a person of faith, and that involves prayers and listening to Hanuman Chalisa or whatever it might be, which is very nice to have this to take home with me this evening,” he said, pointing to the statue.

LEAD Inset 1 Sunak addressing guests jpg
Rishi Sunak addressing guests at the temple

Sunak has a mandir in Number 10, and the Hanuman Chalisa is a series of Hindu verses which recounts the commitment and devotion of Lord Hanuman to Lord Ram.

His sense of duty and serving communities came from his childhood, the prime minister said.

“I was really lucky, because I was raised in a very loving home and very supportive family.

“I think family is probably the most important thing in all of our lives, and that’s something I think governments don’t always talk about.

“I’m happy to talk about it because I think it is important, but I was also raised with the values of hard work and service and for us, serving the community in different ways was very important to my parents, both in their jobs as pharmacist and GP.

“They went above and beyond to really look after people that they were responsible for and had a duty to.

“But also, whether it was at the mandir or other things, that was instilled in us that you have to spend your time helping other people in your community in lots of different ways.

“You don’t get anywhere in life without hard work, you have to work hard for what you want.”

Family support

Britain’s leading political leader said that while his faith guided him, he did rely on the support of his wife, Akshata, daughter of the tech-billionaire, Narayana Murthy.

“Akshata is an incredible support to me and provides a lot of strength and support  [during] a lot of difficult times.

“And my girls are great because they’re young, and largely what I do doesn’t bother them, and they’re not that focused on it, because they’re still little enough, which is great.

“What they are is a wonderful distraction away from it all, because they’re more interested in their games, or what they’re playing, and what they’re watching on tele, or their hobbies.

“I don’t see them as much, I [don’t] get to spend as much time with them, but when I do, it is a nice switch off and [get] a break from everything else, because they’re just young enough that this is not something that they’re worried about.

“They’re not sitting there watching the six o’clock news or debates, things like that.”

LEAD Inset 3 Sunaks Diwali GettyImages 1778833495
Rishi Sunak with his wife Akshata Murty and their daughters Anoushka and Krishna during Diwali celebrations outside 10 Downing Street (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

Campaign missteps

It is widely acknowledged that Sunak called the general election to the surprise of many in his party who expected an autumn poll.

The campaign has had some missteps, including the prime minister’s decision to leave the D-Day commemorations early, for which he has apologised.

The Gambling Commission is also investigating allegations that four senior Conservatives placed bets on the date of the general election.

In an election debate last week (20), the prime minister said he was “incredibly angry” to learn about the allegations, and he promised to “boot out” anyone found to have broken gambling laws.

When asked about the, sometimes, toxic rhetoric on immigration where immigrants had been demonised, the prime minister said that he was “living proof of how tolerant and compassionate our country is”.

“We were welcomed into this country, and I’ve always said ours is a country where if you come here and you’re willing to work hard, integrate and share a set of common values, the sky’s the limit for what you can achieve, and I’m living proof of that,” he responded.

“That’s something we should celebrate, we’re the most successful multi ethnic, multi faith democracy anywhere in the world.

“That should be a source of enormous pride for us.

“But I do think that that success would be put at risk if we are not able to demonstrate to everybody that we are in control of the levels of immigration, and the levels over the past few years have just simply been too high.

“It’s right that they come back down to more sustainable levels, because that eases pressure on public services.

“We need to make sure that we’re reforming our welfare system here at home, so that we can support people into work.

“When we’ve got so many people on the welfare system, particularly since the pandemic, that with the right support, they can work.

“That’s good for them, good for the country, and means that’s less reliance on people coming from abroad.”

But should we celebrate more the contribution of communities of colour?

“I think in one sense, it’s big deal that I’m first British-Asian prime minister,” said Sunak.

“But in one sense, it was not a big deal, and I think that that is a good thing in the sense that because people think that it’s just something which is British.

“I think that is a positive thing, in a way, because it is perceived as something that is perfectly reasonable and possible in this country, and I think that is a good thing.

“But of course, we constantly need to make progress, as every country does, and just making sure that we are a tolerant country where everyone, regardless of their background, not just ethnic or religious background, is getting the opportunities that they deserve to live a fulfilling life.”

Yet he was equally clear that he could and would continue to help minority communities.

“I’m proud of the Conservatives’ record on helping Asian and black communities,” he continued.

“Since 2010, employment in ethnic minority groups has gone up by 70 per cent, and ethnic diversity at the top of Britain’s biggest companies has also increased – 96 of the FTSE 100 companies now have at least one ethnic minority director.

“While there is more to do, we should celebrate these achievements and not do down the progress our country has made.”

LEAD Inset 2a pic credit Edward Massey Copy
With Kalpesh Solanki and Shailesh Solanki (Pic credit: Edward Massey)

Lack of progress

Except for Simon Arora of B&M Stores, FTSE 100 companies have never appointed a British born Asian or black chief executive, relying on importing bosses of colour from countries such as America.

“I think we have made progress on boards,” the prime minister countered. “What the government has done in over the last [few] years, working in the industry, is focus on corporate governance and boards and where you have seen a really big change in companies, in board representation.

“That’s something where it’s right that we have made progress, but with all these things we keep going, when the journey is not completed.

“I think role models are important, and the more people are able to be successful, the more people look at them and say, ‘Oh, I can do that, that door is not closed for me.’

“That is why we are constantly making sure opportunity is spread far and wide is important.

“I’m not one of these people who believes in top-down quotas.

“I believe in a meritocracy, in making sure that everyone has the right opportunities, and any artificial unfair barriers are removed.”

Sunak promised to cut taxes should he be elected on 4 July by abolishing national insurance for those who are self-employed.

South Asian voters

Research from Queen Mary University of London suggests that in London most Asians will vote for Labour in significant margins.

But the one group where there is a mere four-point lead for Labour is among British-Indians.

Sunak made a direct appeal for south Asian communities to vote for his party.

“From a global pandemic to the biggest energy shock for almost half a century, Britain has been hit by a number of unprecedented challenges in the past few years,” he said.

“But by sticking to our clear plan, we have now turned a corner.

“My first priority as PM was to halve inflation and it’s now back to normal at two percent target – lower than in Europe and the US.

“Real wages are rising, Britain was the joint fastest-growing economy in the G7 in the first quarter of this year, and we have been able to cut the average worker’s taxes by £900 since January.

“With your vote, I will take further bold action in the next parliament, cutting taxes for workers, parents and pensioners, and helping the backbone of Britain’s economy – small businesses – to thrive.

“I would urge Eastern Eye readers to allow us to stick to the plan, which is delivering clear results.”

Related Stories
Videos

Mrunal Thakur on Dhamaka, experience of working with Kartik Aaryan,…

Nushrratt Bharuccha on Chhorii, pressure of comparison with Lapachhapi, upcoming…

Abhimanyu Dassani on Meenakshi Sundareshwar, how his mom Bhagyashree reacted…