‘Indian’ & ‘Pakistani’ walk into Brit high offices…What happens?


Nothing much. Sunak & Yousaf’s ethnicity won’t change key policies, neither do they want it to


Heard the one about the Indian and the Pakistani, abroad in Britain? That’s a variant on the opening line of the well-worn joke convention featuring two people of different nationalities, cultures or professions. Usually, they say or do something that raises a smile while simultaneously addressing a complex issue revolving around stereotype or mindset.

In 2023, the joke may be on Britain. The Indian and the Pakistani, both of Punjabi heritage, have been busy doing politics. At the highest level. The Pakistani takes office as first minister of Scotland, which is roughly analogous to chief minister of an Indian state. Hamza Yousaf has vowed to lead a campaign to partition the United Kingdom and were he to succeed in breaking up the 316-year union, he would effectively be setting himself up to be the Jinnah of tomorrow’s Scotland.

It falls to the Indian then to be the Nehru of today’s Britain. As prime minister of the United Kingdom and the first Hindu and non-white person in the job, Rishi Sunak is the man who’s meant to hold it all together.

Separately and together, Yousaf and Sunak have made history. Within six months of Sunak’s ascent to the highest office in Britain, Yousaf won his Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leadership election, thereby becoming first minister. Yousaf is the first South Asian Muslim to take charge of a western European semi-autonomous democratic country. Both men are deeply conscious of the symbolism and history-making weight of their ascent. If Sunak is known for lighting Diwali lamps on the doorstep of Downing Street, Yousaf famously took his first Scottish parliament oath back in 2011 in Urdu, while wearing a kilt.

The rise of Sunak and Yousaf illustrates the realities as well as the usual platitudes about the depth and breadth of ethnic and faith diversity at the very top of British politics. But more striking by far is the extent to which they have neither tried to remake their nation’s politics, nor signalled any intention to do so.

At 37, Yousaf will be the youngest first minister Scotland has had in the nearly quarter-century since the job was created. And yet, he takes office as no more than a continuity candidate, a replacement for outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon. Even then, Yousaf is no straight swap for Sturgeon, who is known as much for her gamine bob and feisty communication skills as for the passionate intensity with which she champions Scottish independence. Instead, Yousaf, whose critics sometimes call him “Humza Useless” is considered a plodding if oleaginous performer and in the words of one political sketchwriter, somewhat “like a leader created by ChatGPT”.

During the SNP leadership election, his main rival, evangelical Christian Kate Forbes, challenged Yousaf’s elevation to Sturgeon’s role with this devastating critique: “More of the same is not a manifesto, it is an acceptance of mediocrity”. It was a reference to the constant carping that Yousaf’s ethnicity may be more notable than his governing abilities and that he has “failed upwards” in a succession of ministerial briefs, including transport, justice and health. Even his decision to plough the long furrow towards a sunlit future of Scottish independence appears to be based on a somewhat selective reason to seek the brutal political partition of a nation. Five years ago, Yousaf explained to a Scottish political magazine that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York profoundly changed his worldview and that after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he realised independence was the only way to keep Scotland out of British wars. If anything, Yousaf may indicate the importance of a nuanced foreign policy in a multi-ethnic society, but also the need to leave domestic concerns at the water’s edge.

As for Sunak, there is little sign he plans to rewrite the country’s political script, seek to seed the British curriculum with knowledge of the Raj and propel the state towards emollient engagement with the sores of history.

His controversial new asylum and migration law is one example. Joining with his home secretary, Suella Braverman, another politician of Indian origin, Sunak wants a policy that is not humane, workable or even in line with international law. The European far right is united in praise of the proposed legislation, which follows in the wake of Australia’s brutal and staggeringly successful 20-year-old ‘stop the boats’ policy towards uninvited migrants. Interestingly, the Sunak-Braverman policies have been criticised as “cruel”, “heartless” and “racist”.

Should we have expected different from Sunak and Braverman? Should Yousaf in Scotland be held to a standard that is more inclusive? Braverman has challenged the idea “that a person’s skin colour should dictate their political views” and Sunak has previously joked about compliments for his “tan”. It is, as Priyamvada Gopal, Cambridge professor of Postcolonial Studies once noted, “the triumph of a carefully managed and trivialised diversity”.

But diversity is a meaningless word unless it signals real change. The colour, cultural heritage or DNA of those who run the show may be changing. Not the politics.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is based in London and writes on international affairs