India’s in-law club: Rishi Sunak and Sonia Gandhi share triumph and trials

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 8, 2023
A foreign son - or daughter-in-law can have a rough time of it, as Mrs Gandhi could tell Mr Sunak, were they to meet
It's tough being India's son-in-law or its daughter-in-law

There is no indication that Rishi Sunak will meet Sonia Gandhi while he’s in Delhi for the G20 summit but it would be a useful visit were it to happen.

Mr Sunak has spoken of being called “India’s son-in-law” and Mrs Gandhi, of course, has long been “India’s daughter-in-law”.

Mr Sunak and Mrs Gandhi share much as the respective groom and bride who married into a prominent Indian family. There is the triumph of their exceptionalism as well as the trials that come with it.

When Italian-born Sonia Maino met Rajiv Gandhi and became his wife, she became part of a storied political dynasty that is part of India’s history. Eventually, despite her instincts, the grieving widow became a leading figure for a time in the Congress Party, thereby playing a significant role in the politics of the world’s largest democracy.

Mr Sunak’s wife Akshata Murthy, daughter of Infosys founder N Narayana Murthy, means he will forever play in the big league, the one per cent of the world’s richest. But then there is Mr Sunak’s politics. What ambitions might he have and how does being “India’s son-in-law” help or hinder them?

As Britain’s first prime minister of Indian ethnicity, he has already made history. It’s not clear, however, that his links to India will prove a great advantage. Just to be specific, it is the link forged via his Indian-born-and-bred wife that may be more troubling than Mr Sunak’s more distant third-generation ethnic connection to India.

A foreign son – or daughter-in-law can have a rough time of it, as Mrs Gandhi could tell Mr Sunak, were they to meet. Mrs Gandhi is now a reclusive figure, unseen for long periods of time. Back in the day, however, the Indian media regularly carried headlines about “the Italian connection”, a dark hint about the supposed skulduggery in which she was complicit. The manifest reason was her ethnicity. As a white, Catholic woman, she was accused of belonging to a fascist family and having mafia connections. For years, there were questions about why it took her so long – 15 years after she married Rajiv and moved to India – to become an Indian citizen. In the early 2000s, India’s Hindu nationalist BJP set up quite a cacophony about her ” foreign origins” issue, with Mrs Gandhi cast as an agent of Catholic Rome.

For Mr Sunak, the “India’s son-in-law” label arguably has twice the problems faced by Mrs Gandhi. There is the risk of running into PR and political problems both in Britain and India.

As a thought experiment, consider what might happen if Britain and India concluded a trade deal on Mr Sunak’s watch. Were that to be the case, it’s inevitable the final agreement will have elements of give and take by both sides. In that case, might some in the UK scour the deal for advantages they consider unfair granted to New Delhi? Might they then point fingers at Mr Sunak for – so the argument would go – giving away the farm away to his ‘Indian in-laws?’ In India, meanwhile, country of Mr Sunak’s genetic DNA but as foreign to him as any other British-born-and-bred man, there might be some angst he has done less than he should for the motherland?

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