Orange and pink fireworks colored the skies over south London on Monday, as members of the local South Asian community celebrated Diwali.
This year, the holiday aligned with Rishi Sunak, 42, becoming Britain’s first prime minister of Indian descent, as Hindus like him celebrated the festival of lights.
Sunak’s rise to power has split opinion among South Asians in the UK. Some believe his historic appointment is a moment of pride and sign of social progress in Britain, while others point to his immense wealth, privately educated background and adoption of hard right-wing policies.
Evidence of this wide range of views was clear when CNN spoke to South Asians in the London neighborhood of Tooting – home to a bustling migrant community within the British capital.
Flamboyant fabric shops, places of worship and food vendors offering syrupy Indian desserts alongside fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets, with family-run convenience stores dotting nearly every corner.
The London suburb is steeped in the richly diverse heritage of its residents, where people of color comprise over half of the population, according to the 2011 UK census.
The same data found that nearly 30% of people in Tooting identify as “Asian” or “Asian British,” and after English, Urdu and Gujarati are among the most common languages spoken.
“I think it’s a good thing and especially auspicious on the day of Diwali, for him to be appointed,” Raj Singh, a Punjabi-Sikh member of the Khalsa Centre, a local Sikh temple, told CNN.
“It is a sign of progress, but only at the top. Rishi Sunak comes from a very privileged background,” the 58-year-old solicitor said, his glasses tucked behind his bright orange turban.
Singh said he believed Sunak’s ascent is a sign that only South Asian politicians with immense social and economic privilege can “break the glass ceiling.”
Earlier this year, Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List of the UK’s 250 wealthiest people. The newspaper estimated their joint net worth at £730 million ($826 million).
‘I never thought this day would come’
Sunak received a flurry of congratulations from other politicians of South Asian heritage, including former Conservative cabinet minister Sajid Javid and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is in the opposition Labour Party. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also sent Sunak “special Diwali wishes,” calling him a “bridge” between the two countries.
Outside the capital, Sanjay Chandarana, who heads a Hindu temple in Southampton, southern England, co-founded by Sunak’s grandparents in 1971, told CNN that Sunak’s elevation was “a Barack Obama moment” for the UK, in a nod to America’s first Black president.
“I think it’s something of importance to the South Asian community … seeing that he is the first South Asian prime minister of the UK. It’s something that I think all South Asians should be proud of,” Irtaza Nasir, a 24-year-old restaurant director in Tooting, said. “I never thought this day would come.”
Anil Shah, a garrulous 75-year-old Hindu Gujarati shopkeeper, said Sunak’s leadership “proves that we have Indians who are clever enough to do the job.”
However, Nilufar Ahmed, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in western England, said Sunak’s leadership is “nuanced and complex,” and cautioned the limits of racial representation at the highest rungs of British politics.
“I think that there was something quite lovely about his appointment coming alongside Diwali. I think that was really meaningful for many South Asians to have that,” she said.
“But I also think that it’s too simplistic to see Rishi Sunak as symbolic of a South Asian community in the UK. This is a man that has had lots of privilege and so he isn’t as representative as some of the discourse around representation is presenting him to be.”
Ahmed said she remains cynical about comparisons between Sunak and Obama’s premiership, citing the absence of a mandate from the general population in Britain.
Sunak was appointed prime minister, replacing Liz Truss, after his lone remaining rival Penny Mordaunt dropped out of the Conservative Party leadership contest. He is the third British prime minister in seven weeks, with his premiership sparking calls from across the political spectrum for a general election.
“Rishi Sunak was not even elected by his own party, let alone by the UK population. And so there will be a resistance in the population against Sunak being appointed. He will not be seen as somebody who perhaps represents the membership or the voters of the Conservative Party,” Ahmed commented.