COVID-19: With Boris down, two Indian-origin ministers come to the fore
UK Cabinet ministers Priti Patel (left) and Rishi Sunak (right). Photo: Twitter

COVID-19: With Boris down, two Indian-origin ministers come to the fore

With British Prime Minister Boris Johnson now in the hospital suffering due to COVID-19, there are two Indian-origin Cabinet ministers who are helping fill the gap – Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel.

With British Prime Minister Boris Johnson now in the hospital suffering due to COVID-19, there are two Indian-origin Cabinet ministers who are helping fill the gap – Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel.

Twitterati have proudly called it a case of retribution. They say, “After 200 years of British Raj in India, finally Indians are now ruling Britain.” Many are salivating at the prospect of an Indian-origin British prime minister. However, this may be a little too early to predict anything.

Let us be perfectly clear that with Johnson incapacitated, the de facto prime minister is Dominic Raab, First Secretary of State or foreign minister, who is very much English and has been carrying out his public duties ever since the prime minister became unwell and went into self-isolation. If by some misfortune, Raab was to become ill too, protocol demands that Sunak, by virtue of his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the next most important position in the Cabinet, may be asked to step into the breach.

Sunak, the 39-year-old son-in-law of Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, is considered a ‘bright young thing’ in the Conservative Party but his inexperience in politics – he first became a Member of Parliament from a very safe Tory seat as recently as 2015 – could certainly hamper his chances of getting the top job just yet.

Related news | Boris Johnson in intensive care as coronavirus rages through the land

Patel, on the other hand, has around a decade on Sunak in age and is certainly an older hand in politics. She is the first Indian-origin MP to hold one of the Great Offices of the State in the UK. The Great Offices of the State are the four senior most and prestigious posts in the British government – the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary. Sunak followed Patel by becoming the second Indian-origin person to hold one of the Great Offices of the State in February 2020. Patel became Home Minister in July 2019.

Patel has broken many other glass ceilings too. She became the first Indian-origin Hindu to become the home minister of the UK. She was beaten to the honour of becoming the first BAME (a collective term used in UK to mean Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) person to become the home minister of Britain, the department that deals with immigration, by her predecessor in the job Sajid Javid, a Pakistani-origin Tory MP.

Javid also beat Sunak by becoming the first BAME, and later becoming the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Javid resigned from the finance ministry after differences with Johnson’s political aide in February 2020, after which Sunak was elevated to the post.

Despite her successful elevation in the field, Patel has in her short tenure as minister been extremely controversial, which will certainly hinder her chances of making it to the very top. Just before the coronavirus crisis broke out in the UK, Patel was under intense pressure to resign as home secretary because of bullying allegations against her by the senior-most bureaucrat in her department.

Related news | Boris Johnson admitted to hospital for COVID-19 tests

Sir Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary in the Home Office, quit after 33 years of service, alleging that Patel had launched a ‘vicious’ campaign against him. He accused Patel of “creating fear” in the Home Office with her behavior and that her conduct included her “shouting and swearing” and “belittling people”.

Rutnam claimed Patel accused him of being “unable to do his job”, of being “undeserving of his pension” and compared him to Eeyore, the stupid donkey in the children’s classic ‘Winnie the Pooh’. Rutnam is now taking legal action against the government and a Cabinet inquiry has begun. An allegation and resignation of this kind from a top bureaucrat is unprecedented in the history of civil services.

This is not the first time that Patel has been accused of bullying her subordinates. A former aide to Patel has just received a GBP 25,000 government payout after she threatened a lawsuit in which Patel was accused of shouting at the aide to “get lost” and “get out of her face” with a few expletives thrown in, and eventually sacking her. The incident occurred in October 2015 when Patel was not a minister, but the aide alleges that Patel’s behavior had traumatized her so much that she took an overdose of prescription medicines in an attempt to kill herself. Patel has denied all charges against her.

Patel, daughter of Gujarati parents who migrated to the UK from Kampala in Uganda was born in Harrow in West London, an area which has the largest Hindu population in the country. She joined the Conservative Party in her teens and claimed that Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher inspired her to join politics. Initially working for a public relations firm lobbying for tobacco and alcohol, she unsuccessfully fought the 2005 general election from Nottingham North on behalf of the Conservative Party.

Related news | Three Indian-origins find place in UK PM Boris Johnson’s government

Keen to make the Tory Party more ethnically diverse, David Cameron gave Patel the ultra-safe Conservative constituency of Witham to contest from in 2010. Patel won with a majority of just over 19,000 votes. She held onto the seat in the 2015 election too. However, in 2016, when Cameron announced a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, Patel sided with his arch rival Boris Johnson to leave the EU.

During the campaign, Patel was a staunch Brexiteer and a Johnson loyalist, but once the Brexit vote was won and Cameron resigned, Patel backed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader. In a bid to appease Brexiteers, May appointed her as minister for International Development knowing fully well that she was in Johnson’s camp. Even here, she courted controversy by holding unauthorized meetings with the Government of Israel, forcing May to sack her from International Development ministry.

Her loyalty to Johnson finally paid off when he became prime minister and made her the Home Minister.

Touted to be the most promising Indian-origin Tory MP at one time, Patel has blotted her copybook so badly that she was on the verge of having to resign – when the coronavirus pandemic hit and took some of the heat off her. Even then, ever since Johnson has been ill, Patel has been conspicuous by her absence at the daily media briefings, which have been taken by either Raab or Sunak. Questions are being raised as to why she is lying low if she is not guilty.

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