Rishi Sunak, Daleep Singh face Tebbit test in UK, US over their Indian roots

Daleep Singh (left) and Rishi Sunak (right). File Photo: Reuters

Two prominent men of Indian origin holding enormous financial power — one in the United Kingdom and another in the United States of America — have been under scrutiny over their Indian connections and their commitment to cripple Russia with sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

Rishi Sunak, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been questioned in his country's media, on whether he is seriously committed to push the harsh sanctions since his wife Akshata, daughter of IT icon N R Narayana Murthy, has shares in the Indian company Infosys which does business with Vladimir Putin's government.

Daleep Singh, the US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, has been praised in his country for talking tough to Indian government in New Delhi that there will be "consequences" if the Narendra Modi government continues to do business with the Russian government and banks. Named after his great granduncle who became the first Indian-American and first non-Abrahamic faith member of the American House of Representatives, Singh has been credited with crafting the harshest sanctions in history and strongly believes America can punish Putin without firing a shot.

Sunak's grandparents too had migrated from Punjab to east Africa and later his parents moved to Britain, where Sunak was born and pursued studies. Considered to be the second most powerful man after Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he has handled the fallout of Britain's exit from the European Union, the coronavirus impact and now the Ukraine crisis. Like Singh, Sunak too has imposed massive curbs on Russian banks, Putin and even Russian billionaires doing business in England. He was instrumental in the temporary government takeover of the popular football club Chelsea. When Johnson's continuance in power was under a cloud last year, Sunak's name was under discussion to be the prime minister. But there are accusations that he will unduly favour India because of Akshata's shares in Infosys and other Indian companies.

Singh (47), a hardcore economist, is seen as a future US minister if there are changes in the Joe Biden administration. Sunak is a tough politician, who in just seven years as the Member of Parliament, has risen up the greasy pole very high. So Sunak took on his accusers head on, saying he felt like Hollywood actor Will Smith, who attacked an anchor at the Oscar's ceremony for joking about the health of his wife Jadi. While saying he didn't want to hit anyone, Sunak swung to the defence of his wife's millions, saying he had very high respect for Narayana Murthy's achievements. But he insisted there was no conflict of interest.

Interestingly, Infosys stung by accusations of its "big Russian business" clarified it maintains only a small office in Russia and the volume of business was small. But the IT behemoth was clarifying not just to answer Sunak's critics but to reassure its American clients, including banks, that they need not worry about their software provider.

Singh angers Indian establishment
But there has been a storm of protest over Singh's public warning issued in New Delhi after meeting top officials including the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary P K Mishra, who deals with economic matters. A retired ambassador told the "young man" that it was the language of coercion, not used in diplomacy. The communist parties warned the BJP government that its trust of Americans has led to betrayal. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman publicly said India would buy petroleum and other goods from cheap sources but also brainstormed with her team and the Reserve Bank on how to deal if Singh carried out his threat. Officials who had dealt with the sanctions imposed against Iranian banks by the then-American President Donald Trump, were also consulted.

However, the central government decided not to enter into a war of words with Singh, which would give him undue importance. It was seen as part of American pressure tactics, as before Singh it was Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State, who came to Delhi and gave media interviews on why New Delhi should abandon Moscow. But the Russians had warned that it was Nuland who had led the efforts of the Barack Obama Government in 2014 to overthrow the elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who took asylum in Russia.

The test of loyalty
Politicians of foreign origin are always put to tighter tests of loyalty in their adopted countries. They are constantly questioned on commitment to the countries to which their ancestors have migrated. Like Sunak, another politician who faces immense scrutiny is US Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is said to be a heartbeat away from becoming the country's president. While she did not westernize her first name, both Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, whose elders had migrated from Punjab, have Americanised their first names and avoided emphasizing their Indian connection when they successfully campaigned to become governors of American states. Jindal failed to clear the first round in his ambition to become a presidential candidate, while Haley has not yet decided about contesting the 2024 elections. Another politician, who is careful not to stress her Indian connection is Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Canada, an exception
But in Canada, the Sikh politicians influence the policies of the Canadian government towards India as the Sikh immigrants continue their strong connection with Punjab.

Ignore ethnicity
While emotions may run high among political parties, diplomats and media in India when Indian-origin persons come to hold high offices abroad, the government of India has to adopt a realistic approach. It has to deal with these politicians only on basis of their actions, and not on their Indianness.

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