The Hindu community of Southall in west London is marking Diwali on the same day Rishi Sunak was tapped as the first person of colour, first Hindu and first person of Indian descent to lead Britain. Image Credit: Washington Post

London: It seemed like a made-for-television moment: Rishi Sunak was named the next prime minister of Britain on Diwali, the celebration of the festival of lights.

For many in Southall, an area in west London that is sometimes called "Little India" for its large Indian diaspora, that meant there were multiple reasons to celebrate on Monday night.

"If Rishi Sunak ever dreamed he would be prime minister on Diwali day, well, you couldn't take bets on this. What a wonderful thing," said Davinderpal Singh Kooner, 67, a dental surgeon, who was speaking outside of a temple where families were lighting tea light candles and placing them in sandboxes on the ground.

"It's a unique moment to have an Asian PM, and probably not something I thought would happen in my lifetime," he said - pausing as red fireworks fanned out in the sky - "it's a pivotal moment in the politics of this country."

Southall is not an area that's typically friendly to Sunak's Conservative Party. The current member of Parliament is a British Indian Labour Party politician, and the constituency has voted Labour ever since it was formed in 1974. The majority of residents in this diverse, vibrant community are South Asians. Film buffs may remember it as the area of London where the hit "Bend it Like Beckham" was set.

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Monday's celebratory displays were clearly for Diwali, not for Sunak. Kids were running around with sparklers. Adults were setting off fireworks. Residents were flooding into temples to pray and light candles.

But when asked about their soon-to-be prime minister, several people said they were proud he shared a similar background.

"On social media, a lot of my friends are saying it's an Obama moment," said Hardeep Marwa, 45, IT project manager for the National Health Service who was on his way to a temple to pray. "It's opening the door for South Asians to go into politics. I was born here, my mom is from Kenya, my dad is from India, so a similar situation to Rishi. It does resonate - that someone has broken through the ranks."

Sunak was born in Southampton, a port city in southern England. His parents are of Punjabi Indian descent. His father was born in present-day Kenya, his mother in present-day Tanzania. They migrated to Britain in the 1960s.

In a July interview with the Times of London, Sunak said lighting the lightning the Diwali diyas on the steps of Downing Street, as he did when chancellor, was one of the proudest moments of his career.

Harmeet Singh Gill, 31, an accountant, said there was a generational divide at his temple in Southall, with the younger generation more excited about Sunak's appointment, the older ones more ambivalent. "For people my age, it's interesting and a little bit exciting seeing someone of Punjabi descent climb all the way to the top of the food chain. His upbringing is a little different to ours . . . but still, he got there."

Harmeet Singh Gill
Harmeet Singh Gill said there's a generational divide within the temple on Sunak's selection as prime minister. Image Credit: Washington Post

Sunak went to a private boarding school when he was younger, where annual fees, by today's figures, exceed $52,000. He went on to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and to get an MBA at Stanford University.

While being from an ethnic minority was important, Gill said it was more important that Sunak solve the many problems facing the country, including a cost-of-living crisis. He said he's noticed people increasingly relying on food donations to his temple.

"The day has started for him and he needs to crack on," Gill said.

The sentiment that this was a moment to mark - even if people disliked Sunak's policies and the way he was selected by Conservative Party insiders - was expressed by many around the country.

"I disagree profoundly with @RishiSunak's politics and with the process by which he's become Prime Minister," tweeted Munira Wilson, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker. "But my family & I are heartened to witness the first ever brown PM in Downing Street. My parents were convinced it couldn't/wouldn't happen. Glad they were proved wrong!"

Hardip Sembhi, 37, a beautician who was with her two children in Southall, said she was "hopeful" Sunak would do "some good stuff for the Indian community" but said "he will be judged on his record."

Jagdish Kauer, 33, a Southall resident of Punjabi descent who works in asset management, said many in her community thought race may have played a factor in the last leadership contest, when Conservative Party members voted for Liz Truss over Sunak.

Jagdish Kauer
Jagdish Kauer, 33, expressed some skepticism about Sunak and his Conservative Party, but said the moment was still meaningful. Image Credit: Washington Post

She said she hoped having a prime minister of color now wouldn't mean that, in the future, other people of color would be overlooked, because the Conservatives "could say, we 'ticked that box.'" She stressed that Sunak will be judged on his policies and actions "like all leaders should." But nonetheless, she said the fact that a person of Punjabi descent will be invited by King Charles III on Tuesday to form a government "really resonates with our community."