One would imagine that it is Boris Johnson and not the estranged wife who is about to divorce him who has Indian blood. For that matter, a saree-clad Theresa May in a temple is a far cry from Britain’s last (and first) woman prime minister.
The oblique manner in which the aspirant prime minister is pursuing his ambition seems wholly Indian. He pleads piously that he doesn’t want the job. He only wants to destroy Mrs May’s Brexit strategy, knowing full well that if the strategy goes so will its author.
Nor should it surprise anyone that when the prime minister gathered all her senior colleagues at Chequers, Mr Johnson, then her Foreign Secretary, said nary a word. Publishing a White Paper, Mrs May announced the plan as her government’s unanimous decision. Mr Johnson acquiesced in that, too. Other ministers were honest enough to give up their jobs, the best known being David Davies, the minister in charge of the negotiations to leave the European Union whom the prime minister is believed to have sidelined. It was only when Mr Johnson saw which way the wind was blowing in the party ranks that he developed public qualms of conscience.
The episode recalls the time when Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad were engaged in a delicate duet over who should be the first President of the Republic of India. Like a good Indian, Prasad swore that nothing was farther from his thoughts than high office and exalted position. He wanted nothing more than to continue humbly to serve the nation. Nehru wanted Prasad not just to serve India but to serve her in the capacity of First Citizen. But he felt that since Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was already in Rashtrapati Bhavan as governor-general, he might be allowed to continue there for the sake of administrative continuity. Patel had no wishes in the matter but, curiously, Prasad and Nehru could both quote him in support of their own points of view without being contradicted.
We all know what happened. While continuing to protest he didn’t want the job, Rajendra Prasad allowed himself to be installed as president. Nehru suppressed all thought of ever having sought another incumbent. Patel was probably greatly relieved that someone who shared his orthodoxy would be at the helm to check Nehru’s flights of secular liberalism. What Rajagopalachari felt is not known to this chronicler. But Rajaji was too astute a politician and too dignified an individual to allow chagrin – if he felt any – to show. It is not clear that he wanted to be president and that Nehru didn’t use him to try and block Prasad.
Mr Johnson is a veteran journalist. Apart from working for five years on London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, he was editor of the Spectator weekly. Since his resignation, he has revived his earlier weekly column in the Telegraph which he suspended while a minister, and published a series of scathing articles attacking the proposed Brexit deal, savaging his former boss, and promoting his own views. One column likened the White Paper to “wrapping a suicide vest” around the UK. Another claimed the Brexit negotiations were heading for a “spectacular political car crash”.
Recently, he criticised Mrs May’s “back-stop” plan in regard to Northern Ireland which is British territory as opposed to the independent Republic of Ireland which is an EU member and will remain so. The now open land border between the two segments is a major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations. Mr Johnson wrote in the Telegraph: “If we are to get out of this mess, and get the great British motor back on track, then we need to understand the Irish backstop, and how it is being used to coerce the UK into becoming a vassal state of Brussels.” He added, “The EU’s backstop would leave a border down the Irish sea while the UK’s proposal left it ‘volunteering’ to ‘remain effectively in the customs union and large parts of the single market until Brussels says otherwise’”.
It must be admitted here that Mrs May isn’t exactly a babe in arms when it comes to politicking. Her office hit back at the article, pointing out that Mr Johnson had been part of the government that had signed up to the back-stop plan. A Downing Street spokesperson added, “At the time he congratulated the prime minister for her determination in securing the deal.”
It should be mentioned, too, that flouting the hallowed convention that allows a departing politician to decide when and how to make public his or her decision to quit, Mrs May’s office is suspected of leaking Mr Johnson’s resignation to the media. When David Cameron was prime minister, and Mrs May the interior minister, styled Home Secretary, she was regarded as someone who would prefer to keep Britain in the EU. But after the referendum result and Mr Cameron’s principled exit, she lost no time in pinning her colours to the Brexit mast.
She had a serious rival in the bluff, burly, blonde backbench MP whom a television commentator once called “Boris the Buffoon.” Mr Johnson, a former mayor of London, was widely expected to succeed Mr Cameron. The two men had been rivals since they were Eton schoolboys and Oxford undergraduates, and Mr Johnson’s gaze was apparently always set on Number 10. But afraid that a frontal attack would fail, he bided his time and Mrs May won the game. The speculation when she made him Foreign Secretary was that he was being given a grand designation with little responsibility – Brexit, the most important foreign policy issue, being entrusted to a more low-profile colleague – so that she could keep an eye on him.
There, again, one scents what the British call oriental guile. In Mr Johnson’s case, it’s only to be expected. If patrial descent determines ethnicity, he should be Boris Kemal. His great-grandfather in the male line was Ali Kemal, an Ottoman journalist and minister of justice, who was murdered in 1922 in the Turkish War of Independence. The blond mop may have been inherited from Circassion ancestors who were much in demand in the harems of the Ottoman sultans and Turkish nobility. Mr Johnson was born in New York. His parents were divorced when he was a teenager, and the time he spent in Brussels for the Telegraph is said to account for his dislike of the EU.
Mrs May can’t boast such exotic antecedents. But who knows? The English actress, Olivia Colman, recently discovered in the TV programme “Who do you think you are?” that her great-great-great grandmother on the maternal side was the daughter of an English officer in the East India Company and an unknown Indian mother. Theresa May’s visits to Hindu temples in London and Bangalore draped in a saree may not be only political opportunism.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.