UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak marked the festival of Diwali by stepping out of his No. 11 Downing Street home in London to lay out a rangoli decoration and light four diyas at the doorstep.
The 40-year-old Indian-origin finance minister, who is married to Akshata Murthy – the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, has spoken about being a “proud Hindu” over the years.
His celebratory gesture on Thursday night marks a first for Downing Street, which annually sees the UK Prime Minister host a Diwali gathering and an Annakut, or spread of festive food, from London’s Swaminarayan Mandir next door at No. 10.
Sunak’s message this Diwali was for British Hindus to follow the lockdown rules and refrain from the usual tradition of getting together with friends and family.
“I know how difficult it is not to be able to see each other,” Sunak said.
“Just a couple more weeks and we are going to get through this and it’s going to be so much better on the other side. We will have lots of happy times afterwards. But, to keep everyone safe right now, just follow the rules,” he said.
Diwali — which symbolises the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance — will be celebrated on Saturday.
Lockdown restrictions in England and varying degrees of restrictions across most parts of the United Kingdom have meant that temples and gurdwaras are turning more towards virtual festivities this year.
“Faith is important to me, I’m a practising Hindu, I pray with my kids, visit the temple when I can – at the moment rather less so because I’m busy,” Sunak told the BBC.
“For us as Hindus, Diwali is special, and it’s going to be difficult this year. But we’ve got Zoom, we’ve got the phone, and most importantly, we’ve got each other. Whether you can see someone or not the bond of family, that bond of love is always going to be there. And it will be there on December 3 as well,” he said, in reference to England’s current strict stay-at-home lockdown coming to an end on December 2.
Earlier this week, Sunak, who has been at the forefront of Britain’s economic response to the pandemic, had unveiled details of one of his new schemes in place to help counter youth unemployment.
The 2-billion pound Kickstarter Scheme, which has been designed to give 16-24-year olds a future of hope by creating high-quality, government-subsidised jobs, has created 19,672 jobs since it began last week.
“Our country’s future will be built by the next generation, so it’s vital that we harness the talent of young people as we rebuild from the pandemic,” he said.
“But this isn’t just about kickstarting our economy, we’re giving opportunity and hope to thousands of young people, kickstarting their careers and offering them a brighter future,” he said.
His other measures, including furlough or wage support for struggling businesses and Bounce Back Loans, have also received the backing of industry and business groups.
The minister has repeatedly warned of “hard times” ahead for the British economy, even as the latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the country’s third-quarter growth was the highest since records began in 1955 and came as restrictions were eased after the first lockdown for Sunak’s popular ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount scheme.
The economic growth surged by a record 15.5 per cent between July and September as the UK rebounded out of recession in the summer.
“There are still hard times ahead, but we will continue to support people and ensure nobody is left without hope or opportunity,” said Sunak, as he welcomed the temporary bounce.
“The steps we’ve had to take since to halt the spread of the virus mean growth has likely slowed further since then. But there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic on the health side – including promising news on tests and vaccines,” he said.