Indian diaspora: Living on hot air

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing at a community reception programme, in Tel Aviv, Israel
Narendra Modi’s interactions with the Indian diaspora, de rigueur in the countries he visits, have been enshrined in the corpus of lore massing around him. One story, recounted zestfully by an Indian-American Modi votary, was on the prime minister’s visit to Israel this month. He’s said to have chosen to spend time with the Indian diaspora in Tel Aviv over attending a banquet with high-powered politicians. It remains a piece of hearsay, unconfirmed by official sources. 

Modi’s Israel sojourn resonated so intensely with the Indian migrants that one of them, journalist Ayelet Dekel, described the community event in Tel Aviv as “historic”, explaining why. “Modi laid out stories that the Indian diaspora could precisely relate to. He had something to say about the Bene Israelis, Bene Menashe, the Cochinis. India is the only country that never discriminated against the Jewish population,” said Ayelet. The fact that Jews of Indian origin constitute less than one per cent of Israel’s population and “have no recognition” in its Parliament and municipalities, unlike the politically visible Indian diaspora in some Western countries, made Modi’s overture significant for someone like Jacqueline Solomon, a systems analyst. “The community event was more to show Israel the strength, power and  contribution of Indians,” she said.

Well before power

The diaspora-India narrative has three major parts, of which one is indisputably Modi. To Jawaharlal Nehru, expat Indians were persona non grata. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), however, embraced them as “rightful” sons and daughters of their “motherland” and “punyabhoomi” (holy land), especially after 1972, when Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled all Asians, who then made Britain their home. Modi added another element and that was kindling a “sense of pride” in India in the communities abroad, reconnecting them with the parent country and “forcing” the adopted countries to recognise their “significance”.  Ramesh Shah, a Houston-based financial consultant who once headed the US chapter of the RSS’ Ekal Vidyalalya Foundation, said: “He made each one of us proud of our roots and realised we are part of making India better. Brain gain, not brain drain,” echoing Modi’s reversal of the Nehruvian notion of the diaspora. 

Sreeram Chaulia, author of Modi doctrine: The foreign policy of India’s Prime Minister, believed by emphasising the “achievements of the highly skilled Indian diaspora”, Modi sought to banish the stereotype of a poor country, surviving on handouts from the rich ones. For Shyam Parande, secretary-general of the RSS-aligned Indian Council for International Cooperation that has engaged with the diaspora for 40 years, “Modi is the first PM to include the diaspora in foreign policy and foster the emergence of local groups that build bridges with the governments of the adopted countries.” 

Modi’s discovery and acknowledgment of overseas India are not recent. He was the link person between Indians abroad and at home during the 1975-77 Emergency. He travelled out of the country frequently in the 1980s and 1990s. And, reinvigorated the Non-Resident Gujarati Foundation, whose members became important interlocutors for him and facilitated his overseas connectivity. He was Gujarat’s first politician to embody their importance and underscore the need to deepen their stakes in the state, in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto during the 1995 state assembly election.   


What have Modi’s high octane celebrations of the diaspora and the diaspora’s lionisation tangibly yielded? “It’s hard to quantify whether FDIs (foreign direct investments) have come in or exports have grown because of this,” a bureaucrat admitted. Venktesh ‘Venk’ Shukla, the TiE Silicon Valley chairman’s take, was: “I am not sure if mega events like those in Madison Square Garden or San Jose directly influence investment but they create a feel-good atmosphere among Indians and positive news cycles in American media.” 

Pankaj Dave, president, Manas International, Toronto and an activist of the BJP’s overseas cell, said the push from Indo-Canadians through the Canada-India Foundation persuaded the Canadian government and MPs to forge a lasting partnership with the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summits. He conceded that FDI flows from India into Canada were higher than the other way round, attributing the trend to the “peculiar sinusoidal curves of the Canadian economy”.   

Although migrants’ remittances, largely from the Gulf region, are about 3.5 per cent of this country’s gross domestic product, the dominant sense is that India has not profited from the largesse of its “patriotic” diaspora as much as it could potentially do. The perceived mismatch between the optics in Modi’s events and the expected spinoffs is pinned to India’s patchy reforms programme, administrative tardiness and, of course, corruption.
Indiana-based oncologist Bharat H Barai, who principally set up Modi’s Madison Square show, sounded optimistic that the PM’s image and credibility would undo the systemic flaws. “Mr Modi is perceived as a clean, honest, down-to-earth public servant. The diaspora is more excited and hopeful about him than previous Indian PMs because it supports honest, growth-oriented policies which will help the common people,” he said. Thus far, the diaspora’s effervescence is pinned on sight and sound and hopes, rather than concrete outcomes. Ditto for India.   

How China and India leverage their people abroad 

India and China boast two of the world’s largest diaspora, with approximately 15.6 million Indians and 9.5 million Chinese abroad. In addition, there are an estimated 25 million people of Indian origin and 48 million of Chinese heritage. While India and China both want to benefit from their compatriots success abroad, they engage their diaspora in different ways.

China: It is about bringing capital and individuals back to promote national economic development.
India: The diaspora is about soft power and expertise but the Modi government is intent on drawing investment as well.

  • Chinese leaders rarely meet with overseas Chinese groups during international trips. They favour official domestic events such as the World Huaqiao Huaren Businessmen and Industrialists Conference or the Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations. Modi addresses NRIs on their home turf to cultivate soft power and enable the diaspora to act as “informal” ambassadors for India in their adopted countries.
  • China works at enticing returnees by actively recruiting academics and entrepreneurs to return and support economic growth and innovation.
India works at maintaining diaspora ties and making use of those connections at home. For instance, the Modi government hopes that Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and Shantanu Narayen, the CEOs of Google, Microsoft and Adobe Systems can leverage their cachet and clout to ease the H-1B visa programme in US.

  • India has gone farther than China to relax travel and residency policies for diaspora members, to encourage more back-and-forth exchange.
  • China’s relations with the diaspora offer economic and cultural benefits but little political advantage.

India uses them as a political force through donations and groups such as the Overseas Friends of the BJP and the Indian National Overseas Congress of America.

Source: Rachel Brown, research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US not-for-profit think tank

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