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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 43 New Delhi October 12, 2019

Playing Diaspora Diplomacy: Profits and Pitfalls

Sunday 13 October 2019

by L.K. Sharma

Howdy, Modi, the Houston extravaganza, was part of the Prime Minister’s mission to involve the Hindu diaspora in India’s domestic politics. This time, he went further by inducting himself into America’s domestic politics. Modi sought to influence the political judgment of Am-Indians, calling them his adopted “family”! A very large section of Am-Indians feels enthused by his rhetoric of Hindutva; so the Indian Prime Minister thought he could modify their political preferences.

President Donald Trump’s presence at the event boosted Modi’s stock in the eyes of Indians back home who are mightily impressed by any foreign endorsement. Watching Modi being cheered by some 50,000 people of Indian origin, Trump was swayed to anoint his friend as the Father of India! The ecstatic crowd roared. Trump knew Modi’s party would not mind if he replaced the Great Soul with a New Great Soul!

Trump got the pay-off as Modi bathed him in a shower of superlatives and canvassed for his victory in the presidential election. The Indian immigrants were prodded to see politics through the eyes of a leader from their motherland. Thus, Modi injected himself into America’s political scene as an influential interlocuter between Trump and a section of American citizens.

There is another complication because someone who is seeking nomination as a Democrat candidate for the presidential poll has aligned with the Hindutva ideology and won the support of a section of the Hindu Right activists. That may not have amused Trump but it made Modi’s endorsement even more valuable to him.

Modi’s friendly gesture amounts to foreign interference in American politics. Just imagine if Sheikh Hasina were to give a political speech in Kolkata at a rally of the Bangladeshi immigrants! But Modi is accustomed to doing things generally not done.

Trump was tickled by the compliments paid by Modi. Seeking re-election, Trump was motivated to get sucked into an event of the immigrants for whom he harbours mixed feelings. The US President wanted to give the impression that he views different sections of non-White immigrants differently. Am-Indians, who do not want to identify themselves with the Blacks or Mexicans, were pleased to get that message. They know that the BJP Government in India too makes a distinction between Hindu and Muslim refugees.

Trump knew that the Houston event was worth his participation. Am-Indians command resources to spare for heavy political donations. Though numerically weak, they have a significant presence in the state that hosted Howdy, Modi. Modi’s praise for Trump may make Trump more acceptable to some Am-Indians whose majority prefers the Democrats.

The astounding success of Howdy, Modi was underpinned by the personal chemistry between Modi and Trump and the ideological convergence between the Republican Party and BJP. The Houston event was a win-win for both the parties. The latter is a big beneficiary of the NRIs’ financial support and digital activism. Both Modi and Trump share their love for grand events, disregard for facts, hostility towards intellectual elites and disdain for the media and higher education. Both love to make outrageous statements.

Trump’s opponents, the Democrats, are more committed to safeguarding human rights and democratic principles. His Republican Party is more flexible. Little wonder that while Trump called Modi the Father of India, a Democrat leader from the same podium paid rich tributes to Gandhi and Nehru. Modi’s face remained frozen as the Democrat talked of Nehru’s vision!

Apart from Modi and Trump, Am-Indians also gained from the Houston rally. Closer contacts with the government leaders in the two countries offer the NRIs business and other opportunities. These boost the privileged position of the NRIs in their motherland and increase their leverage in dealing with the Indian bureaucracy.

Meetings with the Indian Prime Minister impress the host community which generally does not think much of the “outsiders”. It boosts the NRIs’ self-confidence in a culturally alien environment in which they firmly hold on to their religious identity and the rituals brought along from the motherland. Trump’s presence at their event was the icing on the cake!

Modi has long benefitted from diaspora diplomacy, thanks to the ground-work done by the RSS and its sister organisations among the people of Indian origin living in different countries. The Gujarati motel-owners of America formed his natural constituency when he used to appear before them as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Viewing the NRIs as a national resource, New Delhi progressively increased its interaction with the diaspora, with offers of special benefits and privileges. Apart from the emotional bonds, the financial rewards given by successive governments intensified the NRIs’ relationship with the motherland as they also began to see India as an investment centre.

Diaspora diplomacy was not always considered so important. Most foreign policy experts in New Delhi saw it as a double-edged sword. Thus, initially the government’s inter-action with Indians in their adopted countries was cautious and measured. New Delhi did not want the loyalties of the Indian immigrants to their adopted nation to be doubted. Indian immigrants showing off their allegiance to a visiting Indian Prime Minister was unthinkable. The message to Indians was: “You left India and your host nation deserves your undivided loyalty.”

The earlier Indian immigrants, who used to feel more insecure, understood this well. For example, their loyalty was questioned by British leaders who disliked their cheering in the stadium the visiting Indian or Pakistani teams. This was dubbed as the “cricket test”. Thus, the Indians used to keep their emotions under control.

For long, the Indian immigrants assiduously maintained a low profile, hid their success and material wealth lest they invite the envious host community’s hostility. They shunned politics in order to avoid controversy and confrontation. They did not want to play up their India connection also because their motherland was then considered to be a bread-basket case. They felt embarrassed by their India-connection and were never keen on making their presence felt in India. No NRI academic thought of writing in the Indian media. Now they all want to strut about on the Indian stage telling the Indian Government how to run this country.

This change was the result of India’s economic growth, increased industrial capabilities and geopolitical role. Now India mattered which raised the status of the NRIs in their adopted countries. And since they had accumulated wealth, their worth went up in the eyes of their political leaders. They began to show off their Indian connection. They became assertive and no longer shied away from politics.

This made New Delhi realise their importance as lobbyists for India’s national interests. Indian missions abroad were instructed to pay greater attention to the requirements and complaints of the NRIs. New Delhi established an institutional mechanism for this.

However, Indian diplomats initially hesitated to take on the additional responsibility of humouring the NRIs. As a traditional diplomat posted in London once remarked: “I am accredited to Whitehall, not to Southall!” (The former is the seat of the government and the latter is London’s area largely inhabited by Indian immigrants.)These diplomats were mortified to see wealthy NRIs hobnobbing with Indian leaders and fixing their meetings with British dignitaries, keeping the Indian High Commission out of the loop. In the US, some NRIs were constantly criticising the Indian ambassador for not being as active as his Pakistani counterpart!

The government went on to institute special awards for the NRIs and became and started an annual celebration for them at the Bharatiya Pravasi Diwas. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee even appointed an Am-Indian as ambassador for the NRIs, with an office in the embassy in Washington. The Indian Foreign Service officers saw the writing on the wall as was evident from the active role they played in the success of the Houston rally of the NRIs.

A traditional Indian diplomat would have been shocked to hear Modi endorsing a presidential candidate! However, no retired diplomat should worry as to what will happen to the bilateral relations if Trump were defeated. First, an Indian astrologer may have conveyed to Modi that Trump would win again. Second, Indian politicians quickly adjust to a changed situation. Modi will address a bigger rally in the USA to laud the qualities of head and heart of whoever succeeds Trump in the White House! Modi will hug him and call him by his first name! And Am-Indians will find ways of ensuring that a Democrat President does not make too much fuss about the human rights situation in India!

Even traditional diplomats may have realised that diaspora diplomacy works. New Delhi has reasons to feel grateful to Am-Indians for the part they played in reducing US hostility towards India in the wake of its nuclear tests. They drew lessons from the influential lobbying organisation that safeguards the interests of Israel.

And yet diaspora diplomacy must be recognised as a double-edged sword. While the immigrants seek to promote the interests of their motherland, the host nation uses them for achieving its foreign policy goals and influencing the policies of the countries they came from. The immigrants serve as a tool for modifying the ideological orientation of the countries they left behind.

At times, the immigrants strengthen the ruling establishment in their motherland and at times they seek to demolish it. It all depends on the kind of relationship their adopted country’s government has with their motherland. If it decides to damage or destroy it then the chosen immigrants assist in that task. They may do it for ideological reasons or for personal benefits.

Big Western nations purposely nurse dissidents from many countries to use them as a bargaining chip. This bargain works both in the case of countries that are friendly or those that are unfriendly. In the case of the latter, the immigrants are targeted by the official agencies who recruit those who hate the regime of their motherland. America and Britain have used dissidents to promote their national interests. The Iranian diaspora’s role in helping their adopted country by working against their motherland has been documented in great detail. Once Afghan nationals used to be welcomed in the White House because the US needed the radical Islamic “freedom-fighters” (later branded as terrorists) to fight communism!

Fortunately, for some years the US Administration has been friendly towards India, not because of shared democratic values, but since India is a large market and a possible counterweight to China. Moreover, since 9/11 the US became more tolerant of bigotry, religious violence and violation of human rights. Because of the warm bilateral relations, Am-Indians are not exposed to any evil official design but they can still be used to influence India’s economic and foreign policies.

One may now consider the issue of unity among the immigrants who face many common problems. It suits the host nation if the immigrants are disunited. And this is where Modi has served the US interests by polarising the Indian community to an extent that where one group goes to celebrate, the other group goes to protest!

The split has grown wider in the past few years as the Hindu Right got more aggressive as a result of the changed political climate in India. These activists launch digital attacks against fellow Indians who write about democracy, secularism or socialism and protest against mob lynching and bigotry. For example, the moment eminent historian Romila Thapar gets a Congressional Fellowship, vicious messages deriding her start floating in cyberspace. Of course, any mob lynching in America will have fearful consequences for the perpetrators!

The liberal and Leftist Indians in America have started countering the Hindu Right’s campaigns. For example, when Am-Indians celebrated “India Day” in Philadelphia in August after the lockdown in Kashmir, many protested against the propagation of the pro-Modi narrative. The protestors were surrounded by the organisers sporting orange shirts and were soon escorted out by the police. One of the protestors lamented that the Hindu Right (and Centre) continues to side with American imperialism and Right-wing nationalism and bolsters the anti-democratic narrative.

This disunity amuses the host society and helps the government. Any protest against injustice by the government will be stronger if the Asian and African communities came together or Indians and Pakistanis took out a joint procession! But now even the Hindutva activists and Hindu liberals would never join hands.

A division among immigrants from a country is also considered desirable because their vote bank is broken. In the UK once there was just the “South Asian community”. Over the years, this diaspora got divided on the lines of nationality, religion and economic status. Now, of course the Hindus from India have formed two rival groups. Modi has overlooked these pitfalls. In any case, polarisation being his pet formula for success at home causes him no concern. Confrontation energises Modi’s base in India as well as among the NRIs.

Some Indians have started feeling belittled by Modi’s special relationship with the NRIs. Fortunately for him, not many grumble that the “NRIs matter to Modi and we do not matter at all”. Murmurs are heard about his frequent foreign trips.

While counting the pitfalls of diaspora diplomacy, one sees that Modi has exposed the prosperous Indian communities to the envy of bigots unable to make a decent living. Promising to flush out the illegal immigrants, Trump energised his poll campaign and created an atmosphere in which more Whites see even the legal immigrants as “others” and the cause of their own economic woes. This may lead to stray ugly incidents of aggression against Am-Indians. Nativist political leaders are becoming more popular in Britain and some European countries too. Indians of Uganda were targeted mainly because of their success and prosperity and were forced to flee from their adopted country. Once the Jews of Germany had invited envy and hatred. And it was for this fear that that the first generation of Indian immigrants lived discreetly.

Of course, while basking in the glory of the grand Modi-Trump event, Am-Indians are in no mood to think of the negative reaction that some extremists in the White community may have to their showmanship. Ironically, such a threat if it came will come from Trump’s nativist approach and his followers known as the White Supremacists.

Modi’s devotees, of course, dread the exclusivist sentiments, bigotry and majoritarianism in their adopted country but have no qualms about fuelling these in their motherland. They benefit from the liberal order in the US where White liberal and Leftist activists fight against racial prejudice and come to their help.

This contradiction was highlighted once in London in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque when a Gujarati shopkeeper lamented the growing numbers of one religious community in India! He was exposed to the Hindu Right activists working in Britain and talking of love-jihad and other problems facing Hindus in India! Fortunately for him, no menacing White tattooed skinhead has marched into his shop shouting about the numerous Patels featuring in London’s telephone directory!

Thus, weighing the benefits and the pitfalls of diaspora diplomacy, one would tend to agree with the Indian foreign policy experts who favoured a measured approach in the use of this double-edged sword.

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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