The Growing Political Influence of the Indian Diaspora

Devender Singh

Riding on the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi visited the US recently where he addressed several meetings including a gathering of the Indian community in New York on June 4. Earlier he had addressed a similar gathering of the Indian diaspora in London in March this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just returned from his visit to Australia where he addressed a gathering of the Indian community in Sydney on May 23, and he is slated to be in the US in the last week of June where several programmes involving the Indian community have been planned.

From the non-interference approach of the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru to cautious limited engagement for cultural and humanitarian purposes but keeping the politics out during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure to active engagement with the diaspora for diplomatic pushes in their countries and remittances for India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime to high decibel personalised connect through large public meetings by Modi, engagement with the Indian diaspora has undertaken quite a journey. The Indian diaspora has emerged as an important political constituency of support and influence in recent years.

Nehru believed that despite the natural affinity and sentimental concerns with the diaspora, one needs to recognise and acknowledge the fact that they were the citizens of other countries and hence no more Indian national and that any engagement with them would be tantamount to interfering in the internal affairs of those countries. More or less, this policy continued till Indira Gandhi’s reign. However, as Indian people’s numbers and status, economic and social, increased globally during the post-Cold War and Information Technology dominance era, India realised the diaspora was an asset whose resources and skills could be tapped.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, more than 30 million Indians are living in 205 countries around the world in varying strength, with the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Gulf countries accounting for a larger share. India receives around $80 billion per year in remittances.

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been vocal about the importance of the diaspora for diplomacy as well as national development since the days of the Vajpayee government, which carved out a separate Ministry for Overseas Indians and initiated what we now know as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Overseas Indians Day.

But the real departure point, a paradigm shift, in the journey of the Indian diaspora engagement came in 2014 when the current incumbent Narendra Modi assumed office.

High-level, direct and personalised engagement in the form of large public gatherings in all the countries he visits mark Modi’s engagement with the diaspora. Modi has undertaken more than 100 foreign trips to more than 60 countries since 2014. And he has held mega rallies and events in countries he visited. Modi addressed crowds of Non-Resident Indians (NRI) from London’s Wembley Stadium with almost 60,000 guests, to New York (19,000), Singapore (18,000), Shanghai (5,000) and Sydney (20,000).

The scale and intensity of diaspora engagement have heightened under Modi. The events are staged and the programmes well-orchestrated. Ostensibly, the events look as if they are a spontaneous and unmediated expression of the Indian diaspora community where people come to meet and greet their leader out of their love for him, but seldom is that the case.

A great amount of preparation by several organisations including embassies and consulates, and overseas branches of the BJP and Sangh parivar, go into making these events a success. Hundreds of volunteers are roped in, media agencies are involved, and transportation and logistics are planned and arranged to bring people from far-flung areas to these events. Awareness and mass contact programmes are run in advance to popularise the events.

The rallies and events are live-telecast to people of Indian origin across the globe including India to show them the growing stature and influence of Modi and India on the world stage. Electoral wins and governance successes and the hope of India emerging as a global power under Modi are used for influence and grandstanding at international forums, and successful diaspora meetings are used to mobilise Indian people and their opinion of Modi as a strong leader and rising influence of India in the world. Such mobilisation of the diaspora constitutes a domestic-international political continuum and helps the diaspora feels engaged and empowered and which, the populist leader uses for grandstanding, legitimation and political capital.

Coming from a culturally and linguistically diverse country, it is but natural that the Indian diaspora is not a homogenous bunch of people. And so is their response to the events, political and social, taking place back in India. For example, during the farmer’s movement against the three farmer’s Bills, the Sikh diaspora carried out protest marches in several countries in support of the farmers’ movement while the ones aligned with BJP and its sister organisations supported the Bills.

Now the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi have embarked on a journey to mobilise the members of the Indian diaspora in different countries. After a very successful trip and meeting with the Indian community members in London in March this year, it has pulled off another successful trip and a well-attended meeting with the Indian diaspora in the first week of June in the US.

The Congress party has entered the game, which has already been mastered by Modi and his party BJP, and only time will tell whether Gandhi and the Congress party will be able to generate similar support and energy through its engagements with the Indian diaspora. However, what can be safely said is that the diaspora engagement as a political field, unencumbered so far, is going to get crowded and hotly contested by the two main national political parties for influence and support.

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Devender Singh, former UN staffer and a visiting senior fellow with the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi.

The article was first published in The Wire as The Indian Diaspora Has Emerged as an Important Political Constituency on June 19, 2023.

Read more by the author: Congress’s Ideological Resurgence: The Karnataka Assembly Election Triumph.