In the absence of any specific bilateral agreements, the latest visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States may be termed as the one with more hype than substance. But then, it was not a bilateral official visit; Modi was essentially there to attend the opening session of the United Nations and meetings with other heads of the government and states, including US President Donald Trump, on the sidelines were invariably for knowing and each other’s positions and concerns, not concluding deals or agreements. However, if anything concrete that Modi’s visit was marked with, it was the “soft power” of the Indian Diaspora which Modi has been consistently using in India’s interactions with the rest of the world increasingly successfully.
During his visit to the United States in 2014, he had attended an Indian-American event hosted at Madison Square Garden in New York where there were 20,000 Indian-Americans and non-resident Indians. Next year, again during his visit to attend the U N session officially, he travelled to the Silicon Valley in the West Coast where he not only met executives from Google, Apple, and Facebook but also addressed 17000 Indian-Americans. And this time at Houston, famous for oil & gas, medical research, computer and aerospace, the rally of 50,000 Indian Americans that he addressed was not only mammoth by American standards but also immensely symbolic for the projection of Indian soft power with the attendance of none other than President Trump with influential Senators and Congressmen.
If Modi has got a huge advantage in taking India’s relationship with the United States to a higher level, that is mainly because of his immense popularity among the Indian- Americans, one of the most high profile ethnic groups in America. Numbering about 4.4 million, they are more proficient in English than the overall foreign-born population. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US. In 2015, 77 percent of Indian adults (ages 25 and over) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29 percent of all immigrants and 31 percent of native-born adults. Notably, among college-educated Indian immigrants, more than half have an advanced degree. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America.
What all this means is that these high profiled Indian -Americans, having best professional jobs in business, management, medicine and science (they get 73 percent of best jobs, compared to the overall foreign- and native-born populations, at 31 percent and 38 percent, respectively), constitute a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore, least of all Trump, the ace politician and businessman that he is. And if this constituency happens to be in love with Modi, then no American President will find it easy to overlook India. That explains whether it is Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the Indo-US relationship is destined to progress, not otherwise.
It may be noted that every country’s Diaspora- power, of late, is becoming a significant part of any global or local progress, success and development. Diaspora is a force that unites and brings people from all over the world with the same origin together. It is now regarded as an asset for a country. According to the World Bank, global remittances of Diaspora are now more than 600 billion US dollars. India, for instance, gets around 80 billion dollars every year as remittances from the Indian Diaspora. The importance of Diaspora financing can be well judged from the transformation Kerala’s countryside (Gulf remittances) or for that matter the millions poured into high-tech businesses in Bengaluru or Gurugram by Silicon Valley investors. But then, the Indian Diaspora’s contribution to India’s development pales into insignificance when compared to its Chinese, Jewish and Irish counterparts. China, thanks to its Diaspora of 46 million, has become the largest manufacturer in the world. Jewish Diaspora of more than 14 million helped Israel to become a start-up nation. Almost 85% of Irish economy is based on enterprises founded by Foreign Direct Investments many of which have strong Irish affiliations.
The point is that as an impotent component or factor for the Indian development, there are tremendous potentials of the Indian Diaspora that number about 25 million in 205 countries around the world. This number includes people of Indian origin and Indian passport- holders staying and working in foreign countries. It all began under the British raj when unskilled Indian labourers moved across the empire and beyond. After independence, the movement of Indians abroad continued, but the structure and composition changed –most of the migrants have been well educated and high-skilled professionals as well as businessmen.
Likewise, India’s policy towards the Diaspora has also undergone considerable changes. Under the Congress governments – and it began with Jawaharlal Nehru – New Delhi consistently urged overseas Indians to adapt to the local circumstances, demonstrate loyalty to the state of their adopted nation, and always keep in mind the interests of the local population. Nehru’s priority was on building political solidarity with post-colonial states in the non-western world. He did not want to be dragged into their domestic politics where large Indian minorities were present. In fact, he once said that Indians abroad who were not its citizens should be limited to cultural and humanitarian dimensions as far as India is concerned. “If they adopt the nationality of that country we have no concern with them. Sentimental concern there is, but politically they cease to be Indian nationals”, he had said. So much so that Nehru had abolished the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs in 1947. More or less every Congress government followed the same policy: their only concern with the overseas Indians was that India must keep in mind and exert moral and diplomatic pressure so as to ensure that the Indian origin people are not exploited in their adopted homelands.
The BJP government, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee realised the long-term strategic value of the engagement with Diaspora when he called for a “partnership among all children of Mother India so that our country can emerge as a major global player”. He constituted a committee in 2000 under the leadership of L M Singhvi, a BJP Member of Parliament, to suggest a variety of policy initiatives to strengthen the bonds with the overseas Indian communities. The committee recommended “deep administrative and structural reforms” in areas of “economic policies and procedures, including implementing second-generation economic reforms, in the policies relating to NRI/PIO charitable donations, in the mechanisms in place at international entry points, particularly in the immigration and customs departments, in the support structures at Central and State government levels for the lower income group emigrating in search of blue collar employment to the Gulf and other destinations, and a general toning up [of] administration”.
Accordingly, many measures were undertaken by the Vajpayee government, most important of which have been the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations, revival of the Overseas Indian Affairs ministry (under Modi’s second innings, it has merged with the Ministry of External Affairs) and the PIO cards (now OCI cards) for the unrestricted travels to India and engage in every cultural and business activity except voting in elections.
Modi has further strengthened these trends. Modi’s Diaspora policy may be summed up in terms of 3 C’s – ‘connect’ with India, ‘celebrate’ their cultural heritage and ‘contribute’ to the development of the homeland. Relaxing the visa norms for the overseas communities, improving physical connectivity and the ease of doing business in India have been the policy consequences of Modi’s more intensive outreach to the Diaspora.
However, some words of caution are necessary here before concluding. As my Indian-American friend Prof Amit Gupta has written in this week’s covers story, Diaspora is not a monolithic block and they have their own political, economic and ideological preferences. They do get influenced by what happens inside India. All told, India is still not place for ease of business, with its lack of infrastructures, archaic labour laws, utter lack of employable young people( thanks to our totally irrelevant education policy) and absence of political consensus on the liberalisation of the economy. The rising phenomenon of the identity politics in the country has made the matters worse, as it divides the Diaspora too. However, all this is not to portray a pessimistic scenario but to point out some challenges, which Modi has the vision and capacity to overcome in the days to come.
By Prakash Nanda