The ambit and the limits of ‘diaspora diplomacy’
Joint rallies by U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad last month and at Houston last September were unique for their concept and for their crowd sizes, but also for the promise they held out to the leaders themselves: of audiences that would blend support for Mr. Trump with that for Mr. Modi politically. As a result, speaking beyond bilateral relations, both leaders paid tribute to the three million people of Indian origin who are American citizens, who will vote in elections this year.
In Ahmedabad, Mr. Trump referred to Indian Americans as “truly spectacular people”. In Houston, Mr. Modi said the 2016 election of Mr. Trump, who had used the slogan “Abki Baar Trump Sarkar” during his campaign, had “lit up millions of faces with joy”. Mr. Modi’s recall of the slogan sent a not-so-subtle message ahead of the upcoming U.S. presidential poll, where Mr. Trump is seeking re-election. The result of both rallies and the speeches was a heady concoction for both politicians, seeing the Indian diaspora not just as a part of India’s “soft power”, but a fully transferable political vote bank as well.
Pitching to both audiences
Mr. Modi has also brought this dual effect into play in several diaspora rallies worldwide. At each of them, he has spoken of initiatives taken by his government for Indians, and also those for the diaspora, pitching to both audiences at one time. In Israel, for example, Mr. Modi spent much of his speech on talking about his agricultural programmes, which was meant for domestic audiences watching his speech on television, and then announced the start of a direct Air India flight to Tel Aviv, to big cheers from his live audience. The government has also frequently blurred the line between Indian expatriates and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) in describing India’s strength abroad. In March 2017, the Ministry of External Affairs raised the issue of attacks on Indians strongly with the U.S. government, after three incidents of suspected hate crimes. Only one of the three was an Indian citizen, the rest were Americans of Indian extraction. This is an important distinction from the past.
Transferability of votes
India has the world’s largest diaspora, about 17.5 million and receives the highest remittance of $78.6 billion from Indians living abroad (Global Migration Report 2020). Members of the diaspora, often seen as more “successful” and therefore more influential, can have a big impact on their relatives back home, and this makes for a potent combination for any politician. Mr. Modi’s joint rallies with former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all included this promise, and saw those leaders make campaign pitches to the Indian community that Mr. Modi had gathered, even as Mr. Modi’s popularity with his voters back home benefited from their presence at his rallies.
However, the promise of the diaspora’s dual power is based on certain faulty premises, and it is necessary and timely that the government re-analyses the benefits accrued from the diaspora’s political presence through a more realistic lens.
To start with, the transferability of votes has not yet been proven conclusively. Six months after the April 2015 rally, Mr. Harper lost general elections in Canada. Mr. Cameron lost the referendum on Brexit and resigned seven months after the November 2015 rally, and Mr. Netanyahu has had to face re-elections after failing to secure a majority in any of the three polls that followed his July 2017 joint rally with Mr. Modi in Tel Aviv.
One obvious reason is that the Indian community isn’t large enough to make a difference in the voting patterns in any of these countries. The second is that the population that comes out for the rallies doesn’t represent the entire diaspora. Take the case of U.K. general elections last December, where the Boris Johnson-led Conservative party sought to wrest the support of the traditionally Labour-leaning British-Indian community, and even featured Mr. Modi in its campaign advertisements. The results, which gave the Conservatives a massive win, didn’t however make the case for transfer of votes. A report on the 30 constituencies in the U.K. where ‘Asians’ (a majority of whom are of Indian origin) constitute more than a quarter of the voting population showed that Labour won 29 of the 30 seats, the same that it had also won in 2017 elections, and while its vote share dropped, that mirrored its average losses across the U.K.
In the upcoming U.S. election, it remains to be seen whether the Trump outreaches at Houston and Ahmedabad bring in a haul of new Indian-American voters, but the statistics are daunting. In the 2016 election, 77% of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton while just 16% voted for Mr. Trump.
The second issue is that politically active members of the Indian diaspora don’t necessarily support the Indian government’s actions, and often, because they are of Indian origin, hold the government in New Delhi to higher standards than they do others. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson for Asia, Ami Bera, voiced his concerns quite plainly about Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) during a visit to India last month, for example, saying that the India that he “loved” was “democratic and secular”. The sponsor of the U.S. House resolution on Kashmir (HR745) Pramila Jayapal; co-chair of U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s campaign Ro Khanna; and former presidential contender Kamala Harris, have all been openly critical of the government’s actions. The conclusion for the government is that it cannot own only that part of the diaspora that supports its decisions, and must celebrate the fact that members of the Indian diaspora, from both sides of the political divide, are successful and influential.
Interest and ‘interference’
Third, the government must ensure that its focus on the diaspora doesn’t become a factor in its bilateral relations. While it is perfectly legitimate and laudable to ensure the safety and well-being of Indian citizens in different parts of the world, as the Modi government has done, it must tread more lightly on issues that concern foreign citizens of Indian origin.
Addressing the Lok Sabha in 1957, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said about the diaspora, “We want to have no vested interests at the expense of the population of those countries…if they adopt the nationality of that country we have no concern with them. There may be sentimental concerns but politically they cease to be Indian nationals.” (A reply to debate on foreign policy in Lok Sabha; September 2, 1957).
Subsequent governments have distanced themselves from this rather cold-blooded view and warmed up to the diaspora, but none have raised the concerns of the diaspora with foreign governments, on visas and other issues, like the present one has.
The introduction of India’s internal politics into this equation is another new angle, one that led the British Foreign Office to remonstrate with India about interference last December. A tweet, subsequently deleted by an office bearer of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party last month, that threatened to “play a role” in U.S. elections in response to criticism from Mr. Sanders, was also a troubling symptom of this. Politically affiliated Indian diaspora chapters are now also playing old India-Pakistan fault-lines amongst immigrants, which in the past were fuelled by Pakistani agencies. In California primaries this month, local “Hindu-American” groups protested against Democratic candidates like Ro Khanna for joining the Congressional Pakistan caucus and for criticising New Delhi’s actions. (Mr. Khanna won the primary).
Finally, the government must consider the impact that policies conflating the PIOs with Indian citizens could have on the diaspora itself. Most immigrant Indian communities have been marked by their ability to assimilate into the countries they now live in. Much of that comes from a desire to be treated as equal citizens, not as immigrants, while a few also have bad memories of anti-immigrant sentiments in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and the U.S., when they were targeted and accused of “divided loyalties”. Laying claim to their kinship and culture and taking pride in their success is one thing. It would be a mistake to lay claim to their politics, however.