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Missing the desi beat

The diaspora seems engaged with Indian politics, but it should listen more closely

Written by Pawan Dhingra |
Updated: January 13, 2015 8:13:46 am


In the eyes of the diaspora, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a rock star. During his visit to Madison Square Garden in New York on September 28, 2014, he was greeted by a record-setting 19,000-plus fans. People were chanting his name and wearing t-shirts with his picture on it.

Through his speech, and through similar conversations with the diaspora in other parts of the world, Modi has generated unprecedented enthusiasm. The diaspora’s engagement with the Indian government has been re-energised. Organisations abroad now hold conventions on how they can become more active in India. When he cannot go overseas and meet the diaspora, Modi takes advantage of the occasions when the diaspora comes to him. At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event in Gandhinagar last week, he got laughs and applause as he paid tribute to the audience and asked for their help in continuing his campaign to clean India.

But the real reason why Modi is compared to a rock star is that, as with any celebrity, our adoration of him has blinded us to the bigger picture. We used to have a clearer picture. For instance, many people giddy with excitement today attacked him 12 years ago for his alleged role in the killings in Gujarat. The diaspora, removed from the daily politics of India, may be expected to have the widest view of affairs. It does appear to be more engaged than ever. But in reality, it is not engaged enough.

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What is all the excitement about, and why has the diaspora’s view been so narrow? It makes sense that corporations and politicians overseas love Modi. As he tours the world, he promises overseas investors an easier path to greater control of the nation’s industries and resources, both material and human. For instance, overseas weapons and defence companies can now own about twice as much of Indian military equipment producers as before.

It also makes sense that individuals in the diaspora praise Modi. His election was supported by many abroad. Like Indians, they were impressed by his life’s trajectory, they hoped he could make government more efficient and were just happy about a change. He has made it easier to travel to India and, most importantly, holds up the promise of more overseas investment in India. Like corporations and governments, individuals are conflating returns on invested dollars with social progress, lower inequality and better days ahead for India. This one-sided view of both Modi and the means to national progress has led to the diaspora missing the wood for the trees.

For instance, Modi’s policies and preferences may run counter to his own initiative to clean up India, a trend that the diaspora should be paying closer attention to. Take, for example, the fact that mining companies are foreseeing extensive growth at the expense of forests, rivers and local populations. If this is combined with the promise to weaken restrictions on foreign investment, how carefully protected will the environment be? Will Modi’s commitment to renewable energy and taxes on coal, impressive as it is, be enough? India’s emissions will probably overtake China’s and the US’s to be the worst in the world (even if lower per capita), and coal production is expected to increase. Liberalising the economy even more to serve multinational corporations, and their short-term business interests, may not bode well for long-term environmental concerns. How helpful is a clean sidewalk if you have leased the air above it?


What is more surprising is the fact that the diaspora lacks a public critique of the “saffronisation” of the nation. Modi’s ties to Hindu nationalism are well known, and he has traditionally been associated with anti-Muslim cultural and social efforts. Though he has distanced himself from the old image, such efforts have continued to manifest themselves after the election. There are new textbooks in Gujarat authored by Hindu nationalists, who make dubious, pro-Hindu claims. Anti-Muslim statements by members of his government have become regular. Modi’s response has been tepid, and it makes no sense to expect the RSS to pipe down on its own. Communal tensions are growing and minority claims on civil rights are weakening. The tolerance for anti-minority actions comes from the top.

The diaspora could be a place to reimagine sectarian differences. Yet, these problems stay under the radar. Perhaps the diaspora should be listening more closely to the words Modi sings and the music in the background.

Dhingra is author of ‘Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream’, and Smithsonian chair, department of sociology, Tufts University.

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First published on: 13-01-2015 at 12:00:34 am
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