This weekend’s gathering of the Indian American community in Houston, to be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, is likely to go down as a special moment in India’s diaspora diplomacy. It is but rare that an American president joins a foreign leader in addressing a diaspora event. For Modi, the Houston engagement is a continuation of his extraordinary political investment in engaging the Indian diaspora. It is based on the recognition that a large and very successful diaspora has widened India’s footprint and can contribute to achievement of India’s domestic and international goals.
The Indian diaspora (including non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin) is estimated to be more than 30 million and growing. Its substantive concentration is in the Anglo-American world, the Gulf and the former colonies of the British empire. Its presence is growing beyond these traditional areas. So has its political and economic influence in the host nations.
But nowhere is the presence of the diaspora more expansive than in the US. As a rich and accomplished minority, the Indian-American community has become influential in all walks of life in the US. Within the US, Texas, California, New York and Illinois are among the states that host large Indian-American communities. And Houston, where the diaspora event is taking place, is among the top 10 American cities hosting the Indian American community.
Thanks to the significant Indian migration — both labour and capital — during the 19th century, the diaspora became an important part of the emergence of India as a nation in the first half of the 20th century. But the fear in many newly independent nations that the Indians might become a potential fifth column was real. So was the widespread resentment in some parts of Afro-Asia against the privileged economic positions that Indians held in the colonial era.
The nationalist backlash against the Indian communities in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s saw Delhi consciously distance itself from the diasporic communities. As India turned inwards, Delhi also took a dim view of the “brain drain” as many well-trained Indians began to look for opportunities elsewhere. It was only in the late 1980s that Delhi began to rethink its approach to the diaspora.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was the first to appreciate the potential role diaspora could play in advancing national development and improving India’s ties with the US. As he launched the reform era, P V Narasimha Rao sought investments from the diaspora. Atal Bihari Vajpayee formalised India’s engagement with the diaspora by institutionalising the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. But few leaders have showered the kind of personal and political attention on the diaspora that Modi has.
Modi finally buried India’s defensiveness about the diaspora, which in turn was ready to take pride in a rising India that was poised to play a larger international role in the world. Modi went beyond demanding that the diaspora do more for India. He promised that India would do more for them as well. Delhi and its foreign missions have never been as solicitous of the welfare of the individuals and communities in the diaspora as they are today.
The political role of the diaspora has been valuable for Delhi in the US. In the last decade for example, the diaspora generated much needed political support in the US Congress for changing the American non-proliferation laws and facilitating civil nuclear cooperation with India. Today, the diaspora might once again have a critical role in informing the Congress and the wider public about the situation in Kashmir and explaining the historic context and the logic behind India’s recent actions.
Modi’s visit to the US will also showcase some of the emerging problems with India’s diaspora diplomacy. First, Islamabad’s imitation of Delhi in the mobilisation of Pakistani diaspora is certainly flattering. While it is reasonable for Pakistan to get its diaspora to support the improvement of US-Pak relations, Islamabad is also firing at the Modi government from the shoulders of the Pakistani diaspora. Besides galvanising the Pakistani-Americans, Islamabad is also mobilising the Muslim American communities on Kashmir and other issues. Pakistan is expected to organise protests against Modi in both Houston and New York. As India’s outreach to the diaspora strengthens, Modi must also give some thought to a broader strategy of connecting with all people of South Asian origin.
Second, India’s domestic political fault-lines have, unsurprisingly, begun to envelop the diaspora. As in India, so in the US, many liberal sections of the diaspora have become sharply critical of the Modi government. Together, they are having an impact on the leadership of the diaspora, including some US Congress members of Indian origin, as well as the general public discourse within the US on India. Delhi has much work to do in engaging the liberal American critics of India.
Third is the danger of getting drawn too deep into the domestic politics of the US. The Houston event reflects the growing weight and prestige of the Indian community in the US as well as Trump’s own electoral calculus for the presidential elections next year. While the Indian-American community tends to lean towards the Democratic Party, Trump might be betting that the celebration of the India-US partnership with Modi might let him make a dent in the community.
While India welcomes the opportunity to serenade the American president in front of the diaspora, Delhi should be careful about not crossing some red lines. China, for example, is getting into trouble in many countries for turning its relationship with the diaspora into an active intervention in the domestic politics of the host nation. Given the current polarisation of US domestic politics and the profound hostility towards Trump among the Democrats, Delhi has to be careful not to be seen as tilting in favour of one side.
In his embrace of the Indian American community at Houston this weekend, the PM has an opportunity to fine-tune his diaspora diplomacy by reaffirming the commitment to inclusive development of all Indians, irrespective of their caste or creed and emphasising the new possibilities for the collective progress of the Subcontinent as a whole. Modi must also underline that the main purpose of India’s diaspora engagement in America is about elevating the strategic partnership with the US to a higher level.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 21, 2019 under the title ‘The Howdy moment’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs, The Indian Express.