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HANDSOME RETURNS - Modi's mobilization of overseas Indians

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 21.11.14

Chinatown in London’s Soho is always a very agreeable dining venue for those on a tight budget. As a student in the 1970s, it was invariably the area many of us drifted to after the cheap beer at the college bar. The attraction was all the more since, invariably, there was always a student of Mandarin to negotiate the rude waiters and occasional dodgy bills.

One of my regular dining companions was an irreverent English Maoist — now middle-aged, he has successfully transformed himself into a liaison man promoting China in business — who seemed to know most of the restaurateurs. Inevitably, he was partial to some establishments. One day, when I quizzed him over his overfondness for one particular restaurant — which, alas, closed down two years ago — he explained the rationale: “It is owned by a patriotic Chinese.”

Those were the days when the strains between the People’s Republic of China (the mainland), the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Hong Kong were manifest. So, when my Maoist friend praised any local Chinaman’s “patriotic” credentials, he implied an attitude of non-hostility to the then wayward Maoist regime in Beijing or Peking, as it was then called.

The partiality was understandable. In the immediate aftermath of the debilitating Cultural Revolution and the rowdy Red Guards flashing Mao’s Red Book, mainland China was looked upon with intense suspicion, if not outright hostility, in the West. Apart from the small but dedicated band of fellow travellers, there were few who even feigned indifference or neutrality towards the happenings behind the Bamboo Curtain. The local Chinese community was not insulated from this partisanship and it was no surprise that the local Maoists clutched at straws, even if it meant something innocuous as preferring one restaurant over another.

In recent years, the Tamil diaspora that came into existence in the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in being the propaganda arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and in financing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Indeed, even after the LTTE’s military decimation in 2009, there is a feeling within Sri Lanka that it is the Tamil diaspora that is standing in the way of a political reconciliation between Colombo and Jaffna.

Compared to these examples, the experience of the Indian diaspora has been relatively placid. The movement for Khalistan did undeniably receive a shot in the arm thanks to the efforts of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and the United Kingdom. However, after peace returned to the troubled state after 1993, the Khalistanis have become a fringe tendency within the Sikh diaspora, although their capacity for creating diplomatic hiccups for India shouldn’t be underestimated.

A possible reason for the relative detachment from public affairs in India can be explained by the fact that the bulk of those who bought one-way tickets out of India after Independence did so in search of a better life. The West and, in recent times, Australia did exercise a pull factor but there was no simultaneous push factor operating from within India. No doubt India’s inefficient economy and the inability of its institutions of higher education to cope with the middle class’s insatiable quest for knowledge did trigger the exodus of both labour and skilled personnel. However, since economic mismanagement wasn’t accompanied by an oppressive political regime, the post-Independence diaspora didn’t feel that forcing the pace of change in India constituted one of its pre-eminent extra-curricular priorities. As far as public life within India was concerned, the diaspora simply switched off. At best its so-called community leaders in the West were content with being invited to parties at the local Indian mission and getting themselves photographed with an Indian politician of their preference.

This is not to suggest that the Indian diaspora chose to be unengaged with India. Family and village ties ensured annual or bi-annual visits to the old country. More important, it was also accompanied by unending remittances of hard currency to India, either by way of investments in land and houses or by subsidies to ageing parents and less-fortunate relatives who didn’t or couldn’t escape India’s drudgery.

Following economic liberalization and the easing of foreign currency regulations, a new pattern of outward movement from India began to be discerned. Increasingly, business families made it a point to nurture overseas-based business run by a younger son or a close relative. Gujaratis, Sindhis and Punjabis have traditionally sought opportunities outside national boundaries. A large chunk of the Tamil Brahmin community also moved to the US after Tamil Nadu’s draconian reservations policy made the state somewhat inhospitable for the upper castes. In recent years, we are observing the new phenomenon of Marwaris from business families and newly-prosperous Telugus establishing a foothold for themselves in entrepreneur-friendly, foreign climes.

There is a qualitative difference between the earlier and the post-1991 emigration from India. The exodus during the decades of the shortage economy was dictated substantially by the paucity of meaningful opportunities in India; the second wave, however, appears to have been prompted by India’s steady integration into a globalized economy. Yet, what bound the two sets of overseas Indians was a deep scepticism over India’s ability to realize its full potential. Before the 2007 crisis, there was a brief spurt in optimism but that disappeared and turned into dejection during the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government. Once again overseas Indians readied to switch off India — the linkages narrowing down to family and faith.

It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rallies in New York and Sydney need to be located. The return of a charismatic leader to the political centre-stage explains the enthusiasm partially. However, far more important is the fact that with his aspirational and nation-building message, Modi is able to connect with overseas Indians — particularly those who still feel emotionally Indian — on their own terms. For Modi, the diaspora is not made up of people who ‘betrayed’ India for the bright lights of the West — the 1970 Manoj Kumar film, Purab aur Pashchim, captured that ethos. He is viewing overseas Indians as an extension of India, as individuals who are driven by the same set of motivations and values as resident Indians. For a change, overseas Indians are encountering an Indian leader who is not intent on guilt-tripping them for their green cards and change of nationality. He is including them in his national project.

The importance of his out-reach programme is profound. Modi has made the Indian tricolour more than just a national flag; he has made it a symbol of a global identity. Not since the state of Israel tapped into Jewish emotions throughout the world has diaspora politics seen anything so audacious — and minus all elements of controversy. The mobilization of overseas Indians has become a new facet of India’s public diplomacy. It could yield handsome returns.