External Affairs

What Modi Gains By Taking India’s Politics to Distant Shores

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with members of the Indian community in Seoul. PTI photo.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with members of the Indian community in Seoul. PTI photo.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invite SAARC leaders to his oath-taking last year demonstrated that he would not be bound by India’s established traditions and conventions, it soon became clear his diplomatic style would be unconventional too. This was shown by welcoming Xi Jinping in Gujarat, holding chai and ‘nau pe charcha’ interactions with Barack Obama and François Hollande, and the emphasis he placed on India’s ancient cultural and spiritual traditions, including visits to temples and gurudwaras, as well as gifting spiritual texts to foreign leaders.

Modi’s adverse references to the opposition in a couple of his speeches to Indian communities during his visits abroad also fit this unconventional pattern.

They are a departure from the practice which even  Atal Bihari Vajpayee scrupulously followed during his tenure as Prime Minister. While addressing the Indian community in Toronto during his state visit to Canada in April, Modi said that India will henceforth be recognised as ‘skill India’ and not ‘scam India’; the latter phrase was a direct reference to the Congress-led UPA period.

Modi addressed the Indian community in Seoul on May 18. He dwelt on his perception of the change in the national mood since his government had assumed charge. In this context he said inter alia that while earlier, people wondered what sin they had committed to have been born in India, in the past year the mood had changed and the international community acknowledged that India was the fastest growing country in the world. Kapil Sibal of the Congress lamented the fact that no Indian Prime Minister had ever made such a remark and said that this showed a decline in political standards.

Diaspora has evolved

Modi’s comments are also a reflection of the evolution of the Indian diaspora in many parts of the globe and its growing involvement in Indian politics.

In the first few decades after Independence, the diaspora consisted largely of people of Indian origin who had settled in the British colonies during the Raj as well those who went abroad after independence and acquired the nationality of the countries of their settlement. India’s approach towards the diaspora was formulated by Jawaharlal Nehru. He advised the overseas Indian communities to become loyal citizens of the countries whose nationality they had accepted. This was unexceptionable in principle as well as expedient for India , which did not have the wherewithal to undertake more than token diplomatic protests if they were discriminated against.

During this period, New Delhi’s interaction with the diaspora was limited and overseas Indians were not a real factor in Indian foreign policy although some organisations in India such as the RSS maintained active contact with sections of the Indian population abroad. Prime Ministerial visits did not really focus on the Indian community, except that the most prominent among them would be invited by Indian envoys to social occasions hosted by them to meet the Prime Minister.

The nature and dynamics of the Indian diaspora began to change from the mid-1960s. That was the time when Indian professionals started to go to the West to work and settle, and Indian labour, businessmen and contractors began working in the Arab countries. This process gathered momentum in the 1970s and since then has gone on to make the Indian diaspora what it is today: professionally respected, largely prosperous, politically influential in many countries and alert and interested in Indian developments, especially of a political nature. This has led to a complete transformation in the manner in which the Indian government, and the Indian political class, interacts with it.

At a governmental level, the setting up of an independent Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the annual Pravasi Bharti Divas are manifestations of the importance of the Indian diaspora to the country’s interests. In the industrially advanced countries, particularly the United States, the Indian diaspora is an effective lobby for Indian interests and has played a significant role in crucial issues such as the India-US nuclear deal. This was possible because the community had begun to get politically mobilised. In Canada, this trend is much more well established. No wonder Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was present at all Modi’s functions involving the diaspora.

Indian politics abroad

The Indian political class too has developed close connections with the diaspora. These ties have led to the articulation of the diaspora’s interests in Indian domestic politics and in this context, the line between Indian nationals living abroad and those holding the citizenship of other countries has begun to get blurred. Indian political parties have formed political support groups abroad which are active in promoting their parties and denigrating others. They use the social media with skill. They join hands with local pressure groups and lobbies for this purpose. Both national parties have such supporters but those of the BJP and of Modi in particular are more assertive and better organised. It is they who came to Madison Square Garden in New York and chanted “Modi, Modi, Modi” and mobilised US political personalities to almost pay homage to their hero.

They are the ones who have thronged other venues where Modi has addressed rapturous crowds of supporters almost as if he was addressing political rallies in India. The only difference is that in these rallies on foreign soil, he is careful to also dwell on bilateral relations while detailing all that his government has done.

In the past, meetings of Indian ministers and their party supporters were held outside their official programmes. The interaction with the community was either organised by the Indian envoy or Indian community organisations under the embassy’s aegis. These were sedate affairs where anodyne speeches were made. For Prime Ministers, the meetings were more elaborate but the content was always non-controversial and far removed from Indian party politics.

BJP/RSS machinery

Modi’s meetings have been clearly organised and financed by his local supporters and orchestrated by the BJP/RSS machinery in India, though the embassies have been involved in liaison with the host government for security and logistical support. As these interactions have become political, it is only natural that there will be echoes of domestic Indian party politics in some measure at such meetings. The chants are and will be not for ‘the Prime Minister of India’ but for the political personality holding that office. The days of reticence are over and a new norm has come in. This may be lamentable but it will be seen more and more.

Does the domestic politics of other countries echo abroad in the same fashion as it has begun to do in Modi’s India? Do their leaders criticise political opponents while they are abroad? Israeli politicians maintain active contact with the Jewish lobby in the US and are known to accept funding from their friends in the Israeli community. However, the nature of the lobby organisations is such that Israeli politicians push Israeli interests in their speeches and are discreet regarding Israeli politics.

Vivek Katju is a diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.