Narendra Modi’s Madison Square speech in 2014, soon after he was elected prime minister, was a watershed moment in Indian history. The event attended by thousands of Indian Americans cheering his Hollywood-style one-liners made international headlines, instantly catapulting Modi to the status of a celebrity in global politics. In the same stroke, it unleashed the power of the Indian diaspora, its financial clout and ability to influence the outcome of elections in the world’s largest democracy, not to speak of its considerable lobbying power in the US. Visibly, and as his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been claiming since the days of the campaign, a New India was emerging.
What helped Modi stand tall among other leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos the past week was this New India – young, confident and with an imperiousness about it that is irresistible. It was as its icon – a diaspora made in the US and elsewhere in the West – that the prime minister invited the world to come and trade in India. Adding to the euphoria and the media hype around Modi’s presence at Davos were the Republic Day celebrations attended by the entire cohort of ASEAN leaders, including Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who was its leading star.
The move may be considered a stroke of diplomatic brilliance on Modi’s part, especially in the wake of China’s increasingly aggressive policies in Southeast Asia and ASEAN’s recognition of a strategic maritime alliance with India. However, the highlight of the whole exercise in this part of the world, especially outside of diplomatic circles in Singapore and Malaysia, is the potential it has awakened for trade, commerce and cultural exchange with the subcontinent. Once again, in a repetition of the narrative first heard in New York, it is the Indian diaspora, or the New India, on which the spotlight has turned.
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What does this New India wooed by Modi, and his new friends in the East alike, mean for the Indian at home? Is it even real, let alone viable? Or is it the sign of a dying India, the poor, reluctant and yet very real India which Modi eschews in all his diplomatic games abroad? Developments in the country over the past three years point increasingly in the latter direction.
The Indian at home is beginning to realise that there is nothing new about the India s/he lives in. Modi and the BJP have failed deplorably to deliver on the promise made during the election campaign of partnering with the diaspora, especially with Indians working and living in the West, on national development projects. While these promises continue to be shouted out in spectacular Vibrant Gujarat summits and other international platforms over and over again, it has become common sense that the diaspora Modi is in love with will do nothing for the country. Not to worry, for when nothing happens in India, there is always bureaucratic red tape waiting to take the blame.
But can such an excuse be justified any longer? Wasn’t Modi supposed to have worked his magic and turned things around? That things continue to be as they were in the past points to much more than the failures of the current regime. For once, we need to get the diaspora to stand trial in our analyses of the horrors plaguing the Indian at home.
Would the Indian diaspora in the US and now in Singapore and Malaysia be willing to invest in India whether in terms of skills, technology or funds? Certainly, if they as Indians first and Americans or Singaporeans, Malaysians or whatever else later, had even shown signs of responding to Modi’s narrative, the idea of New India may have been that much more easier to sell to their counterparts at home. That any of this would happen, seems quite unlikely.
None of these wealthy and influential diaspora have any real intentions for a poor India. If anything, they will continue to pull out as many as they can, from among their family and friends, to join them in their workplaces across the Atlantic and the Straits of Malacca. Adding numerical strength, they will push for greater economic privileges and cultural rights as minorities, or Hindus in these host countries.
India has little significance beyond its symbolic meaning as the source of their cultural identity as Hindus in these countries where they have made highly successful careers and lives. It matters little to them if there are no roads and railway tracks in India, if there is mob violence, rape and murder, if law and order collapses, or if pollution shuts down life in cities. The diaspora’s claims of belonging, in fact, have only fed the designs of the Hindutva brigade – the latter interpret them as the call to hollow out India territorially, disaggregate it socially and rebuild it in ways amenable to the image, shared by the two, of a Hindu homeland.
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For Modi himself, nothing could have made a better political bargain. The two constituencies he resonates best with, care little about the nagging issues that poor voters and their elected representatives demand action over in parliament. They require no cleaning up India, building infrastructure, or maintaining law and order, for which much money and energy have to be expended. Shouting and creating the impression that these are the government’s priorities, never mind whether the shouting is done at home or abroad, would suffice. Such shouting may be the only acknowledgement that we will see of the existing India under the prime minister.
There are further encrypted messages that the voting, tax paying citizen in India may do well to watch out for in the much touted New India project. What is being pushed for with the concept, frighteningly, is the reverse of what the Indian at home may have been tricked into believing. New India does not imply the diaspora investing in India, with international businesses in their countries of residence like the US or Singapore following the lead. On the contrary, it is an aggressive negotiation strategy by powerful diaspora groups for greater investment opportunities in developed countries where they already have a presence. With Modi giving it a political cover and backing as the prime minister of India, they are certain to strike better deals than they would, if they were to go alone.
As the concept of the nation, first as political territory and then as culture, continues to be sneered at by the prime minister and his friends, it is the citizens that stand to lose. India, the territorial and the political grounds on which they identify themselves as a sovereign people, may become a thing of the past. It takes much effort not to let the country get there.
Nisha Mathew is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.