Many among overseas Indians have for long been interested in and concerned about developments back home in Mother India. After all, it was an overseas Indian who returned home and pursued a cause that liberated India from its colonial masters. His return made history and it was a Bharatiya Janata Party government that decided to celebrate that day as the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas -- the day Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned home from South Africa to eventually become a Mahatma. Overseas Indians have since felt it their duty and right to be concerned about what happens in India and seek to influence it.
In 2014 hundreds of overseas Indians took time off from their work abroad to visit India and get involved in Narendra Modi’s election campaign. They manned his social media campaign, they organised the funding and undertook a variety of political activity in India to help Mr Modi win that election. Some of them chose to remain in India and join his government, while many others returned to their jobs abroad. They have since organised public meetings for Prime Minister Modi in their home countries and have mobilised support for his government on a variety of issues.
The 2014 parliamentary elections were not the first instance of the global Indian getting involved in local politics at home. Malayalees in the Gulf have demonstrated a keen interest in the politics of their home state just as much as the Tamils of Malaysia and Sri Lanka did and the Telugus of North America. It had become routine for politicians from Kerala to solicit funds and support from the Malayalee diaspora, and Malayalees in the Gulf have long been demanding the right to vote in elections back home. The Telugu Desam leader, N. Chandrababu Naidu, was the toast of the overseas Andhra community and Narendra Modi became the darling not just of the overseas Gujarati but also the overseas Hindu. Telangana’s Telugus based in the United States actively supported the demand for a separate state. Such overseas engagement is inevitable and can spin out in a variety of unpredictable ways.
For over a quarter-century we have seen overseas Indians getting increasingly involved in Indian politics. The huge gatherings at Mr Modi’s public meetings in New York, London, Houston and so on were testimony to that. Soon these events began to generate concern in some foreign lands.
When Mr Modi’s fans wanted to stage a similar public event in Singapore, the government there was initially concerned. What if China’s Xi Jinping were to next land in Singapore and want to address the even larger overseas Chinese community? A Singaporean diplomat confided in me that their government was worried about allowing Indian politics to play out in Singapore. In the event, Mr Modi had his public meeting.
India’s political parties and the government have taken a keen interest in the internal politics of many neighbouring countries and continue to do so. This is in the nature of things. What happens to Sri Lankan Tamils does bother Tamils around the world, including in India. The Narendra Modi government has even changed India's citizenship law to offer a home to disaffected and disenfranchised minorities from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries.
It is, therefore, ironic to see the same Modi government now lecture many among the overseas Indian community against getting involved in India’s domestic political developments. A Sikh in Canada does not have to be a “Khalistani” to express concern about the fate of fellow Sikhs in India. The Sikh diaspora’s expression of solidarity with Sikh farmers in India is no different from the Tamil diaspora’s concern about Tamils in Sri Lanka. The diaspora coin spins both ways.
The social media and Internet connectivity have only facilitated the globalisation of local concerns. The overseas flak that the Narendra Modi government is facing for its handling of the farmers’ protests is the other side of the same coin that spun in Mr Modi’s favour when his supporters had organised global support for his election campaign. Those who win through the social media also run the risk of losing through the social media.
Going forward, Indian diplomacy will have to come up with a well-considered response and approach to the Indian diaspora’s engagement with India’s local political issues. In the past, Indian diplomats have reached out to the diaspora in their effort to promote Indian interests overseas. In return, the diaspora is today reaching back to support causes in India. In trying to prevent the latter, one may end up hurting the former.
Consider, for example, the role played by USINPAC -- United States-India Political Action Committee (usinpac.com) -- an organisation of Indian Americans that has actively engaged US politicians in promoting Indian and Indian American interests in the US. It played an important role in securing US congressional support for the India-US civil nuclear energy agreement in 2005-08 and, in 2014-15, came to the defence of the BJP and Prime Minister Modi against attacks on their politics from critics in India and the United States.
Established in 2002 with the tacit approval of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government and under the leadership of an Indian American, USINPAC has campaigned against US aid to Pakistan, in favour of increased H1-B visas for Indians and a variety of other such causes that could be described, in today’s language, as “external interference in domestic policies”. Indian diplomats have made good use of USINPAC in promoting Indian interests in the US. So India’s objections today to such political advocacy here that is supported by overseas interests sounds a bit hollow.
The challenge for “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” today is that even as it seeks to become more self-reliant, it has to also have the self-confidence to deal with the fact that there is a global civil society of people of Indian origin and non-resident Indians overseas who have an interest in the welfare of resident Indians and the future of India....