The global Indian diaspora, linked to India through ancestry, nationality, ethnicity or some other means, is over 31 million strong, the largest in the world and almost equivalent to the population of Malaysia. Early emigration since the times of King Ashoka to subsequent traders, merchants and artisans who travelled to Central Asia, the Arab peninsula, African ports, Southeast Asian trading points led to the ubiquitous Indian diaspora being spread far and wide. The later wave of migrants, mid-19th century onwards, were indentured labourers, primarily from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who went to island nations like Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji etc., as also to the east African port cities and South Africa. Post-Independence, the economic opportunities in the oil boom of Gulf sheikhdoms, professionals in the US and liberal emigration policies of Australia and Canada accounted for major emigration of the Indian populace.
Today, while Mauritius has an overwhelming “Indian majority” of over 68 per cent, others like the UAE with 40 per cent, Suriname with 27 per cent, Kuwait with 21 per cent, etc. have significant populations of NRIs or people of Indian descent. The single largest “Indian” community is in the United States with a population of nearly 4.5 million — they are also the most financially affluent ethnicity, with a household income of over $122,000, out-earning all other ethnicities.
The current political leadership in Mauritius, Portugal, Ireland and Trinidad & Tobago has an impressive sprinkling of diaspora members. This logically accrues a significant cultural, economic, diplomatic and political relevance and visibility for the “Indian” identity. Befittingly, the diaspora is a heterogeneous bouquet of religions, regions, races and identities that compose India itself.
The recently concluded 15th Pravasi Bharitiya Divas at Varanasi celebrated this vibrant community with the attendance of Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, Norwegian MP Himanshu Gulati and 4,000 others. The convention’s theme created a sense of reciprocal expectations from the diaspora — “Role of Indian diaspora in building New India”. While India remains the world’s top recipient of remittances from its diaspora, with nearly $80 billion in 2018 (China reportedly got around $67 billion), its role in economic health via remittances and potential investments is significant. However, the extended expectation of a more favourable political or diplomatic outlook towards India, owing to the significant numbers of the Indian diaspora, is often misplaced.
Much brouhaha surrounds the Indian-origin “female Barack Obama”, Kamala Harris, in her 2020 Presidential bid in the US, as indeed, of the bid of the first Hindu member of US Congress, Samoan-American Tulsi Gabbard, who is clearly not even part of the Indian diaspora. Even though Ms Harris identifies herself more with her African-American roots as opposed to Indian-American (her father was a Jamaican and her mother a Tamilian), the numeric-financial power of the Indian diaspora may lead to the subtle amplification of her Indian roots. Whereas Ms Gabbard’s “Indian connection” by way of her personal faith and ostensible equation with the Indian leadership in Delhi has put the influential Hindu organisations in the US firmly on her side. That both of these candidates are Democrats, and that in an increasingly polarised world, underpinned by unashamed realpolitik, that the Republican President is historically more pro-India than a Democratic one, is of little consequence. Despite Donald Trump’s blatant whimsicalities, inelegance and unbelievable failings, the emergence of India as a strategic “pivot” against common-strains of concerns is more definite. Yet, names of potential Republican candidates like Larry Hogan, Jeff Flake or Bob Corker do not resonate in the Indian imagination as yet. The sense that somehow an Indian-origin person will be more amiable, responsive and favourable towards India is solely an emotional reaction.
Recent experience with the likes of “crusader” prosecutor Preet Bharara or the previous governor of Lousiana, Bobby Jindal, has been contentious and often left a sour taste. Mr Jindal, in particular, downplayed his “Indianess”, never joined the India-Caucus as a Congressman or visibly championed “Indian causes”, and was routinely mocked for his extra “white” photos that almost seemed apologetic of his heritage. Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad distances himself from his Indian roots to dial-up his “Malayan” credentials, whereas the likes of Nikki Haley and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar have been more open in acknowledging their ancestry (even at the cost of pejorative barbs like “typically Indian”).
Despite the excitement in India owing to the diaspora’s individual achievements, expectations of a necessarily “pro-India” tilt are unfounded and unrealistic.
Beyond the cultural affinity, these individuals owe both their political and moral allegiance to the flag that they swear by, and any conduct to the contrary does not behoove a “citizenship”, irrespective of their ancestry. We too would take justifiable affront to any individual who takes Indian citizenship, yet retains a higher sense of loyalty and fidelity to their ancestral lands. Therefore, the celebration of a Mother Teresa, Annie Besant, Ruskin Bond, Tom Alter or Mark Tully as “Indians”, as opposed to their original ancestry.
On the hardnosed tables of international diplomacy and compulsions, a Mauritius would be driven by its own interests in wooing Chinese investments or a Seychelles in spurning an Indian naval port. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s (Goan ancestry) polite assertion as the “advocate of India in Europe” would be constrained by Portugal’s own limitations, interests and internal politics that will realistically define the practicality of the well-meant statement.
Yet the importance of Indian “soft power” via its throbbing diaspora cannot be underesti-mated in the long run nor can their ability to contribute economically (however the inherent higher-rate-of-return on investments made in India is an oft understated reality). More importantly, as the ambassadors of India’s lofty secularity and industriousness, the diaspora does a yeoman service in projecting the nation as progressive and tolerant. And the talented diaspora, unlike a lot of other ethnicities, is not known for any nefarious, regressive or ulterior agendas that could militate against the sensibilities of their adopted homeland, permanently or otherwise....