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Politics | The growing economic and diplomatic relevance of India’s diaspora

While the Indian diaspora has been a good-will ambassador and argued for the better relations between the host country and India, it is the Narendra Modi government that has fully realised its potential for public diplomacy.

Members of the Indian diaspora protest outside the UN Headquarters condemning Pulwama terror attack, in New York, US. (Image: PTI)
Members of the Indian diaspora protest outside the UN Headquarters condemning Pulwama terror attack, in New York, US. (Image: PTI)

The massive joint rally by the Prime Minister Modi and United States President Donald Trump at Houston, Texas, is historic for several reasons. If one has to choose, it is a tribute to the success and influence of the Indian diaspora that was on display at the Houston rally.

The Indian diaspora is huge — at 17.5 million it is the largest in the world. It is not just the largest but also among the most successful diaspora’s in the world. No matter the country, Indians have been able to make a niche for themselves in the economic and social life of the host country. It is their ability to integrate and assimilate that makes them stand apart from other immigrants in the recent times —and this is the reason why they have been more easily accepted by the native population and politicians.

The modern Indian diaspora is old and spread across the world. From the bonded labours from the eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the erstwhile British colonies of Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, East Africa, and the Caribbean, to the peasantry and Dalit diaspora of Punjab to the workers from the coastal states such as Kerala, Indians settled all around the world even during the colonial period and in the immediate aftermath of Independence.


South Asian countries such as Malaysia are already home to a large Indian origin population. The direction of these migrations was mostly towards Canada, the United Kingdom and Africa. From the 1980s, a new wave of migration took hundreds of thousands of the Indians seeking better economic opportunities to the United States, Australia and other parts of the Europe such as Germany and Italy. Now many have turned towards East Asians countries including China.

The Indian diaspora has been economically successful and often among the most-educated and prosperous communities in the host countries. Over time they have come to wield significant influence in the native societies due to their economic power if not demography. They occupy prime positions in the corporate world, academia, hi-tech sectors and even small and medium businesses in the western countries. Add to this the large number of the Indian workers and mid-level managers crucial to the functioning of the West Asian economies.

While the Indian diaspora already acted as the good-will ambassador of India and argued for the better relations between the host country and India, it is the Modi government that fully realised its potential for public diplomacy. It is not for nothing that Modi has always made it a point to meet them at grand events or large public receptions whenever he is travelling abroad. The purpose is simple: To capitalise on the strong democratic mandate at home to galvanise the Indian communities abroad for India’s economic and geostrategic goals.

Such engagement and gatherings serve several purposes. First, they revitalise the links with India and inspire the diaspora to invest in India’s growth story, like the Korean and Chinese diaspora. Second, it makes the India diaspora a visible political community in the host country. Third, it strengthens the Indian soft power and by merging it with the increasing political influence of the diaspora, a coherent leverage of diplomacy is created. Fourth, it mitigates the influence of the hostile countries and their lobbyists against India. Finally, it helps strengthen the web of the economic networks across the world that remains invisible and can exercise tremendous back-door influence when needed.

Besides the hard economic and political power, the diaspora spreads the culture, awareness and soft-power of India by favourably influencing the local society and politics. The role of the Dalit diaspora in instituting chairs in the name of the Dr Ambedkar or installing his statues in universities across the world and celebration of the Ambedkar Jayanti by the United Nations is noticeable and serves as the vehicle of spread of Indian political ideas to other countries and has a long-lasting and deep influence.

Modi has taken community engagements to a new level by involving the top leaders of the host country in these mega events. He has successfully leveraged the influence and numbers of the Indian diaspora to ensure the presence of the foreign leaders such as David Cameron, Tony Abott, Stephen Harper, Benjamin Netanyahu and now Trump at these diaspora events. It makes sure that international political leaders take the welfare of Indian diaspora and Indian concerns more seriously.

It is needless to say that in a hyper-connected world, the diplomacy between countries has taken a new shape with the strengthening of public diplomacy. Under Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been successful in mobilising the Indian diaspora towards the same.

Abhinav Prakash Singh is assistant professor, Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, Delhi. Views are personal.
First Published on Sep 23, 2019 10:16 am