How Narendra Modi has used Indian diaspora as a diplomatic force multiplier to push India’s interests

Before Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014, the ruling Congress at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) painted him...

Before Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014, the ruling Congress at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) painted him out to be a communal demagogue with blood on his hands. It urged the United States and most of the Western embassies along the Shanti Path in New Delhi to not even speak to the man, let alone invite him to their countries, or grant him a visitor’s visa.

They were fairly convinced that Modi, sneeringly called a ‘chai-wala’ by a senior Congress leader, could never become prime minister. The Congress also ignored Modi’s elected popularity as a three-term Chief Minister of Gujarat. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi, who Sonia Gandhi called ‘Maut ka Saudagar’, was for a time something of a persona non grata, and was actually not granted a US visitor visa.

However, when he won as the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the first thumping majority in thirty years, President Barack Obama immediately despatched the US Ambassador in India from New Delhi to Ahmedabad with an invitation to come to America on a state visit at the earliest.

Narendra Modi has an easy familiarity with other heads of state and government. He carries himself with dignity and gets along famously with most, replete with his propensity to hug them. His early friend ‘Barack’, for example, soon after becoming prime minister, was hugged. And they poured tea for each other.

Much water has flowed down the Ganga since.

Modi has demonstrated how to fill vast stadiums abroad with his erstwhile countrymen and women. Fill them with ticket-buying, cheering, patriotic, ethnic Indians. This is a feat on this scale not matched by other politicians or heads of government in the 21st century.

After a productive Denmark visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emplanes for Paris. Image courtesy Twitter handle of @PMOIndia

The shift in the diaspora’s attitude towards India and Narendra Modi was engineered at the ministerial level by the former foreign minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, responding with succour and action to tweets of any Indian in trouble abroad, however humble he may be.

The diaspora for long were taken for granted by earlier Indian prime ministers. Occasionally, if an ethnic Indian was awarded the Nobel Prize or a literary prize, there was a brief flurry of excitement. The government, however, saw Indians abroad, the useful NRI as well as the Indians who were now foreign citizens and PIOs, as a source of massive inward remittances, the largest in the world. But they were not acknowledged or thanked as people by the head of government.

Modi was the first to see the diaspora as allies, benefactors, and unofficial ambassadors. And if some were Muslim, all the better. Fact is, there is no place on earth where you can’t find an ethnic Indian.

Indian diplomacy developed two new dimensions under him that not only improved the image and prestige of every ethnic Indian on the plane but changed international diplomacy itself. The Indian prime minister stretched it beyond what was earlier thought possible or proper.

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Even the Chinese, numerous and influential as they are, could never match it in terms of amiability, though their money diplomacy has captured much of the Western media, the UN, and a number of other institutions and officials.

The ‘Swaraj spirit’ has seen Indians and other stranded nationalities of civilians, nurses, students, hostages, being rescued from battle zones and disaster areas by Indian civilian and military aircraft, mostly free of charge, sometimes after organising facilitation and assistance from rival groups and third countries.

This shift in response policy towards Indian citizens abroad has been carried forward not only by her successor, current External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar but by Prime Minister Modi himself, in a major departure from the practices of the past.

Earlier, Indian lives were thought perhaps to be cheap and dispensable, unless those who needed assistance were important, connected, and from the upper echelons of society. This despite India’s long-standing socialist pretensions.

As for mobilising the Indian diaspora as a diplomatic force-multiplier, a demonstrator of the usefulness of Indians living in any country, their contribution, their law-abiding nature, their intelligence and culture, Narendra Modi put his personal stamp on it.

The implementation began as soon as he became prime minister and immaculate it was too. Modi did his part. He brought gifts, often craft and textile items, books, projections of our history and culture, figurines, from different parts of India, for his counterparts. He started speaking almost exclusively in Hindi, instead of his more laboured English. He always dressed in Indian style clothes. He showed off gorgeous shawls. He projected both the old and the new, yoga and pharmaceuticals, aatmanirbhar manufacturing, digital India, our growth rate, climate awareness, our responsible ‘rules -based’ attitude.

In turn, the diaspora, both in an organised and spontaneous manner, lauded, feted and lionised Modi as the prime minister amongst prime ministers, and India as a unique nation on the move, with a huge domestic market and appetite for all kinds of goods and services from around the world.

The popularity of this prime minister was there for all to see, and put paid to Opposition, hostile Leftist media and enemy country attempts to besmirch his image and that of India.

India is now seen to have arrived. The diaspora amplifies Modi’s own message. India is well worth associating with, says Modi. Come invest in India. See how useful and worthwhile the Indians are in your own country, but remember they come from India, the land of opportunity. You don’t want to miss the bus. No other Indian prime minister had the bottle and the charisma to even attempt such a combination before.

Of course, the excellent organisers from the diaspora wherever Modi has been over the last eight years as prime minister deserve solid credit. They also lobby their governments and put forward Indian concerns. Some have electoral power and cannot be ignored.

There has never been a damp squib in terms of a response during scores of Modi visits, some to countries where no Indian prime minister has been, others visited after decades, covering more countries, cities, places, than any of his predecessors.

It is a truism that the Indian diaspora tends to be dramatically patriotic, romanticising the connection out of nostalgia. Still, there is no gainsaying that Prime Minister Modi evokes the love and adulation of the ethnic Indian population abroad to an unprecedented degree.

India’s standing in the global community has grown substantially, new alliances have been forged. At home, infrastructure modernisation, welfare initiatives for the poor, growth initiatives for business, industry, investment are all seen as very creditable. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in a country of 1.4 billion people has been extremely good and the production of vaccines, their disbursement and immunisation of millions, exports to other countries, sometimes free-of-charge, quickly, is much admired. India is being called the pharmacy of the world. In defence matters, the Modi administration standing up to and containing Chinese aggression on our borders is noted by the whole world.

The Madison Square Garden event in New York by himself a few years ago, the 50,000 capacity crowd at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event at the NRG Houston Stadium in Houston, Texas, with then president Donald Trump, deserve solid credit. Of course, when Trump came to India, Modi treated him to a crowd of over 100,000 at a massive brand new stadium in Ahmedabad. Trump had never seen so many people at a political rally before.

(File) Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reflected on a pane of glass in front of spectators as he speaks at Madison Square Garden in New York. Reuters

But it is Prime Minister Modi himself who has woven in the globally accessible televised interactions with the Indian diaspora, sometimes with just one or two people, with children, from all parts of India originally, and not just his native Gujarat. This is the leitmotif of every visit abroad in between the bilateral meetings, the multilateral summits, and the statecraft.

These are Indians who are now citizens of their new countries, some with a few thousand Indian origin people, others with significantly higher populations, educated, managerial, professional, entrepreneurial, from various disciplines.

They seem to be everywhere, from the time the prime minister lands at each new destination, children with songs, flowers, classical Indian dancers in their gorgeous Banarasi sarees, dhols, kettle drums, shehnais, lately both bhagwa and Indian flags. Priests who apply tilaks. On the street, outside his hotel, inside auditoriums, in large open-air venues, stadiums. Their message, enthusiastic as it is, is not lost on the host countries and their leaders either.

Wembley Stadium in London holds 60,000 people. A galaxy of soccer or Rock/Pop stars are generally necessary to fill it. Prime Minister Modi, held its attention in 2015, at the ‘Namaste Wembley’ event, the crowd whistling, clapping, cheering, Modi, Modi, Modi, through his long speech. They came to it as a celebration, with Modi-themed scarves, hats, plastic masks, taking selfies, and family portraits.

(File) Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting the Indian diaspora in London

His counterpart, then British prime minister David Cameron, wondered aloud if he could have attracted such a crowd by himself.

In small countries such as Denmark, a crowd of 1,000 Indians in an auditorium saw the Danish prime minister in attendance, glad to be associated with India, its charismatic prime minister, in company with the Danish Indians.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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