Recently India marked its 16th annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas — an occasion to reach out to India’s vast diaspora (which includes both Indian-origin foreign citizens as well as non-resident Indians), celebrate their achievements, connect them to their roots, and provide a framework for the diaspora’s engagement with India’s development story back home. The diaspora’s ability to spread Indian soft power, lobby for India’s national interests, and contribute economically to India’s rise is now well-recognised. But diaspora diplomacy has its own sensitivities.
The first issue is the role of diaspora in Indian democracy. The Indian State, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has stepped up its engagement with Indians and those of Indian-origin abroad. But various other Indian political formations and social groups have done so too. This means that the narrative on India is not homogeneous. The role of the liberal, Kashmiri and Muslim diaspora in articulating apprehensions about the government’s measures in 2019 — the effective nullification of Article 370 in Kashmir, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam — and of the Sikh diaspora in spreading a particular view about the agricultural reforms and farm protests is clear. This generates a political dynamic within their countries of residence which in turn generates pressure on India. How New Delhi uses the diaspora — while also respecting their distinct views on India which may vary with the official version — will remain a delicate issue.
The second issue is the role of the diaspora in the politics of their home countries. In the last election in the United Kingdom, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s affiliates sent a clear message that a vote for Labour, given its position on Kashmir under Jeremy Corbyn, would undermine Indian interests — Boris Johnson’s win came as a relief. In the US, one of the reasons both Donald Trump and Joe Biden adopted a positive approach to Indian interests was because of the Indian-American vote — while there was an earlier impression that Delhi would prefer Mr Trump because of the Houston rally, it stayed away from any messaging. But this issue — of whether to intervene in the electoral processes through the diaspora — will remain sensitive too because they are, at the end of the day, foreign citizens. India must leverage its diaspora but not have blanket expectations from it.