The Lure of the Diaspora: Is Modi Magic Enough?

Thousands of supporters swarmed the streets in San Jose, California, carrying signs, holding banners and chanting in unison. An 18,000-strong crowd amassed last year at the Madison Square Garden arena in New York City alongside singers, dancers and even high-speed painters to give the man whose face was plastered on plasma screens around the venue a “rockstar welcome.” In the UK, over 70,000 people are expected to attend an invitation-only “Olympic style” cultural showcase, followed by the biggest fireworks display in the country at Wembley Arena in November to witness the largest reception of its kind ever to be held in the UK. Who is the figure behind all the clamour? Madonna? The Rolling Stones? Not quite. Make it Prime Minister of India’s Narendra Modi.

Image courtesy of Narendra Modi Official Flickr Account © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Narendra Modi Official Flickr Account © 2013, some rights reserved.

Whilst most leaders conducting state visits are used to a more modest welcome or, in some cases, are made decisively unwelcome by rallying protestors, Modi stands in a different league. What sets Modi apart is the power of the largest diaspora population in the world. The glitz and glamour surrounding Modi’s visits are part of a diplomacy drive which aims to tie this community into the project of making the twenty-first century the century that belongs to India.

The embrace of the diaspora is startlingly at odds with India’s history. Following independence in 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru firmly disavowed them. According to Nehru, Indians located outside the Indian geobody had given up their rights to Indian citizenship. It was not until the Balance of Payments Crisis of the 1990s that India departed from its decades-old policy of swadeshi (economic self-reliance) and embraced economic integration.  Indian policymakers then realised that the diaspora had the potential to bring India the fruits of economic success and could stand as symbols of the globally-successful Indian nation.

Modi’s renewed focus on the diaspora could certainly help achieve both of these aims. Indian-Americans outperform all other minorities in the US with an average household income double that of white Americans. Their success in the US technology sector is formidable with Indian talent at the heads of Adobe, Google, MasterCard, Pepsi and Microsoft, amongst others.[i] This group’s potential impact on perceptual changes of Indian culture and society is crucial to the diaspora’s role in India’s foreign policy strategy. As Modi remarked during his 2014 state visit to Silicon Valley, “your fingers created magic on the keyboard and the computer and this gave India a new identity.”[ii] Concrete economic results aside, the mobilisation of the “successful India” diaspora narrative is a means to help achieve the unwavering foreign policy goal, so cherished in the Indian psyche, of restoring global respect and admiration for the Indian civilization.

So, how successful was Modi’s visit to the US? The concrete economic outcomes of his trip to Silicon Valley included commitments from Google to equip 500 railway stations with WiFi, Microsoft’s plans to bring its cloud services and low-cost broadband to five villages, and a $150 million start-up fund by chip manufacturer Qualcomm.[iii] Yet, assessing success based solely on results vis-à-vis these tech giants is to neglect Modi’s larger strategy–the worldwide promotion of India as an attractive destination for foreign investment. India needs to create jobs – and lots of them – to meet the targets of the “Make in India” initiative launched in 2014 to transform India into a global manufacturing hub, with 25% of GDP coming from manufacturing by 2020.[iv] Policies have been passed making it easier for overseas Indians to invest, including parity when investing from domestic-currency accounts.[v]

Yet, although Modi’s public relations stunts have raised India’s profile, as put in the Financial Times, “leaders are not measured by the number of Facebook ‘likes’ they attract.” It is one thing to tell investors that India is open for business and quite another to present an environment attractive to investment. India cannot credibly make this claim given its paralysing bureaucracy and devastatingly low place of 142 on the World Bank’s annual “Ease of Doing Business” report. Whilst Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, has dedicated a $5 billion pledge to set up shop in India within five years, Amazon’s $2 billion investment may be coming to an end having reached deadlock with the state over tax regulations. This is set against the lack of progress in Modi’s “Make in India” initiative with manufacturing stagnant at 17% of India’s GDP. Granted, it is still early days, but a successful courting of the diaspora – in the US and elsewhere– is contingent on other factors.

What is glaringly evident is that, ultimately, what happens abroad is intricately connected to what happens at home. Attracting investment requires changes to the business environment in India. However, what is more blatant is that the brouhaha Modi is creating abroad, which is feeding the image of India as a growing international power, is starkly dichotomous with the desperate situation at home. As one resident citizen lamented in The Indian Express, “wooing the Indian diaspora abroad is one thing, convincing those back home still waiting for their basic roads and key reforms, another”.[vi] A heavily underdeveloped social security net is failing to combat the oppressive poverty which affects a huge swathe of the population. Unlike elsewhere in Asia, there has been no state-led drive to improve health and education facilities. India has instead focused on encouraging FDI and liberalising trade, but more effort needs to be channelled into providing citizens with the social security and knowledge-base to emerge as the labour pool required to translate global integration into economic results.

Nevertheless, Modi’s development priorities are heading in the right direction as he intertwines the diaspora in this project, too. The newly announced “Indian Diaspora Investment Initiative” announced this year represents a way for private investors to support sustainable social enterprise in India. Seeking to provide finance to small- and medium- sized enterprises, it is hoped that a focus on “Base of the Pyramid” populations will facilitate the availability of benefits, jobs and training to local entrepreneurs[vii]. This, combined with Modi’s new social security schemes, needs to be sustained and stepped up.

Modi may receive receptions reserved for the world’s most famous celebrities, but it remains to be seen whether results match the fanfare. Flirting with the Indian diaspora is a new contour aimed at securing India’s economic growth and fuelling global perceptions of India’s greatness. However, the domestic situation in India has so far restricted the realisation of both goals. Indian-born or not, fundamental reform is needed before investment floods in, whilst the disparities between the image of a globally prominent nation does not chime with the realities of domestic India. An intensified effort to improve social security must occur in tandem with efforts to engage the diaspora and there are signs that this dual strategy is taking hold. The long-standing destiny of India as Great Power is a narrative which is gaining traction around the world. If the mind set of reform continues, Modi may really be the star that all the razzmatazz he attracts makes him out to be.

[i] Rajan, I. Indian Migration Report 2014: Diaspora and Development (New Delhi: Routledge, 2014)







[KO1]This could go.