The Diaspora Dividend

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi departed the stage of San Jose’s SAP Center on Sunday evening, September 27th, over 20,000 Indian-Americans waved and screamed enthusiastically. It was reminiscent of similar rallies held by Modi in New York and Toronto. Each rally filled large sports arenas with Indian Americans cheering Modi and his vision for India. An even larger rally of 50,000 British-Indians is being discussed for Wembley Stadium later this year.

It is one of the most ambitious and energetic efforts to engage a global diaspora that we have seen in a long time. Modi is leveraging his personal popularity, deep ties between the Indian diaspora and India and a bullish Indian economy to drive his political and economic agenda at home. Outside of Israel, it is hard to think of another nation that is relying on its diaspora as much today as India.

While diaspora’s have been an important political constituency for ages, the same forces of globalization that are disrupting industry and economy have made diaspora communities a potentially more useful resource than before. For India, the sheer size of its diaspora makes it important. According to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 28 million people of Indian origin residing outside of India. Most of them are only 1–2 generations removed. Secondly, advances in technology over the last fifty years have kept Indians abroad in close touch with India. Most Indian cities are well-connected by air to the world, including a new direct flight from San Francisco to New Delhi this fall — something that was heavily lobbied for by Indians in Silicon Valley. And India’s middle class and working classes have reasonable connectivity to telephones and the Internet in order to stay in touch with family and friends living abroad.

In Prime Minister Modi’s case, the strong support he has abroad is also the result of a thirty-year campaign to build relationships with leading Indians in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Since the 1980’s, Modi and other senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been coming to the United States regularly. They leveraged a large base of Indian-American organizations with philosophical ties to the BJP to raise money for the BJP and awareness about its agenda. These efforts also gave them a deeper understanding of the North American and British economies, and access to a global network of experts of Indian origin. Indeed, several of Modi’s most senior advisors and supporters have spent significant portions of their careers in the United States, and have children that understand baseball better than cricket.

Historically, it is the impact of the Jewish diaspora that is most often cited as a model for other ethnicities to follow. Jewish-Americans have a long history of civic and political engagement in the United States. But fighting the Holocaust and supporting Israel’s survival required a higher level of organization, fundraising, political activism and effort than anything other diaspora’s have faced. The community has maintained those organizational structures today, and thus remains a force in American and Israeli politics.

Diaspora communities can be a dividend. First, they bring their culture to new countries — food, music, language and traditions. In time, those cultural traditions are adopted by Americans. Secondly, the diaspora remit’s billions of dollars back to their country of origin. These remittances are often a significant portion of personal income and national GDP for those countries. Third, the diaspora often engages lawmakers and business leaders in their adopted country — educating them about their homeland, promoting its virtues or admonishing its vices.

But the diaspora has also been a dilemma. Many in the diaspora have no interest in maintaining close ties to their nation of origin. They left as refugees — political, religious or economic. They left behind friends, family and culture for a better life and remain bitter at their home country for not being able to stay. And until recently, most of them had no reason to visit their nation of origin other than to see family. While many attempts have been made to convince diaspora’s to invest in their nation of origin, most were done without improving the transparency or governance required to make those investments worthwhile.

Today, we see Narendra Modi, along with Bibi Netanyahu, as global leaders who view the diaspora as vehicle to achieve their domestic agendas. Prime Minister Modi’s major initiatives all require large amounts of capital and expertise in the public, private and philanthropic sectors. He is looking to develop India as a manufacturing center for multinationals and startups alike. He has launched major campaigns to clean India, provide bank accounts to all, create a technology-based ID system and move government functions online. In addition, he wants to modernize India’s military. And while Indian government can support some of these initiatives, a lot of private capital and investment will be required. Modi has targeted the diaspora as his primary audience to market to — for institutional investment, corporate investment, philanthropy and personal engagement. He is fully aware that manufacturing will not come to India without private investment, and agricultural productivity will not improve without technologies from the West. His visit to Silicon Valley was to launch “Digital India”, a series of technology initiatives that he would like Silicon Valley’s Indian Americans to own with him.

The diaspora is also increasingly, a constituency to mobilize for foreign policy. Over the last year, Modi has visited many countries with large Indian-origin communities. Some have speculated that this is an attempt to secure global leadership — such as votes for a seat on the UN Security Council or leverage in climate change negotiations. Knowing that the “Permanent 5” of the UN Security Council is unlikely to change on its own, Modi may be mobilizing a coalition of nations by imploring the Indian diaspora to influence their adopted nations to support India.

Ironically, the very same opportunity that has been obvious to Modi, Netanyahu and Mexican President Pena Nieto hasn’t been optimized as strategically by American leaders. In the case of US-India relations, the Indian American community has largely driven the transformation of a relationship that was defined by Cold War alliances, into a relationship that runs deep between business, civil society, citizens, and more recently, governments. As the Indian American community in the United States matured, they became active in their communities and in politics. Today, Americans see Indian faces all around them — in their communities, starting companies and running for office. Indians have come to understand American society better by watching the incredible success of Indian Americans. Increasingly, Indians seek to emulate American systems of education, health care and governance. While they have not built the requisite infrastructure that they should, Indian Americans have also taken the lead in lobbying both the U.S. and Indian governments to seek better relations and collaboration.

In a world where information travels rapidly through social networks, America must find ways to tap into its diaspora communities as part of its foreign policy. They have the patriotism of new Americans but remain forever connected to the nations they left. Through their sheer size, they can amplify a positive vision of America better than any other leader or symbol.