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Boris Johnson to Priti Patel, Indians love a desi connect, but only if it’s the right kind

Indians love their diaspora – but the connect has to be unproblematic. Read, no Kamala Harris or Hasan Minhaj.

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In the post-globalised world, there is one universal truth. If there is a diaspora connection to an international success, India will claim it as her own, no matter how tenuous the connection is. The latest example being British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ex-wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, is half-Indian and that her mother was once married to the late Khushwant Singh’s youngest brother. No, I kid you not, this is the subject of a quite fascinating story in Mumbai Mirror.

At the same time, Pakistan too wants to claim Boris as its son-in-law. In an interview, the new PM had told Pakistan’s GEO TV that Wheeler’s parents are from Pakistan and she insisted he visit the country.

And this, of a man on whom The Sun helpfully published an article on July 23 explaining his tangled love life and his even more complicated offspring.

Also read: Why Boris Johnson reminds me of my ex-husband Imran Khan: Reham Khan

The Bharatiya Boris brigade

By all means, expect a detailed family tree for the three new members of his cabinet with Indian heritage as well: Priti Patel, Alok Sharmaand Rishi Sunak. Sunak, as the son-in-law of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy has already been claimed by India. Patel, though, ashome secretary is by far seen as the most successful and, therefore, most written about, with WhatsApp jokes in circulation about the home ministers of both UK and India being Gujaratis. Never mind that Patel is of Indian heritage via Uganda, the country to which her parents migrated in the 1960s. And that she is not always happy to wear her heritage on her sleeve, saying very clearly that she does not identify herself as Black, Minority Ethnic (BME), a label she finds “patronising” and “insulting”, but as British “first and foremost”.

But Patel is a particular favourite of many who follow the current BJP dispensation in India because she took on the conservative bugbear BBC over its “one-sided” coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after he won the 2014 general election.

For her efforts, she was honoured with a ‘Jewel of Gujarat’ award at a reception in 2015 in Ahmedabad. The award was launched by Narendra Modi the same year.

Reva Sharma, a London born-and-bred TV producer admits to being conflicted about Patel’s rise. “Being a British Indian with many British Indian friends, many of my recent conversations have gone one of two ways – a) Isn’t it a moment of real triumph for us? We have finally been accepted. I remember when my dad was spit at on the streets in the ‘70s. And b) What a disgrace. She doesn’t represent me or Asians or Asian values. Is this the woman that is going to represent us now?” she says to ThePrint, adding that she is leaning towards the latter.

But even she recognises that this is a moment for the Indian diaspora to feel proud – despite the fact that there are Indians at the helm of the topmost companies in the world from Google to Microsoft.

“We still lack a real representation on the world stage so it doesn’t matter if no one ever watched Quantico or xXx, the fact that Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone are our home-grown gals, makes us want the world to know about it. We grew up getting excited when the bad guys in Back to the Future said ‘sali gun’. That was the extent of our representation in mainstream Hollywood,” says Sharma.

“Priti Patel pretty much opposes every political and social value I hold close to my heart, so, I’m not jumping up and down about her recent success – but I certainly don’t begrudge those who are. It’s time the world took note that Indians are bright, innovative, dynamic.”

Also read: What Boris Johnson’s run for Oxford Union president told me about the PM he will become

Love for the Motherland

There are others, who in their lifetime, have travelled the distance from cold rejection by the Motherland to loving adoption (either way). V.S. Naipaul was a persona non grata when he first came to India from Trinidad and wrote An Area of Darkness in 1964. In the book, he famously spent much time describing India’s love for open defecation— “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.” He only became much loved and much admired after his rants against Islam and his praise for Hindu militancy. Christianity didn’t damage India like Islam, he said. Hindu militancy was “a necessary corrective…a creative force”.

Salman Rushdie and Amartya Sen have travelled the other way, going from admiration to derision for their supposed opposition to Prime Minister Modi. In the case of Rushdie, he has a term for fans of the PM, “Modi toadies” – those who have a penchant for attacking him online for his lack of ‘LFM’, Love For Modi,

In the case of Sen, he has often been criticised for his opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement, which he says “has won something in terms of power but nothing particularly serious in the battle of ideas”.

Also read: LSE’s Amartya Sen Chair to study global inequality but the lessons will be for India

To claim or not to claim

Behind every Bobby Jindal and Sunita Williams Indians go ga-ga over, there are many who Indians rather not welcome with open arms.

Like in the case of Democratic Presidential hopeful, Kamala Harris. Indians find it impossible to establish parentage because the California Senator herself identifies herself primarily as Black. In fact, she gets attacked for not being Black enough because her father was Jamaican and her mother, a scientist, Indian. “It is challenging … and to be honest with you, it is also hurtful,” the California senator told Jemele Hill on an episode of her podcast ‘Jemele Hill Is Unbothered’.

In an email interview with ThePrint, Princeton historian and well-known author Gyan Prakash says Harris herself identifies more as African American than Indian. “This is understandable in the context of US politics,” he says. “Barack Obama too identified himself as black and underplayed his white mother. It was a political decision to enter politics as African American, define himself in political rather than racial terms. It is the same with Kamala Harris, with the difference that gender politics is relevant in her case. Given the importance of African American women as reliable voters, this is understandable.”

The diasporic Indians’ attitude, however, is telling. They are perfectly willing to claim former Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, he points out, but not very forthright in rallying behind Kamala Harris. “I suspect that her half-Blackness plays a role here. Indians, alas, are not particularly open to African Americans, and even less to the Left of centre African American politics.”

The problem is similar with American comedian Hasan Minhaj. Minhaj is of Indian Muslim origin, and to the horror of most conservative Indians, jokes about his low scores in school and PM Modi. His Netflix show Patriot Act attempts to tell truth to power. So, obviously, they are the wrong kind of Indian diaspora. And not as much the apple of our desi eye.

Perhaps, all Harris and Minhaj need to show is some LFM?

They could learn from Tulsi Gabbard, the US combat veteran of Samoan origin who is a ‘born again’ Hindu and unapologetic about her support for Modi. “I am proud to be the first Hindu-American to have been elected to Congress,” she has said, and “now, the first Hindu-American to run for president.” Indians adore the four-time Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii who is a presidential hopeful despite not having any Indian heritage. Her LFM is enough.

Also read: Why India needs to watch Kamala Harris as she races ahead for US presidential candidacy

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. In general I agree with most of what is written, in this article. The writer has got her intuition in the right place. However, the portion related to Tulsi Gabbard seems to be deliberately misleading. It was really not clear about your writing, how Tulsi Gabbard is “unapologetic about her support for Modi”. Looks like you’re buying a bit too much of the centrist propaganda of the US mainstream media.

  2. To the author, I would like to address two comments:-
    First, I have watched Hassan Minhaj’s shows. As far as I can make out, he has never really lived in India and neither does he know anything professionally about its societal and political makeup which is why, even though I have no problem with his criticisms, most of his facts about India are actually wrong. He needs to hire a professional such as a historian or an anthropologist with specialisation in India to help him correct his mistakes. I, myself, being a physician and a liberal, practising in India, found Minhaj’s false portrayals based on factual mistakes in history more hurtful than the criticism itself.

    Secondly, while you were enthusiastic in declaring the other NRIs as half-so & so, I think you neglected that about Gabbard. As far as I know, she is born half-Hindu or half-Sikh. She is not fully Samoan. She followed Samoan traditions in childhood and as an adult, made a conscious and educated decision to be an official Hindu.

  3. Boris Johnson has a Turkish connect too! One of his ancestors, on his father’s side or Mother’s, came from Turkey! The town in Turkey where this ancestor came from hopes that he would visit the town!

  4. Most Indians have been raised traditionally have residues of patriarchy and racism in them. Started off from The Mahabharatha when Krishna of a dark skin was depicted as blue. So it is not surprising that irrespective of where they live first generation Indians have mindsets which are not liberated and will have stars in their eyes for anything remotely Indian. A good article.

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