On either side of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the three-day 17th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention that concluded in Indore Tuesday, stood President of Guyana Irfaan Ali and President of Suriname Chandrikapersaud Santokhi, one Muslim and one Hindu of Indian origin, both at the pinnacle of their career on the other side of the globe in South America.
When he was elected unopposed in 2020, Chan Santokhi’s Vatan Hitkari Party (VHP) was largely an Indo-Surinamese party. But under him, it has grown into a multi-ethnic Progressive Reform Party. But Santokhi didn’t forget to recite Sanskrit shlokas and mantras during his oath-taking ceremony back home – UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak taking a leaf out of his book when he swore his own vows of secrecy on the Gita in London last year.
On Irfaan Ali’s Facebook page, photos of him and Modi at the Pravasi Bharatiya Convention, where he was chief guest, elicited comments from admirers with names like Barbara Persaud-Tiwari (the “Persaud” no doubt a variation of “Prasad” or “Parsad”), Poonam Ramnarine (a variation of “Ram Narayan”) and Rudolph Balkaran.
Irfaan Ali waxed eloquent about Modi’s reputation, referring to the time India sent 80,000 Covid vaccines to Guyana to help it deal with the pandemic.
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Modi praise, changing view
More kudos about Modi and India have recently hit the headlines. Back in November, The Economist said that 2023 would tip India to becoming the world’s fastest growing economy, with growth rates touching 7 per cent. Even as Europe reeled under the strain of the Russia-Ukraine war, the magazine said, India leveraged the purchase of cheap Russian oil to maintain both economic and political stability.
IMF chief economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, meanwhile, has described India as a “bright light” in a grey world, while the prestigious British think tank, Centre for Economics & Business Research, said that India will become the world’s third largest economy in 2036.
Modi, clearly, seems buoyed by the praise. Only for the second time in his eight years in power, he broke from tradition and tweeted Monday about the internal political situation of a foreign country – the riots in Brazil. India has, always, studiously refrained from commenting about the internal situation of nations abroad.
Something is clearly changing. Referring to the riots allegedly sponsored by losing president Jair Bolsonaro, the PM tweeted that he was “deeply concerned” about the news of rioting and vandalism and that “democratic traditions must be respected by everyone.”
The only other time Modi had tweeted about the internal affairs of a foreign country was in the wake of riots on Capitol Hill in the US, after then-president Donald Trump lost the election to Joe Biden.
Clearly, Modi wants to shed the image of the strongman and the bully the world press has drawn around him and usher in 2023 on a new note.
The accentuated emphasis on the “Pravasi Bharatiya” or “Indian diaspora” seems to be part of this strategy. That Modi is not just the PM of Indians, but will maintain a strong link with all Indian-origin people abroad, no matter how long ago they left the mother country and in whatever straitened circumstances.
From Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who began the celebration of the Indian diaspora with the Pravasi Divas in 2003 to Modi’s cultivation of people of Indian origin, the BJP has certainly tapped into a goldmine of talent, hard work and model behaviour that makes the Indian community globally a hard act to follow.
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The new diaspora
Of course the Indian diaspora has changed colour over the last 150 years since the first Indians travelled to all corners of the world as indentured labour, or “girmitiyas” (a corruption of the word “agreement”) to toil in the sugar plantations of the British empire – Suriname, Guyana, West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius are only a few examples.
Chan Santokhi and Irfaan Ali’s ancestors were “girmitiyas” – interestingly, Suriname was a Dutch colony, gaining independence only in 1975, so small wonder Santokhi speaks Dutch like a native. Irfaan Ali’s Guyana was also a Dutch colony before it was colonised by the British in the 18th century — it became independent in 1966.
And then there is the more recent and largely Indian economic migrant to western countries like the US, who over the last 50 years has become a model community in their adopted land (“we worked twice as hard to get half as far,” an upstanding US official of Indian origin who sought anonymity told ThePrint) – Kamala Harris, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Richard Verma are just the tip of this very successful Indian-American iceberg.
Of course, the blue-and-white collar workers who continue to build the shimmering cities of the Gulf and send back large remittances are as much worthy of adulation – although they remain Indian citizens. Nevertheless, because of these unsung heroes, according to the World Bank Migration and Development Brief, India is tipped to earn $100 billion in remittances in the coming year.
The fact that Modi wants to use the Indian diaspora as a bridge to expand influence abroad is a no-brainer. The argument that Indians of another citizenship owe nothing and feel even less about the country they left behind is even less sound – in a globalised world, where Twitter and Facebook are variations of home, the need to connect with each other across time and distance is a basic instinct.
It is this instinct that the Modi government is tapping into. Modi knows that the Indian abroad doesn’t care much about the goings-on at home, as long as India remains generally multi-cultural and democratic; a stray lynching here and there isn’t substantially going to change his view.
That’s why the Pravasi Bharatiya Convention is so important. It brings people home. Cross-pollination occurs. Everyone wins.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)