Harnessing a potential for the country’s good

Harnessing the potential of Indians living abroad for long is a tried method for Mr. Modi. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he tapped into the rich Non-Resident Indian’s deep pockets to induce him to invest in his state by institutionalizing the policy through annual jamborees lauding the role the NRI is playing. The underlying theme is that far from being looked down upon for his adventurous ventures around the world, he is welcome for having fought arduous battles to emerge on top,” says the author.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Mr. Narendra Modi’s tours abroad as Prime Minister is his employment of the considerable number of Indians and persons of Indian origin settled around the world as instruments of Indian foreign policy. No previous Indian Prime Minister has tackled the potential of Indians abroad as assiduously as Mr. Modi.

This was clear yet again during his Australian tour. There is a measure of stage management involved, but the formula has become standard after his American visit. You gather Indians in their various avatars in a metropolis, enthuse them about the properties of the self-made Prime Minister, give him a rock-star reception and you have the ingredients of the gracious guest announcing goodies such as visas on arrival and no police reporting even for those with other passports.

And everybody goes home happily singing praises of Modi. In a sense, the Prime Minister is following a path trod by China for generations. Perhaps because the Chinese have distinctive racial and facial characteristics, they do not easily meld into local populations. But several shades of different Chinese governments have used their compatriots as instruments of their foreign policy. In independent India, on the other hand, the Nehruvian philosophy was to tell Indians who had left home shores to settle abroad to give their full allegiance to their new countries whose passports they had taken.

At the same time, he advised expatriate Indians to retain their cultural links with their original homes. Mr. Modi is now turning this approach on its head by following the Chinese model. There has always been great Indian pride in the achievements of Indians in the new homes they have adopted. Look at the columns of publicity in the print medium on an exceptional student or scientist who shines, an original Indian or his progeny making it to the political and administrative heights in his adopted home.

Indians living abroad, however remote their connection, have for their part observed Indian religious and cultural traditions, sometimes to an anachronistic extent. This is particularly true of Gujaratis in view of their distinctive dietary habits and taboos. As is true of all countries, Indian missions abroad seek to promote their merits through cultural centers and trade promotion initiatives.

The Indian dancing Siva, for instance, is a staple of all Indian embassies around the world. But no other Indian Prime Minister other than Mr. Modi has mined the potential of the born Indian or his progeny as he is setting out to. On the contrary, the typical attitude of the ordinary Indian is that there is an element of guilt and disloyalty in anyone’s decision to give up the homeland for pieces of silver and rosier prospects abroad. This is, of course, not true of the humble migrant worker who goes abroad to keep his family’s head above water. Harnessing the potential of Indians living abroad for long is a tried method for Mr. Modi.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he tapped into the rich Non- Resident Indian’s deep pockets to induce him to invest in his state by institutionalizing the policy through annual jamborees lauding the role the NRI is playing. The underlying theme is that far from being looked down upon for his adventurous ventures around the world, he is welcome for having fought arduous battles to emerge on top. Perhaps the tinge of envy many Indians feel towards the successful NRI is sublimated by the latter’s decision to share his fortune with his original home. One striking aspect of the NRI’s success is the new trend in countries extending from the United States to Fiji in deciding to send persons of Indian origin to their original homes as their ambassadors.

The jury is still out on how successful this experiment will be, but there can be no doubt of the success of these Indians who have reached the top in the diplomatic pecking order to merit the honor. As far as Mr. Modi is concerned, the Indian living abroad in his or her various forms is an asset to be cultivated and honored. He might have his cheer leaders to lionize him. Cheers of “Modi, Modi” at the big gatherings of NRIs in New York and Sydney are well rehearsed. His by now familiar theme of discourse of his own humble origin is meant to strike a chord with his audience who boast similar stories.

And in announcing goodies, he makes the point that he is a leader who keeps his word. In other words, he is the leader his overseas audiences have been waiting for. Judging by the unrehearsed reactions in New York, Sydney and elsewhere, Mr. Modi’s theme song seems to be working. For some, he is the decisive Indian leader they have been waiting for. For others, the promise of greater prosperity and less rule-bound administration are welcome steps. And despite the dark clouds of 2002 in Gujarat hanging over him, the world from President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Tony Abbot has accepted his new credentials as the dynamic leader of India set to take the country forward more in keeping with its true potential.

There are, of course, some dangers in lionizing the Indian settled abroad. India does not offer double passports, unlike many other countries, despite Mr. Modi’s audiences’ demands in New York, Sydney and elsewhere. But Nehru’s constant advice to his countrymen settled abroad to offer full loyalty to their new home governments, despite their cultural and emotional attachment to India, has some merit. Essentially, it is a question of finetuning what Mr. Modi expects from persons of Indian origin, apart from the obvious advantage of exploiting their wealth for the country’s development. But the new mantra is there to stay.

The NRI is not merely an honored guest but one who has a special responsibility of helping the country in various ways in whatever job he is doing in his adopted home. If Mr. Modi can combine his new evangelism without raising suspicions, he would have achieved a purpose.