It might have been one of the best decisions for the young Jamie Bynoe-Gittens to skip his cricket ambitions and turn to football.
Long-distance nationalism acts as the ‘phantom bedrock’ of connection for the Indian diaspora, as there is always a deeper emotion involved with the land of their forefathers than with their current residency or changed nationality.
Settling into foreign lands is never easy or always a welcoming process as the Indian diaspora is invariably a ‘minority’ in foreign shores, and discrimination always lurks. Therefore, the quest for social acceptance as an ‘equal’ is always imagined, only in the land of their nativity or amongst a gathering of its diaspora in distant lands.
A cricket match involving the Indian team at Lords leads to an inevitable ‘sea of blue’ to cheer the Indian team, even against the team of the country that the diaspora may have migrated to, or have citizenship of. Today, rallies held by Indian politicians/leaders in foreign countries can shame leaders of foreign countries in their own land, with regard to attendance size.
If the Howdy Modi event attracted 50,000 in Houston, then the size of the diaspora at Wembley Stadium was upwards of 60,000. The large numbers and spirit of the Indian diaspora is getting flexed like never before. It is a powerful way to demonstrate India’s soft power globally, as also, conversely to suggest the Indian dispensation’s approval in terms of its governance approach and policies back home.
The diaspora has by and large remained a source of public strength for the current dispensation with odd fringe elements protesting at its actions. As the diaspora invariably reflects the success of Indians globally, given their levels of income and education, therefore indulging them and gaining their support can be seen to legitimize the policies of the political leadership back home. Ironically, given the diaspora’s own acceptance-concerns and issues of subtle racism faced in foreign shores, the diaspora naturally tends to tilt towards local political parties that are inherently more liberal, tolerant, secular and inclusive ~ hence the Democrats (Indian Americans voted 77 and 16 per cent for Democrats and Republicans, respectively) in the United States, or for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom (the Rishi Sunak phenomenon notwithstanding).
However, the diaspora also counterintuitively seems to revel in the more ‘nationalistic’ parties with an avowedly ‘muscular’ and majoritarian bent at home, as it psychologically feeds the desire to feel empowered, martial, and ‘taken seriously’ on the world stage. There is a clear contrast in the ‘type’ of parties that the Indian diaspora votes for in the foreign lands and the ‘type’ that they support back home. Often the nationalistic fervour amongst the diaspora douses its ability to retain a more balanced appreciation and or the questioning of the political proceedings back home.
The issue of ‘othering’ that the diaspora may be facing themselves, is not imagined in matching intensity or seriousness towards those who may be similarly facing ‘othering’ back home. Sound and fury of gladiatorial chants and fawning praise accompanying any leadership visit belies the existence of any concern, save for the invisible and substantially smaller minority of directly affected protestors who could typically be protesting outside the main venues.
This is almost be a unique phenomenon to the Indian context as visiting leaders of other countries like Turkey or Pakistan are faced with their diaspora posing hard questions that warrant explanations, clarifications and reassurances. All earlier barbs of ‘brain drain’ and of plausible deserters who forsook the Indian passport have conveniently been dropped, and the diaspora’s role as ambassadors, investors and guides to India’s future are valourised.
There are good reasons beyond ‘investments’ to tap into this diaspora as a significant amount of money is known to flow into the accounts of political parties, in a quaint arrangement that allows such transactions to be legally opaque and undisclosed. The spending in the last Lok Sabha elections was believed to be in the vicinity of $8 billion, making it the world’s most expensive election.
Back home, the questions pertaining to financing of such events and political shows are also easily deflected as ostensibly funded by ‘local diaspora and their businesses’. However, the increasing polarisation of society back home cannot but start getting reflected outside too, and that sets in motion the wholly expected, amoral and convenient circle of ‘othering’ within the diaspora too.
Some like the influential Senator, Ro Khanna, Co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans have gently forewarned, “I want us to be very much focused on strengthening the U.S.-India relationship under the principle of India’s founding and our founding,” and adding tellingly, “and not a celebration of any particular individual.”
While India must leverage its diaspora strategically towards enhancing soft power, investments et al, it must also act like a mature, concerned and wellmeaning populace which points out the missteps, excesses and discriminations of ‘others’ that could derail the Indian Dream. It can express a pragmatic concern on Delhi’s faltering pluralism and secularity as possible showstoppers that could undo the economic storyline and set it back, consequently.
In doing so, they would not be harming the interest of the land of their forefathers, but perhaps doing their patriotic duty that looks at the nation beyond infallibility, an individual, or a partisan persuasion. The other exact opposite type of disservice done by a small number of fringe groups amongst the diaspora is by those who have remained stuck in time and have unhealed memories, imaginations and wounds of a time gone by, where the reality is a lot more positive back home.
At their extreme they become advocates of insurgent movements and toe the line of India’s enemies who would want India to get discredited and even implode. In a very perverse and inadvertent way, the ‘blinds’ of binaries who either see nothing wrong, or those who only see everything wrong, feed into each other’s false narrative, to stitch their own justifications.
It is important to have more informed, rather than choreographed engagements, with the diaspora to allow the truth to prevail and celebrate what must be celebrated, and to introspect on matters that do indeed warrant introspection. Blind sighting never helps anyone, certainly not India, in the long run.
(The writer is Lieutenant Gen PVSM, A,VSM, retired and former Lieutenant governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in Puducherry)