The ongoing protests by farmers in the National Capital Region (NCR) of India have evoked comments from politicians outside India as well. The most high-profile of those has been the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently said that “the situation is concerning, we are all very worried”. Other comments have emanated from politicians in Canada, Australia and the US. Likewise, a group of 36 cross-party British Members of Parliament wrote a letter to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urging him to discuss the matter with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar. A group of seven American lawmakers wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “expressing ‘serious concern’ over the ‘ongoing civil unrest’ in India”.
The cause of the protests is the three new agriculture reform laws which were passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020. The main argument of the government is that these laws will provide greater opportunities for farmers to sell their produce through multiple sources and not necessarily at pre-determined designated marketplace controlled by the government. On the contrary, some farmers say that it will leave them at the “mercy” of corporates and big agribusinesses and ultimately may bring an end to the Minimum Support Price (MSP). At the core of this debate is the role of the government, relevance of regulation and available choices for farmers.
Similar animated discussions about the precise role of states, market dynamics and the choices available to small enterprises as well as to individuals have taken pace in many countries, especially while transitioning from socialist to market economies. Moreover, these are issues that seem to be dominating the political discourse even in established market economies such as the United States (in healthcare reforms).
In India, there is an opinion that while the government should remain cognizant of the protestors, it is unfortunate that issues of domestic policies in India have attracted unwarranted comments from politicians of the West. Beyond the immediate issue of farmer protests and international attention, there is a need to take note of larger trends.
Democracies such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada host a large number of immigrants from different parts of the world (including sizable numbers from the Indian subcontinent). As immigrants deepen their engagement in host societies, their concerns are bound to get reflected in the politics of these societies. Even though the immigrants may have acquired citizenships, they will continue to express concerns about various political events and developments of their ‘ethnic kin’ in their countries of origin.
Such a duality of being a citizen of one country and getting agitated about developments in their country of origin is integral to immigrant political engagement. Moreover, unlike previous decades, the advent of social media and the consequent rapid flow of information has ensured that the duality is further amplified. What we are seeing therefore, is demands from minority groups, such as those in US, Canada and the UK asking their respective governments to ‘monitor and protect the interests of their ethnic kin’. Subsequently, the political leaders, by articulating the external ethnic interest of the immigrants want their respective governments to behave more like ‘Kin- States’.
It is important to recognise that the politicians in question are not merely articulating values but are also assuaging their domestic voters. In this case, a relatively large number of constituents trace their roots to the province of Punjab in India, and hence feel obligated to articulate concerns of their ethnic kin. Nevertheless, the political leaders representing these immigrants will need to surmount several challenges.
One, electoral compulsions will warrant that the representatives must articulate relevant concerns of some of their constituents. While such articulations may not constitute the core of the government’s foreign policy, it may be perceived as an unfriendly act in the countries that are being commented upon.
Two, the second- or third- generation immigrants, while feeling a sense of belonging to their country of origin, may not be able to comprehend the complexity of issues to which they are responding or commenting upon. Therefore, they may support political ideologies/movements without realising the onground realities. It could also be that while the rhetoric is liberal and suggests support to political positions which are of a liberal nature (such as the right to protest, equitable distribution of wealth or accountability), they may yet end up inadvertently supporting illiberal ideas and projects, guided by notions of ethnicity.
Three, there is also an asymmetry in power relations with the West, wherein even politicians who are not part of the government can generate considerable angst in distant countries by commenting on issues of the developing world. Given such an asymmetry, and at times a disconnect, the significant diversity in voices of the country in question is often unable to explain the complexities of issues at hand to the international audience.
At a certain level, there is a need to celebrate the freedom of elected representatives to express concerns without inhibitions about developments in distant countries. However, at the same time, there is also a need to be wary that they may end up unwittingly supporting illiberal movements. At a larger level, there is a need to create processes through which politicians in the western developed world are better aware of developments in countries from which the majority of the immigrant community trace their roots.
Such issues are of course going to be a constant feature in a highly globalised world which is characterised by the free movement of people across continents. It must, therefore, be noted that external engagement is no longer confined to bureaucracies in foreign ministries. Instead, it will be impacted by statements from even grass-root level politicians of other countries, and paradoxically, the foreign ministries may have to find collaterals to limit the damage.
With the emergence of large diaspora communities articulating interests of their ethnic kin in their country of origin, the distinction between domestic and international politics often gets blurred. For countries like India, there is a need to engage its diaspora with greater intensity. In turn, societies hosting these diasporas must have regular conversations with various political actors to ensure that illiberal movements remain out of the limelight. Lastly, while the political leaders in the West will continue to comment on domestic politics in Asia and Africa to gain votes domestically, the countries being commented upon will also, in turn, seek to engage their diaspora with greater intensity. These efforts should not be defined by notions of certainty, but rather by humility, a desire to unpack complexities and a willingness to learn.
The writers work, respectively, as Senior Fellow and Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group. The views expressed here are personal.