Diasporic soft power

A key dimension of India’s growing global soft-power profile is its extended and increasingly visible diaspora, scattered around the globe and estimated at over 28 million (according to figures from India’s Ministry for External Affairs), who have excelled in many spheres of life and enriched the cultural, economic and intellectual experience of countries such as the US and Britain (Kapur, 2010; Thussu, 2013; Chakravorty, Kapur and Singh, 2017; also see essays in Hegde and Sahoo, 2017). This is especially so in the United States, where an estimated 4.6 million people of Indian origin live, a large number of whom are high-profile professionals and business tycoons (Kapur, 2010; Chakravorty, Kapur and Singh, 2017).

The most articulate and effective manifestation of this soft-power attribute is the growing presence of members of the Indian diaspora in influential positions in Ivy League universities, international media and multilateral organizations, as well as transnational corporations. In 2019, two of the world’s top digital corporations were led by Indians who studied for their first university degrees in India: Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive of Google. Nitin Nohria became the tenth Dean of the Harvard Business School in 2010 -the first Asian to be elevated to such a position, while the Nobel Laureate, Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was elected the President of Britain’s Royal Society in 2015. Harvard University Professor, Gita Gopinath was appointed in 2018 as Director of Research of the International Monetary Fund.

In US politics too, the Indian presence is growing: Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s former UN ambassador is of Indian origin, as is Bobby Jindal, the former Governor of Louisiana. In 2020, in the UK government three key ministries were held by people of Indian origin: Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Priti Patel as Home Secretary and Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Many Indians have also reached top positions in international media organizations: prominent examples include Bobby Ghosh, who had the distinction of being the first non-American to be chosen as editor of Time International and Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time and a leading CNN commentator and Washington Post columnist, while Ravi Agrawal was appointed the managing editor of Foreign Policy.

In a globalized and interconnected world, diasporas can be a vital strategic instrument and channel of communication to further foreign policy goals, depending on their economic and political influence within the centres of global power (Kapur, 2010; Rana, 2013). Such ‘soft power resources’ have become an important component in foreign policy priorities for Modi. He has underlined the need to further strengthen the linkages between India and its diaspora, as indicated in his various stage-managed ‘town-hall’ events in the US and the UK, full of razzmatazz, notably the 2014 mega show in New York’s Madison Square Garden as well as the 2015

rally at London’s Wembley Stadium, and most recently, the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston with US President Trump in September 2019 (Yee, 2014; Addley, 2015; Paul, 2019). These carefully choreographed shows were very well attended and received wide media coverage. Such strategies are being deployed by India’s government, in collaboration with increasingly globalizing Indian industries, to project India as an investment-friendly, pro-market democracy. Indian corporations, too, are keen to engage with the diasporic elites to further their own interests. One commentator described these as ‘baby steps to develop a cohesive, strategic and institutionalized approach to the use of soft power’ (Lahiri, 2017: 40).

As India’s international profile has grown in recent decades, members of its diaspora are reconnecting with the homeland. Although Modi has prioritized engagement with the diaspora, he is benefitting from steps taken by his predecessors, especially Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who headed the pro-business BJP-led coalition government in 1998. Vajpayee created the annual celebration Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (Non-Resident Indian Day) on 9 January, symbolically chosen to mark the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India from South Africa in 1914 to lead the Indian nationalist movement. The phrase ‘ Vishwa Bharati’ (Global Indian) was also coined during Vajpayee’s rule, when in 2004 a dedicated Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs was set up. Though Modi’s government has demoted it as a division within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), it did establish a Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra (NRI Centre) in India’s capital in 2016 to provide an official ‘home’ for diasporic Indians, for conferences, events and conversations.

Cultural diplomacy has been a distinct element of the Modi government’s global outreach. The Public Diplomacy Division within the MEA is involved in organizing soft-power related events abroad in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the government agency responsible for India’s soft power projection that regularly organizes‘Festivals of India’around the world. One notable example was the India@UK 2017, celebrated to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence - a public-private partnership promoting Indian arts and music, as well as India’s creative and cultural industries, including a London version of the Jaipur Literary Festival (the world’s largest literary festival in operation since 2006 and growing every year in terms of attendance and scope) in the British capital.

In addition, ICCR also promotes India’s intellectual traditions. In 2019, the ICCR funded 69 Chairs of Indian Studies in universities around the world, as well as offering more than 3,400 scholarships for students to study in Indian universities. It also operates cultural centres globally, the most prominent being the Nehru Centre in London, which, since its establishment in 1992, has emerged ‘as the premier institution engaged in India’s cultural interface with UK’, as its website states. Such government-run cultural centres - 36 in 2019 - also exist in other BRICS countries: the Centro Cultural da India in Sao Paulo, Brazil; the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre in Moscow; the SwamiVivekananda Cultural Centre in Beijing, and the Indian Cultural Centre in Johannesburg and Durban.Three other major centres are planned in Tel Aviv, Paris and Washington but the Parliamentary Committee on

Foreign Affairs noted in 2019 that the ICCR, whose job was ‘to use soft power diplomacy’, was slow in implementing government decisions. It concluded that there had been ‘no progress during the last three years’ and recommended that the centres should be ‘equipped with credible human resources along with judicious allocation of funds’ (Government of India, 2019: 50).

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