Diaspora could become vehicle of India's soft power

  • NK Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 31, 2015 01:02 IST

India’s vibrant diaspora could become a core component of foreign policy initiatives. It could be a vehicle of our soft power, writes NK Singh

Prior to PM Modi’s September visit to the West Coast, the large Indian community in the UAE has been demonstrably enthused and enlivened by his recent visit to Dubai. This was the biggest congregation of the Indian diaspora.

The West Coast has many unique characteristics. The Silicon Valley is the home to perhaps the most successful Indian community, which has fostered innovation, cultivated angel funding and incubation for start-up ventures. They have created both value and wealth in their host country and elsewhere.

I have been going to the West Coast for the last 15 years to participate in the Annual Indian Conference at Stanford University. Their quest to receive the Indian prime minister will now be fulfilled with Modi’s visit and address. The India Conference was the initiative of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) during the high-tech boom.

These interactions generated ideas to harness our comparative advantage in innovation, information technology and knowledge economy. I recall the meeting between prime minister AB Vajpayee at the Blair House with the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Kanwal Rekhi, Vinod Khosla and Sabeer Bhatia. The swift changes in India’s telecom policy owe a great deal to these discussions between the entrepreneurs and New Delhi policy makers.

The etymological origin of diaspora means dispersion, and the Indian migrants have indeed scattered in multiple directions. Estimates from the ministry of overseas Indian affairs suggest that the Indian diaspora has a sizeable presence of over 25 million and these include non-resident Indians (NRIs), overseas citizens of India (OCIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs), of these over 5.5 million are in the Gulf, 2.2 million are in the US, 1.7 million in the UK and over a million in Canada.

Leaving aside the colonial period of indentured labour, the Indian diaspora has evolved over three phases — the quest for employment and education, as a source of Indian remittances and now, increasingly, as active players in shaping the policies in their host countries.

The economic reforms of India transformed with the changing worldview about India and as we seek the world. The NRIs have lent strength and stability to the management of our economy. According to the 2014 World Bank Report, remittances from the Indian overseas community are the highest in the world at $70 billion, followed by China at $64 billion and the Philippines at $28 billion.

During the periods of foreign exchange crisis, policy managers have invariably turned to the NRI community to enhance capital flows, secure marketing of India Development Bonds and other Special NRC schemes.

These remittances have shored up our reserves and supported incomes of intended beneficiaries. Subsequently, we have sought these flows as investment vehicles. State governments have competed to attract NRI investments to meet capital shortage, finance projects and generate employment. The absolute number of successful NRI investments, however, remains modest.

The initiatives of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs need innovation and restructuring.

The profile of the Indian diaspora varies from the blue collar workers in the Gulf to professionals in the Silicon Valley. Seeking symmetry between changing demand patterns with the supply side needs creativity. What are the kind of skills and professional qualifications which different countries would need over the next decade? Can our skill inculcation and the service sector meet these demands?

I was a Member of the Global Commission on International Migration. One of its recommendations on the governance structure was to restructure the institutional architecture to seek managed migration. Encouraging supply side responses to meet the emerging demand can lead to value-added employment and a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

Can the ministry of overseas Indian affairs create a special wing to chart out a credible action plan to promote this dynamic equilibrium? Within the rubric of our complex regulations, can we create a more credible mechanism for start-ups? Apart from regulatory conflicts, the absence of a fast-track dispute resolution mechanism is often frustrating.

Many of these factors are connected with the ease of doing business on which concerted action is being taken.

The Indian diaspora has come of age. Many Indian-Americans are high-ranking public officials like governor Nikki Haley, Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard and Bobby Jindal, who is seeking to run for the US presidential election.

In the recently-concluded parliamentary elections in the UK, ten Indian-origin MPs won seats in the British Parliament. Scores of Indians like Sundar Pichai, Indira Nooyi, Ajay Banga and Satya Nadella are holding top positions in some of the biggest multinational companies.

Can the Indian diaspora become a core component of our foreign policy initiatives? We have been somewhat recalcitrant in not enhancing the reach of this soft power.

Joseph Nye Jr in the book entitled Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics deals with the multilateral ways of cooperation among States, political actors and diaspora communities.

He points out that “Soft Power is the ability to get what you want through attraction, particularly to a country’s culture, ideas and policies rather than hard force like military, diplomatic coercion or economic bribery.” The author states that “Much of America’s soft power has been produced by Hollywood, Harvard, Microsoft and Michael Jordan.”

Can India’s soft power emanate from Bollywood, its own Silicon Valley, yoga and now, Sundar Pichai? Can we harness the multiplicity of the web and the reach of our diaspora? Modi is seeking to combine charisma with transformational leadership.

Charisma, a form of soft power, can become transformational if combined with intellectual stimulation by aligning India’s economic prosperity with their interests. This is challenging, but abiding.

(NK Singh is a member of the BJP and a former Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed are personal)

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