Recently, during a television show on the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj controversy, writer Farrukh Dhondy referred to the sort of dinners Lalit Modi, Labour MP Keith Vaz and their friends in the Indian community in London attended.
“I’m told the who’s who comes there,” Dhondy said (and I paraphrase from memory), adding, tongue in cheek, “I wouldn’t know, I’m not invited.” Dhondy’s facetious remarks hide a tough truth.
They take us to the heart of Indian community politics in Britain and now the United States as well.
They also lead to the question of the continued importance of Vaz to seemingly generations of Indian politicians, cutting across party lines.
Finally, they invite the argument that such engagement — with Vaz, Lalit Modi and certain hoteliers, whether in London or New York, who are ever ready to host visiting Indian politicians — is not really serving the cause of Indian foreign policy, or of building the diaspora as a force multiplier and an incremental constituency.
Since the Lalit Modi-Swaraj issue is combustible, let us consider an entirely different case.
In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the US. He was no stranger to the country, and had visited about 40 of the 50 American states as a private citizen and a junior political activist.
During these trips he had met a large number of American residents or citizens of Indian origin.
In September, as preparations for the trip and public event in New York began to be made, the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, was inundated with requests and haranguing from numerous members of the Indian diaspora, all of whom said they knew the Prime Minister very well, some claiming to be old friends or even childhood friends.
It was impossible to verify such claims. Some of these people were well-meaning, keen to help, and genuinely happy that their friend or acquaintance from years earlier was now leading India.
Others were plain opportunists, exaggerating their stories with an eye to the main chance. Eventually, the advance team that went to the US ahead of the prime ministerial visit had to sift the genuinely useful and influential from the hangers-on.
The length of how long a person had known Narendra Modi was less important than his or her specific utility to a political-diplomatic outreach mission and its attendant messaging.
The Indian community groups and the diaspora individuals who have the social or economic cachet, and the political clout, to dial Capitol Hill or put in a word with the administration may not be the same as an acquaintance who could have spent many hours with an Indian politician several years ago.
While the acquaintance cannot and must not be snubbed, a prime minister and a government have to take trenchant, unemotional calls on who in the diaspora serves India’s purpose better and who does not quite make the cut.
If Indian diaspora politics in Britain were to be viewed through a similar prism, it would show Vaz and some of his smarmy friends as having diminishing value.
They represent an old mode of diaspora politics, with Vaz himself being the British Indian equivalent of the Sarkari Musalman — the power wielder who does more for himself than his community.
He has friends among a chosen few of India’s rich and powerful, who dutifully turn up in London every summer as refugees from a heat wave or occasionally from an investigation for economic crimes.
His strength is in opening doors for them. Vaz is no stranger to notoriety, having used his connections to lobby for passports and visas and meetings for rich friends previously.
Other than habitual interference in the British immigration system, he did the outrageous thing of campaigning in an election in India: for the infamous Alemao family in Goa in 2012.
He has a reputation for fixing things, and this draws a type of Indian businessman or politician to him.
Yet, does this template help India and India’s foreign policy? No.
It is worth noting that though Vaz retained his Leicester East seat, his model of diaspora politics failed spectacularly in this summer’s British general election.
He was among Ed Miliband’s key advisers in a campaign that resorted to old style diaspora slicing and dicing, ignoring the aspirational middle classes, being fixated on traditional vote managers, and obsessing with balancing the Pakistani Muslims there with the Indian Hindus here and the Bangladeshis elsewhere.
It didn’t work. In contrast, David Cameron and the Conservatives bet on an emergent and much more wholesome political constituency.
It was constructed of middle-class folk of Indian ancestry and origin, with white collar jobs and small businesses and an intense desire to be part of and to shape mainstream identity in a New Britain — rather than be typecast as an ‘ethnic minority’ with a perennially limited footprint.
In the end, Cameron was right and Vaz and Miliband were wrong. The Indian constituency in Britain that represents the salient and prominent trends of the diaspora is not the one Vaz says he speaks for.
It is with the Conservatives for the moment. In a future election, under a more sensible, centrist and electable Labour leadership, and with a more credible party envoy than Vaz, this constituency may well swing to the Labour Party.
It is this constituency and this political stream that Indian diplomats, politicians and foreign-policy strategists need to interact with. It is this constituency that has influence and gets a hearing in the corridors of power, or in the city for that matter.
It is this constituency that is an optimum and a contemporary link between New Delhi and London. Vaz in Britain, like countless ‘unclejis’ in America, is yesterday’s story.
Diaspora politics has undergone a paradigm shift. Unfortunately, not everyone back home in Lutyens’ city seems to have quite realised that.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator.
(The views expressed are personal)