The promise of both tradition and modernity

  • Sanjay Srivastava
  • Updated: Oct 01, 2014 00:51 IST

In his recent column How the Congress Lost the diaspora (Past & Present, September 28), historian Ramachandra Guha suggests that the Congress has ‘lost’ its following among the Indian diaspora because of lack of planning and administrative inefficiencies on its part.

So, according to Guha, whereas the BJP has managed to build and consolidate links with overseas Indians through sustained interaction and concrete measures to further its own agenda, the Congress has failed at these tasks.

Ironically, he suggests, the BJP has successfully implemented measures to win over the support of diasporic Indians through strategies that were part of the Congress agenda dating from the early 20th century. This, he rightly concludes, has led to a narrowing of Indian identity to a Hindu one among diasporic populations.

Guha’s discussion is based on his interactions with Indian-origin migrants in the US, but it could be generalised to several other countries where Indians have settled.

However, this may be only part of the story and perhaps not the most significant one in terms of understanding why there are many thousands of websites when one searches for organisations and networks that provide different kinds of support to the BJP, but hardly any when searching for their Congress counterparts.

Among the diaspora, the Congress has been defeated not simply by better organisation and management techniques, but a complex of factors that relate to the management of diasporic identities and overseas selves.

First, for financially successful NRIs in the West (which forms the core of the BJP’s overseas constituency), ‘Indian-ness’ is primarily a cultural issue. That is, what it is to be an Indian in the US is quite different from its meanings in India. So, for example, struggles to ameliorate caste discrimination, and activism that addresses gender bias, rights at work and environmental degradation do not normally constitute NRI notions of Indian-ness.

Their Indian-ness is one of Indian cuisine, music, art, architecture, religion and rituals. An Indian political party that primarily presents itself (and India) as a homogeneous cultural entity already has a foot in the diasporic household.

Second, among the diaspora, not only is India primarily understood in exclusively cultural terms, it is also understood in specific cultural terms such as ‘an ancient and great civilisation’ that can trace its ‘pure’ history through time, unsullied by ‘outside’ influences and with an internal coherence that can be clearly demonstrated.

Here, again, an Indian organisation (and it need not be only a political party) that speaks this language is at an advantage.

Indian identity in the US is fundamentally linked to its relation to the American cultural sphere, rather than a straightforward relationship with India.

For, a notoriously insular America understands the rest of the world through easily digestible American categories. Religion as an aspect of Indian-ness in America finds place both as personal belief as well as a public tool for securing community identity.

It is a response to and related to the demands of American identity politics.

Finally, there is the issue of diasporic anxiety about identity: It is an anxiety that is not present in the same way among Indians in India.

For, contemporary NRI populations fret over the authenticity of Indian-ness in a manner that non-NRIs need not.

So, while wearing western clothing and eating pizza in India is, increasingly, just another aspect of being Indian in a changing world, NRI parents will frequently ensure that their children continue to practise arcane rituals to demonstrate (and ‘hold-on’ to) Indian culture.

The success of the BJP lies in addressing the anxieties of diasporic identities. It lies in the promise of being able to possess both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, where such traditions will be easily recognisable as having an ancient and unchanging past.

It is the promise of arranged love marriages. Modern organisational and communication techniques — business networks and the internet, for example — are just part of the story of the BJP’s success among the diaspora.

(Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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