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On India, a fracture in the diaspora

The Indian-American community is increasingly divided on political, religious, and generational lines. India will find that the more polarisation grows at home, the more its diaspora will become polarised, and one of the country’s strongest foreign policy assets will be increasingly less so.
By Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, Milan Vaishnav
UPDATED ON FEB 10, 2021 06:54 AM IST

People of Indian origin constitute one of the largest diasporas in the world, residing in at least 200 countries. The stock of Indian migrants has almost tripled over the past three decades, from 6.6 million in 1990 to 17.9 million in 2020.

The benefits of leveraging the diaspora for India’s economic and foreign policy goals have been recognised for decades, but even more so since Prime Minister (PM) Atal Behari Vajpayee initiated the first Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas in 2001. But no leader has courted his country’s diaspora as assiduously as PM Narendra Modi.

Diasporas, however, have a Janus-face. The acts of migration and living abroad affect identities — ethnic, religious, and those of national origin. One of the largest Indian diasporas — and certainly the wealthiest and most influential — resides in the United States (US). Yet, we know little about how Indian-Americans view India. How do they remain connected to their ancestral homeland? And how do they regard political changes underway in India?

The Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS), a nationally-representative survey of Indian-Americans we conducted in September 2020, found that this population is, by and large, quite connected to its homeland through family and social networks, culture, and politics. However, the nature and intensity of this connection varies substantially. Indian-Americans born outside of the US are much more likely to report a strong connection to India compared to those born in the US (see figure).

Further, IAAS finds that Indian-Americans support more liberal positions in the US and more conservative ones in India on an array of contentious policy questions. This could be a case of “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” or the reality that a group’s attitudes differ according to whether it perceives itself to be part of the majority or a minority community.

IAAS demonstrates that there are also inter-generational and partisan differences on political and social changes underway in India. Indian-Americans are divided on India’s trajectory. While 36% report that India is currently on the right track, 39% believe it is on the wrong track — with those born in the US less optimistic. IAAS respondents are also markedly more pessimistic than the Indian population at large. According to a July 2020 Ipsos survey, 60% of Indians reported that India was on the right track.

Modi enjoys substantial support among Indian-Americans. But views on Modi suggest a modest partisan tint. Republicans give Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the highest approval, although Democrats also rate them favourably — well above the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. However, the religious divide is striking. Almost seven in 10 Hindus approve of Modi’s performance, while just one in five Muslims do. Indian-American Christians are almost evenly divided. However, Modi’s popularity among the Indian-American community is considerably weaker in the US than in India. While he enjoyed a 19% net favourability in the IAAS survey, a Morning Consult poll conducted in India concurrently with our survey put this number at 55%.

It is evident that the divisions that animate Indian society also manifest within the diaspora. In particular, Hindu Indian-Americans hold very different views on domestic politics and policy in India compared to their non-Hindu counterparts, on average. Moreover, the second generation — those born in the US — are more liberal than their immigrant parents.

These divisions foreshadow a more fractured, less homogeneous Indian-American community. The political polarisation infecting both India and the US appears to be seeping into the diaspora. Furthermore, polarisation among Indian-Americans has troubling implications not only for the community’s role within US politics, but also for its role as the lynchpin of India’s “soft power.”

For better or worse, diaspora communities today have more mechanisms at their disposal to call attention to issues of interest in their home countries. The digital revolution and the diffuse nature of foreign policymaking in the US multiply opportunities to pressure the host country.

All of this is occurring at a time when India is facing grave foreign policy challenges. In recent years, the US has ranked among India’s most significant bilateral partners. For its part, the Indian-American community has played the role of bridge-builder, best captured by its lobbying for the India-US nuclear deal.

The rise of the second generation of Indian-Americans, with weaker emotional and personal connections to India, was bound to diversify the diaspora’s views. And so it is possible that sections of the community will urge US politicians to ramp up pressure on India, rather than deepen the partnership. Former US Senator Arthur Vandenburg once warned his colleagues that politics must stop “at the water’s edge”. Today, that norm appears a distant dream.

India will find that the more polarisation grows at home, the more its diaspora will become polarised, and one of the country’s strongest foreign policy assets will be increasingly less so.

Sumitra Badrinathan (University of Pennsylvania), Devesh Kapur (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), and Milan Vaishnav (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) are the authors of a new report, How Do Indian Americans View India? Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey.

The views expressed are personal

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