Rahul, Modi in US: Diaspora Diplomacy Aside, a Global Ideological War Brews

The Indian diaspora is not immune to the strong undercurrents of the contrasting world views the leaders symbolise.

7 min read
Rahul, Modi in US: Diaspora Diplomacy Aside, a Global Ideological War Brews
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As usual, the week-long visit of Rahul Gandhi to the United States has triggered a political war of words in India. This visit will soon be followed by a state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi where he is scheduled to address a session of the Congress, apart from a ceremonial reception in his honour by President Joe Biden at the White House. Naturally, there would be a diaspora interaction; just as Rahul Gandhi has been interacting with the diaspora throughout his trip.

Since polarisation has reached peak levels, two controversies have inevitably followed. The first is, allegations by the Modi supporters that Rahul Gandhi revels in defaming, demeaning, and demonising India outside the country. The authors prefer to stay out of this silly political argument with just one observation: Rahul Gandhi is free to criticise the ruling regime anywhere in the world. Whether it amounts to demeaning India is a subject best left to fierce social media warriors.

Similarly, even before his visit has started, "activist” organisations like the Indian American Muslim Council launched a campaign to persuade the US President to revoke the "state” invitation to PM Modi. The authors would prefer to stay out of even this silly political argument with just one observation: the intense personal hatred nurtured by such "activists” for Modi is both baffling and astonishing.


How Rival Politics Impact Indian Diaspora

In many ways, politics is about making accusations against the rivals. The supporters of both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi have been doing plenty of that during the visit to America. And will continue to do so after Modi lands in the United States. That’s normal politics, and quite boring, frankly. What fascinates the authors is the deep churn in social behaviour, preference pattern, and even ideological warfare that triggers this kind of politics.

The Indian diaspora cannot remain immune to these strong undercurrents. To an extent, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi offer two contrasting world views to the Indian diaspora. In the United States, two extreme ends of the spectrum represent this ideological warfare.

At one end are "pro-life” folks who are hell-bent on denying an abortion to even a girl who has been brutally raped. For an overwhelming majority of Indians, such behaviour is surreal. At the other end of the spectrum are a different kind of "pro-choice” folks. They have gone far beyond supporting the right of an adult woman to do as she wishes with her body. (In fact, such folk would certainly “cancel” the authors for casually using the term 'woman'). Today, these "pro-choice” folks want the state and schools to provide counselling, medical and surgical facilities to young boys and girls who want to transition to another gender. For an overwhelming majority of Indians, this is even more surreal.

Mercifully, most Americans, including Indian Americans, do not support either of the two extremes. The majority of the public in any democratic system likes to remain in a grey area rather than the binaries of black and white pumped up by social media narratives. And algorithms. Either way, the public discourse, and narrative has been completely hijacked by this insane ideological war.


Ideological Shift Among the Diaspora Maybe Imminent

This is having an impact on the behaviour and preference patterns of the Indian diaspora that goes beyond the Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi rhetoric. For decades, an overwhelming majority of Indian Americans (between 80% to 90%) have voted for the Democrats both during national and state-level elections in the United States. While their numbers are still not large enough to constitute a "vote bank”, they wield enormous influence due to their prosperity and high status in the American society and economy.

Today, the diaspora Indian is facing an acute dilemma. Democrats are now supporting two things that are anathema to Indians: the first is the lunatic obsession of “wokes” to transition young boys into 'God knows what' gender. The second is the wokes pursuing policies that will deny their children access to decent education. It is ironic, but some states in America are now creating a de facto "reservation” system for African Americans in schools and colleges in a way that Asians are being clubbed together with the Whites.

Some states like California have even passed "caste discrimination” laws. In a strange way, the wokes have transported the old-fashioned Indian identity politics and planted it in the United States. The authors are convinced this round of ideological warfare in the United States will propel a significant number of diaspora Indians to abandon the Democratic Party and vote for the Republican.

The process has already started. A politician like Rahul Gandhi would almost certainly not support the extreme views of the wokes. But members of the Indian diaspora who lean in that direction would support him. A politician like Narendra Modi would almost certainly not support the extreme views of the right wing. But members of the Indian diaspora who lean in that direction would support him. Frankly, all that will hardly matter in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections as the Indian voters would grapple with other issues.

Takeaways for Indian Politicians

But the changes in the Indian diaspora behaviour do have lessons for Indian politicians and parties. The lead author has closely followed elections in the United Kingdom in the first decade of this century when power shifted from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party. Like in the US, a huge majority of the Indian diaspora in the UK traditionally voted for the Labour. While tracking the elections there, the lead author actually saw a growing number of Indian-origin British shift allegiance from the Labour to the Conservative.

The former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron kick-started this process. Now, of course, a Conservative Indian origin British Rishi Sunak is the prime minister. There is another trend that mirrors what happened in India with polarisation. Whether true or not, Indians in England now think that the Labour Party backs extremist Islamism at the cost of Hindus. The “riots” in Leicester recently and the aftermath have strengthened this perception. There is little doubt more and more Hindu Indians might abandon the Labour Party. This process started in India in January 1986 when the Rajiv Gandhi regime overturned the historic Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case that provided alimony for divorced Muslim women. That was the beginning of the rise of the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Analysts can blame the Hindutva propaganda for what happened in India back then and what is happening in Leicester now. But propaganda or not, enough voters are convinced. In an electoral democracy, that is what matters at the end of the day.

A Global Setback for the 'Liberal’ Machinery 

It is not just Indians and the Indian diaspora that is undergoing a deep social and ideological churn. Turkey is now a classic example of the failure of the traditional "liberal and secular” forces to combat and overcome conservative forces. For decades after the First World War, Turkey remained staunchly liberal and secular. By the 1990s, Muslims had started revolting against restrictions on public displays of Islamic faith. Along comes a leader called Recep Erdogan who promises a return to Islamic civilisational, cultural, and religious roots.

Voters in Turkey have been voting Erdogan back to power repeatedly for more than two decades. Critics have rightly or wrongly called out his authoritarian behaviour. Critics have rightly called out his mismanagement of the economy. But Erdogan keeps winning the ideological and identity war. Sweden considers itself an epitome of free speech and liberal values. Turkey has been vetoing the entry of Sweden into NATO. So just recently, in an effort to placate Turkey and Erdogan, Sweden passed an anti-terror law that was demanded by Turkey.

Hungary is another country that has been blocking the proposed entry of Sweden into NATO. In 2022, the conservative leader Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive term as prime minister. His critics lambast him for authoritarianism. Yet, he and his party unabashedly espouse "Christian” family values, are against unfettered gay rights, and vehemently oppose the entry of the migrants (mostly Muslims fleeing civil war and violence). In nearby Poland, analysts reckon the conservative Law & Justice Party will win a third consecutive term in elections due later this year. The ruling party strongly opposes immigration and gay rights.

Europe is now full of backlash against “secular and liberal” forces. In 2022, Emmanuel Macron comfortably won a second term as the president of France. What astonished analysts is not his victory, but the fact that his rival, the ultra-right wing, and nativist Marie Le Pen won close to 42% of the votes. This was unthinkable at the beginning of this century. The growing popularity of Pen has forced a liberal Macron to take harsh steps against Islamists in France. In nearby Italy, a staunchly conservative Georgia Meloni has been prime minister since 2022. Her Party Brothers of Italy is accused by critics of tracing its roots to fascism. Voters in Italy seemed not to bother, or care. In Sweden too, the left-leaning prime minister Magdalena Anderson and her party lost elections in 2022 to right-wing parties.

One might well ask: how is all this relevant to the diaspora diplomacy of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi in the United States? Or for Indian politics. There is no direct link. Yet, India is very much part of the world where the conservative, 'back to the roots', and sometimes xenophobic and nativist forces are snatching power away from a liberal elite that dictated and dominated social and political discourse for decades after the Second World War.

To that extent, Rahul Gandhi in the United States represents the liberal elite. Narendra Modi in the United States will represent the conservative backlash. The outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will determine the political future of Rahul Gandhi. The results of the 2024 US Elections that will follow will determine the future course of public discourse and narrative. In the larger and longer scheme of things, the churn will matter more than individual personalities.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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