The India-US bilateral relationship is not just a partnership of two countries' governments. It has multiple stakeholders apart from the administrations including the business community, the think tanks, and the vocal people of the two countries. The bedrock of the people-to-people ties between India and the US is the Indian diaspora.
The Modi government recognises this and hence has made the diaspora a cornerstone of its foreign policy approach. But that does not make everyone in the diaspora a Modi-supporter.
That’s why there were gatherings of supporters who celebrated and shook his hand as well as some angry protestors waiting with anti-Modi placards outside the UN building during his recent US visit. Divisions like this are often linked to political disputes in India and put forth a narrative that the Indian-Americans are not as cohesive as they appear.
Bridge Between India and US
But India’s noisy politics causing such divergent reactions doesn’t have much to do with the Indian diaspora’s aspirations when it comes to India-US relations.
For more than two decades now, Indian-Americans have acted as the bridge between the two nations irrespective of which political party has been in power in New Delhi and they will continue to do so. Some had concerns about the trajectory India-US relations will take after the Biden administration took over but one of the reasons why despite the change of guard at the White House India remains a good friend to the US is the strong presence of the Indian diaspora.
Yes, perhaps there will be deeper scrutiny of India’s internal policies regarding human rights but no strong sanctions that would alter or dislodge the Indian-American goodwill.
The Influence of the Indian Diaspora
The Indian diaspora has flexed its muscle many a time. The successful lobbying of the US-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) was partly responsible for how India went from being a nuclear pariah slapped with sanctions from its 1998 nuclear tests to signing a civil nuclear agreement with the US within a decade.
Members of the same diaspora in 2005, persuaded the US government to deny Modi a visa to enter the US because of his poor track record in human rights in Gujarat. Much more recently, the diaspora convinced the Biden administration to develop a robust response to the COVID crisis in India.
Milan Vaishnav, Director, South Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who examines the Indian diaspora closely through his research stated via email, “The administration was slow to respond and I do think diaspora pressure helped them hasten their efforts.”
He told a California newspaper earlier that Indian PM Modi meeting US Vice-President Harris represents a ‘coming of age' moment for the diaspora.
"We are now starting to see the influence of the diaspora across a range of important domains – entertainment, art and literature, business, and of course, politics and policy. Harris did generate enthusiasm for Biden's candidacy in 2020, and Indian Americans tell us that the major reason is because of her Indian heritage.”Milan Vaishnav, Director, South Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
But What of India's International Reputation?
However, Bidisha Biswas, professor of Political Science at Western Washington University, who specialises in International Security and Diaspora Politics, is anxious about India's international reputation.
“India’s selling point has always been its reputation as a unique democracy but since 2019 the country has been getting bad press,” she said pointing out that India was recently downgraded from free to partly free by Freedom House, which slammed Modi’s government for everything from harassment of journalists to attacks on non-Hindus.
But asked if this will change India-US relations, Biswas said:
“Not really. The Indian foreign policy establishment has been consistent and rather mature in dealing with crises and external developments under all governments and continues to be responsible.”
“India has never shown unnecessary aggression towards its neighbouring countries and even under Modi, India has maintained trade relations with Muslim-majority countries surrounding it despite its growing anti-minority reputation,” she added.
Scope for Partnership Between India & US
Regarding the future, both Vaishnav and Biswas think that the Indian diaspora is asserting itself in a big way just the way India as a nation is asserting itself as a global player.
The diaspora’s aspirations have soared. Indian-Americans notice India's changing image, and that it can no longer be stereotyped as an outsourcing and offshoring destination. They have also discovered that defence, technology, and commerce cannot be truly isolated from each other anymore.
Indiaspora founder and Silicon Valley investor, MR Rangaswami believes that multinational companies are now looking at India more as an investment destination.
The former Chairperson of TIE Global, Venkatesh Shukla from San Francisco shared that it's time that the startups in the space and energy sector from India are connected with the US government agencies engaged in the innovations in these areas. He pointed out the importance of knowledge sharing in the cyber security space innovations and states that it can only help the similar strategic interest of both countries.
The scope of partnering in higher education between the two countries has broadened and further strengthened the diasporic voice. There are now several initiatives connecting the Indian diaspora with Indian academic and research institutes.
The New Educational Policy announced last year in India is also committed to the internationalisation of the Indian education system and invites US Universities to set up campuses in India.
The Indian diaspora is not just a mellow ‘soft power’ in the realm of foreign policy strategy anymore, it has become an active catalyst of change and plays a role in redefining the scope of bilateral relations. Its hawk-like approach, not easily daunted by challenges, makes it a formidable force in shaping the bilateral relations between the world’s oldest and largest democracy.
(Sreya Sarkar author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts. The views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)