By Pradeep S. Mehta & Advaiyot Sharma
The year 2021 was a difficult year for India and the United States, with both countries being ravaged by the pandemic. Yet, it was also a rewarding year for the bilateral relationship. While reams have been written on the deepening of the relationship on strategic fronts, forward movement on the climate partnership, and resumption of dialogue on the trade front, inadequate attention has been paid to the diaspora pillar of the relationship. In particular, there have been limited attempts to link the diaspora pillar with the larger efforts to expand the bilateral relationship.
Let’s take stock of how the events of the past year have shaped the evolution of the Indian diaspora in America. The argument considers the prospects of the diaspora being the pillar of the relationship and its complementing efforts towards promoting the progress on outstanding and emerging bilateral issues.
The premise is two-fold, firstly, that any step forward on enhancing the framework of cooperation between the two countries in areas such as trade, investment, defense, and climate partnerships, will be steps towards enhancing ties between India and its diaspora, simultaneously. Secondly, the diaspora itself complements the official efforts underway for enhancing bilateral relations.
Indian diaspora is generally lauded for its entrepreneurial spirit, contribution to cultural diversity in host countries, for the remittances they send back home, and, in recent times, as leverage for domestic political influence back home. In the US in particular, the diaspora has made its mark over the decades by occupying high political offices and business positions. It is these accolades that regularly make the headlines nowadays.
While 2021 was no exception in this sense, it also saw an expansion of this traditional perception. In particular, the support from the Indian diaspora in America for the Indian response to its devastating second wave of the pandemic was notable. Interestingly, the diaspora support was framed as the Indian diaspora complementing the efforts of the U.S. government in assisting India in its pandemic relief efforts.
If the Indian diaspora is to truly act as “a living bridge connecting India to the world”, as was recently stated by Mr. V. Muralidharan, the Minister of State (MoS) for External Affairs, it is this kind of framing this may help realize this vision. A synergistic effort between governments, civil society, diaspora communities, and businesses, as was witnessed to an extent last summer in the context of pandemic relief, may be a viable model to replicate in other areas as well.
However, before the viability of such a model can be explored further, a few caveats need to be clearly stated. For one, the lives of diaspora members are not perfectly balanced between the original and the adopted – the balance keeps oscillating between assimilation with the new, and a sense of continued association with the old. This is further complicated by politics. Diaspora issues, particularly in the India-America context, have acquired political overtones in the past few years, and are seen by many as partisan issues.
For governments, the challenge is equally difficult. They need to engage with the diaspora as a tool of their foreign policy and diplomacy, while at the same time refraining from taking any actions which may look like intervention in internal issues of a foreign country. Simultaneously, governments need to look at the entire diasporic community as their own – notwithstanding the community members’ different political views and levels of professional and commercial success. This often becomes a challenge in the highly polarized times we live in today.
Within these constraints, what are the prospects for the Indian diaspora to contribute to the other pillars of the bilateral India-U.S. relationship?
At the outset, there must be recognition that any forward movement in terms of agreements on a range of pressing bilateral issues will have direct impacts on the diasporic communities. Thus, any steps forward on enhancing the framework of cooperation between the two countries in areas such as trade, investment, defense, and climate partnerships, will equally be steps towards enhancing ties between India and its diaspora.
The most relevant examples are trade and immigration policies. Temporary relocation for work is often the first stage of longer-term relocation and permanent migration. On both issues related to temporary relocation (trade and investment policy issues such as visa regulations for the temporary movement of professionals for services trade, the long-pending matter of Social Security Totalization, etc.), as well as issues related to permanent stay (such as immigration reforms), the diaspora can play an important role and present their lived experiences as case studies. This will go a long way in informed policy-making.
In other areas, such as technology and innovation research, some of India’s recent programs already envisage such a model of diaspora-State partnerships. Initiatives such as the Science and Engineering Research Board’s Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) Faculty Scheme, and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Pravasi Bharatiya Academic and Scientific Sampark – Integrating Indian Diaspora with the Motherland (PRABHASS) program are steps in the right direction.
It is not without substantial reason that diaspora diplomacy, diaspora philanthropy, diaspora economics, etc. have all become areas of focused study in their own right. India’s efforts towards capitalizing on its diasporic dividend are a natural extension of the large global footprint of the Indian diaspora. In particular, the Indian diaspora in the United States is well placed to complement efforts occurring at the official level towards promoting progress on outstanding and emerging bilateral issues.
In his recent remarks, the MoS Mr. Muralidharan could have referred to the Indian diaspora as simply “a bridge” connecting India to the world, but his choice of words – “a living bridge” is important. Living bridges don’t just endure, they get stronger over time. It is this spirit that must guide the role of the Indian diaspora in enhancing India-U.S. ties.
(Pradeep S. Mehta is Secretary-General, and Advaiyot Sharma is a foreign policy researcher at CUTS International, global public policy research and advocacy group situated in New Delhi, Washington DC, and Geneva.)