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Gleb Ivashentsov

Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, RIAC Member, RIAC Vice-President

A distinctive feature of current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is his direct call to the Indian diaspora abroad. Every appearance he has made in the 18 months since he came to office – at Wembley Stadium in London, Madison Square Garden in New York and Dubai International Cricket Stadium; in Toronto, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and the Seychelles – has turned into a show, a kind of “Modi-mania”, with thousands of people chanting the Indian leader’s name.

A distinctive feature of current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is his direct call to the Indian diaspora abroad. Every appearance he has made in the 18 months since he came to office – at Wembley Stadium in London, Madison Square Garden in New York and Dubai International Cricket Stadium; in Toronto, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and the Seychelles – has turned into a show, a kind of “Modi-mania”, with thousands of people chanting the Indian leader’s name. The success of Modi’s performance at Wembley Stadium can be judged by the reaction of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said that even he would have difficulty getting that many people to attend a speech of his in London, or any other British city, for that matter.

“What explains Modi’s popularity within the diaspora?” asks The Indian Express, before offering its own explanation: “He has effectively branded himself as a ‘man of action’ from humble origins, capable of eradicating byzantine bureaucracies, endemic corruption and abject poverty […] his muscular rhetoric, decisive action and unapologetic ambitions represent the qualities India needs to achieve status as a world power.”

What is the Indian Diaspora?

There is an Indian diaspora in 130 countries around the world, with a total population of more than 27 million..

The Indian diaspora abroad has a long history. Hundreds of years ago, Indian traders set up trading posts in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia. When India was part of the British Empire, tens of thousands of Indian citizens were recruited by the British to work on plantations in colonies all around the world, from Fiji to Mauritius, from South Africa to the Caribbean Basin.

However, people emigrating from India to developed countries in the West is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, in 1960, there were only 12,000 Indian immigrants living in the United States. The easing of restrictions by the U.S. administration on migrants coming to the country from Asian countries meant that that number had grown to 210,000 by 1980. The figure currently stands at over 3 million.

Members of the Indian diaspora have high incomes, are well educated, play a significant role in the scientific and technological life of the countries in which they live, and wield political and social influence.

There is an Indian diaspora in 130 countries around the world, with a total population of more than 27 million. It is second in terms of size to the Chinese diaspora (there are around 40 million overseas Chinese around the world), but not in terms of influence. Today, immigrants from India have economic and political clout far beyond Mauritius, Fiji and Guyana. In addition to the 3.1 Indian immigrants living in the United States, there are 1.5 million in the United Kingdom; 1 million in Canada; 1.2 million in South Africa; and 6 million in the Middle East. The total assets of the Indian diaspora around the globe is estimated at close to $1 trillion, half of which are financial assets, with the other half being movable and immovable property. India’s nominal GDP amounted to $2 trillion in 2012, while the annual income of the Indian diaspora is estimated to be $400 billion, or around 20 per cent of India’s GDP.

Flickr / vincent desjardins
Cloud Gate is a public sculpture Indian-born
British artist Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park,
Chicago, Illinois

Members of the Indian diaspora have high incomes, are well educated, play a significant role in the scientific and technological life of the countries in which they live, and wield political and social influence. If we take the Indian community in the United States, the population of which amounted to 1 per cent of the U.S. population in 2013, the per capita income of its members outstrips that of all other ethnic groups in the country. In 2010, the annual income per capita of Indian immigrants living in the United States was $37,931, compared to the national average of $26, 708 [1]. In addition, 75 per cent of the Indian diaspora aged over 25 have a university degree, way ahead of the national average of 31 per cent. Three Nobel Laureates of Indian origin (Har Gobind Khorana, 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine; Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics; and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) made their discoveries in the United States. Silicon Valley alone employs some 300,000 people from India [2]. American citizens born to Indian immigrants have held the position of state governor (Louisiana, South Carolina) and have been voted to Congress.

According to Hindutva, India serves as the centre of the “Hindu world”, and maintaining close ties between Mother India and the Indian diaspora abroad is an integral part of the great Indian civilization.

A number of transnational corporations headquartered in the United States and other countries have Indian immigrants as their CEOs, including: Global Foundries (a global leader in the production of semiconductor integrated microsystems); Berkshire Hathaway Insurance (a leading U.S. insurance company); Harman International Industries (the largest manufacturer of audio equipment in the world); MasterCard (the international payment system); Reckitt Benckiser (a global manufacturer of household goods, healthcare and personal hygiene products); Adobe Systems (a leading developer of graphic design, publishing, web and print production software); PepsiCo (food products); Google (the world’s most internet search engine); and Microsoft (software developer).

Was thanks to the Indian diaspora that the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement passed Congress in 2008.

A graduate of Banaras Hindu University (1989), Nikesh Arora, who had previously worked for Google, now runs SoftBank, Japan’s largest telecommunications and media corporation, and earns $132 million per year. A native of Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, Suma Chakrabarti is the current President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

There are more than the 600 Indian companies with investments in the United Kingdom, with a total value in excess of £9 billion. The Indian Tata Industries is country’s biggest privately owned manufacturer, with 60,000 employees. Indian doctors make up one fifth of all medical specialists in the United Kingdom. With private assets of £13 billion, the Indian Hinduja brothers, who have their fingers in many pies, are ranked second in the United Kingdom’s Rich List, with Lakshmi Mittal, who has bought up a significant share of the world’s iron and steel plants, came in at number seven. One notable figure in the list of British multi-millionaires is Member of the House of Lords and media entrepreneur Baron Waheed Alli.

The “brain drain” is particularly evident in engineering and biotechnology, where up to 90 per cent of university graduates in these disciplines leave to work in the United States.

Harjit Sajjan, a Sikh born in Punjab, is a former Lieutenant Colonel of the Canadian Army and now holds the post of Minister of National Defence. New-Zealand born Indian Anand Satyanand was Governor-General of New Zealand from 2006 to 2011.

Calcutta-born Prakash Lohia, who has a personal fortune of $3 billion, heads up Indorama Corporation, the petrochemical and textile company he founded in Indonesia, which exports its products to 90 countries around the world. He currently ranks sixth on Indonesia’s rich list.

The majority (60 per cent) of the 6 million immigrants living in the Persian Gulf are manual labourers – construction workers and maintenance staff. The remaining 40 per cent or so are white collar workers employed in business, professional and banking sectors. In addition to the tens of thousands of Indian millionaires in the region (according to statistics published by Merrill Lynch, there are 33,000 in the United Arab Emirates alone), there are at least 10 billionaires of Indian origin living there, with personal fortunes of $1.1 to 4 billion.

The Indian diaspora maintains very close ties with India. A characteristic of Indian people settled abroad is that they preserve their special “Indian world”, where, for example, cross-cultural marriages are practically unheard of. Indian families living outside of their native country will select brides and grooms for their children in India – the Sunday newspaper supplements are filled with such ads.

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Indian people living abroad also help out their families that have remained in India. In 2014, the Indian diaspora transferred $70.39 billion back home, which is more than the overseas Chinese sent ($64.14 billion). Private remittances sent from abroad account for around 3.5 per cent of India’s GDP, exceeding the level of foreign direct investment into the Indian economy (which stood at $44.9 billion in 2015).

Political Hinduism

When the secular Indian National Congress Party was in power, the issue of the Indian community abroad was not a priority in the country’s foreign policy. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who concerned himself with anti-Colonial issues and nonalignment, advised his people living abroad (at the time, the Indian diaspora had primarily spread only to third world countries) to identify themselves completely with their country of residence. When asked about his approach to Indian communities abroad, Nehru replied: “Our interest in them becomes cultural and humanitarian and not political”. Each one of Nehru’s successors as Prime Minister for the Indian National Congress was guided by the same thinking.

The current ruling party in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party), which is committed to Hindutva, a form of nationalism based on the religious traditions of Hinduism. According to Hindutva, India serves as the centre of the “Hindu world”, and maintaining close ties between Mother India and the Indian diaspora abroad is an integral part of the great Indian civilization. This approach is largely shared by the members of the Indian diaspora abroad, particularly among the educated and affluent. The BJP and organizations close to it (that is, those who support Hindutva) traditionally have their cells working from within the diaspora that provide financial support for the Party’s activities in India.

The process of getting Indian people living abroad involved in bringing innovation to the Indian economy has been going on for a couple of decades now.

In 2003, in the early days of its power, the BJP proclaimed Non-Resident Indian Day (Pravasi Bharatiya Divas). In 2004, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) was set up, which was merged with the Ministry of External Affairs in early 2016. The Indian Minister for External Affairs at the time, Yashwant Sinha, noted that: “People of Indian origin are extremely important sources of support for the Indian Government in the execution of its policies through the influence and respect they command in the countries in which they live.”

The Diaspora as a Conduit of India’s Foreign Policy Interests

“We are changing the contours of diplomacy and looking at new ways of strengthening India’s interests abroad,” asserts Ram Madhav, general secretary of the ruling party. “They can be India’s voice even while being loyal citizens in those countries. That is the long-term goal behind the diaspora diplomacy. It is like the way the Jewish community looks out for Israel’s interests in the United States.”

The breakthrough in information technology and the transformation of the country into an outsourcing hub have allowed India to carve out its own niche in the global economy.

And it seems that that kind of support works. The British magazine The Economist, citing former National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India Shivshankar Menon, wrote that it was thanks to the Indian diaspora that the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement passed Congress in 2008. The agreement cleared the way for India, which was not included in the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to full civil nuclear cooperation with foreign states.

Washington also relies on the Indian diaspora in its relations with India. The appointments of Indian-Americans Nisha Desai Biswal to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the United States Department of State in October 2013 and Richard Verma as United States Ambassador to India in September 2014 are telling in this respect.

Replacing the “Brain Drain” with an Influx of Highly Skilled Professionals

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Indian emigration to the West in many ways engendered the “brain drain” phenomenon. On the whole India lost, and continues to lose, highly educated and enterprising people who could bring many benefits to their home country. Faced with an aging population and a shortage of scientific and technical personnel, these countries attract Indian specialists who speak English fluently. Consequently, some estimate that up to 10 per cent of doctors trained in India have already emigrated abroad. The “brain drain” is particularly evident in engineering and biotechnology, where up to 90 per cent of university graduates in these disciplines leave to work in the United States.

Narendra Modi has set himself the task of reversing this trend, so that the country will see an influx of highly skilled professionals instead of a brain drain. At the same time, he is counting on the diaspora to serve as a source of investment and high technology for the Indian economy. When speaking to the Indian diaspora, he encourages each and every one of them to become a kind of authorized representative of the country and contribute (money, technical expertise) to lifting the country up.

There is cause to hope for success here. The process of getting Indian people living abroad involved in bringing innovation to the Indian economy has been going on for a couple of decades now. During the IT boom in the 1990s, Indian people working for U.S. companies in Silicon Valley convinced their bosses that they had the contacts and background to set up the relevant structure in India. This is how the leading Indian IT companies Wipro and Infosys came into existence.

There is no Indian diaspora to speak of in this country.

Today, India accounts for around 18.5 per cent of the global software market (link in Russian). The country ranks third behind China and the United States in the number of mobile phones in use (1 billion), and second behind China (and in front on the United States) in the number of internet users (354 million).

The breakthrough in information technology and the transformation of the country into an outsourcing hub (in 2015, software exports from the country were estimated at $112 billion, or 8 per cent of its GDP – link in Russian) have allowed India to carve out its own niche in the global economy and have faith in its ability to reap the benefits of economic globalization.

As for Indian people in Russia, the first Indian merchants settled in Astrakhan in the 17th century. They arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the 18th century, selling jewellery, mainly diamonds, as well as fabrics and medicines. However, there is no Indian diaspora to speak of in this country. According to the Indian Embassy in Moscow, there are around 15,000 Indian nationals currently living in Russia, with an additional 1500 who have come to Russia from Afghanistan. Half of the Indian people living in Russia are students. The rest are, for the most part, businesspeople who work for Indian or other foreign firms. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other English-speaking countries, Indian businesspeople do not play a significant economic or political role on the life of Russia. The Indian Business Alliance, the Association of Indians in Russia and a number of other organizations operate inside the country.

1. Eighty per cent of people of Indian origin living in the United States have a university degree.

2. International Affairs. No. 4, 2010.

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