Extraterritorial political engagement comes with negative consequences for domestic politics and foreign policy.
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The current turbulence in India’s relations with Canada, and to a smaller extent the United States, brings into focus the politics and policy of New Delhi’s diaspora engagement.
I have long opposed an ethno-nationalist approach to politics that makes implicit commitments to and demands on citizens of other countries. New Delhi’s politicians — and recent emigrants — do not fully appreciate the long-term consequences of creating perceptions that ethnic-Indians might have political loyalties to their motherland, despite being citizens of their countries of residence. Both the now-dissolved Ministry of Overseas Indians and the extant Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) scheme are thin ends of a wedge that can hurt both India and ethnic Indians.
For instance, New Delhi must develop the capacity to protect and evacuate its citizens in global emergencies.
India should make a clear distinction between its citizens — whose interests it must protect — and foreign citizens of Indian ethnicity.
Things are getting messier. Just a couple of months ago I warned that diaspora politics will begin to bite.
One of the more serious risks arises from the global phenomenon of internet-driven political polarisation and radicalisation. This means politics in one geography could be destabilised by people residing in another who do not bear the consequences of their actions. Khalistan and Kashmiri separatists are an example of this. What has long been the bane of diaspora politics has transmogrified in the Information Age. Because of the complex manner in which issues, people, grievances and triggers are enmeshed, there is a possibility that risks can come in new forms. For instance, until it happened, it was unimaginable that an Indian-origin teenager in the US would attack the White House on a fascist manifesto.
This is the decade when Indian political, cultural and social battles will no longer be confined to India, but will travel wherever Indians are. In some areas, the Indian way—of pluralism, tolerance and moderation—will serve as a model for the countries where Indians live. In other areas, society in India will have to deal with uncomfortable challenges to what it considers its internal affairs. [Diaspora politics is going to get even more complicated]
After the “Howdy Modi!” rally in 2019, I expressed my concern that intervention in foreign electoral politics is dangerous:
That’s where the second aspect of Indian-American politics — concerning the nationals of one country involving themselves in the domestic politics of the other — can become controversial. Democracies accept foreigners’ influence in domestic politics, up to a point. Once you cross that point, there will be suspicion, resentment and backlash. For instance, the push back against Chinese attempts to influence politics in Western countries has been to the detriment of citizens of Chinese descent. Australia has cracked down on foreign influence, targeting both Chinese nationals as well as Chinese-Australians suspected of acting on behalf of Beijing.
If geopolitical winds change direction, immigrant communities can find themselves isolated and targeted. Those suspected of dual loyalties, or worse, being a fifth column, will suffer even more. States have no permanent friends or enemies, and as the US attitude towards China shows, winds can change direction pretty fast. [The Print]
Indian society — as distinct from the Indian state — should be free to support the cause of its extended members worldwide.
This is a good moment to rethink how the Indian government engages the diaspora. The best policy, I still hold, is to encourage ethnic Indians to be loyal, diligent and upstanding citizens of the countries they have chosen to live in. New Delhi should not think of itself as their advocates, and certainly not on a religious denominational basis.
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