How progressive parties can better engage with India’s diaspora

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US in June this year was a tour de force in strategic communications. On his last visit, 50,000 Indian diaspora came to see him in Houston, and he’s filled stadia in a similar manner around the world. Progressive parties from India would do well to engage with the Indian diaspora abroad in a similarly enthusiastic manner.

The first and second generation of the Indian diaspora are highly engaged in what happens back home. They see fellow Indians become CEOs of global companies, or the Prime Minister of the UK, and they feel proud. They see Modi pack Wembley Stadium on a bitterly cold night, and their chests swell with pride.

So when Opposition leaders come abroad with the message that the country they love is broken, the diaspora does not respond well. To dispense the bitter pill about where progressives see a corrosion in Indian society and polity, they would do well to remember a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down much more smoothly.

I’m thinking in particular of Rahul Gandhi, whose foreign trips have frequently got him into a pickle.

This is because the diaspora wants to contribute to India’s success. But they need to hear how they could do so. And that’s why India’s progressive parties struggle to make inroads with diaspora engagement in the UK.

Progressives should cultivate a positive message abroad

To lay some context, I’ve been involved in organising several high-profile India-related public policy conferences in the UK in the recent past.

At one such event last year, we saw representatives from seven political parties across India, including the BJP and the Congress, across more than 20 hours of programming. What surprised us was the demand before and during the event from some progressive activists in London to exclude centre-right speakers at any cost from the platform. One, a lecturer from a London university, took to Twitter to call the organisers fascists.

In such criticisms, I see an entrenchment in dogma, as a defence against an ever-growing centre-right narrative. As an economist, I try to perceive a problem objectively, then propose a solution. To be woke is to give more weight to how you perceive the problem, whether you have the adequate tools to do so or not, rather than focused on the outcome. Being woke rewards being maximalist and the active rejection of mitigating factors.

Being woke is not necessarily about being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice in the community. Today, being woke is about the pursuit of an ideologically purity, of rejecting the messiness of the world just because it doesn’t fit into a dogmatic frame, of erecting walls to not only keep unwelcome views out but to barricade oneself in. It is not about being progressive, but instead being illiberal.

As President Barack Obama said in 2019, progressives sometimes start to create “a ‘circular firing squad’, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.” It’s the mantra of chaos. Specifically, it’s a mantra of losing the diaspora.

A blueprint for progressive politics

I don’t think it’s hard for progressive parties to present themselves in a manner that makes them attractive to the diaspora, but to do so needs a journey of self-realisation, a credible vision and flexibility in thinking.

First, liberals and secularists, as India’s political discourse understands them, are scared of engaging Hindu communities in the Indian diaspora today. They rail against the outward religiosity and the political monoculture that pervades Hindu organisations in Britain today, but also ignore its spirituality. Just because someone is a Hindu, they are not automatically a right-wing nationalist. Engagement with temples and community organisations is a must.

This ‘othering’ is a reason why Hindu diaspora community organisations’ leadership teams often feel more at home with the Indian centre-right politically.

Equally important is that progressives need to present a vision of what they stand for. Activism and academic discourse on London university campuses is all well and good, but it is an echo chamber. The diaspora sees India’s tech prowess, Modi’s elevation on a global stage and the ascent of the country’s soft power, through the IPL, movies and yoga, and they feel a sense of pride. The narrative of a country whose institutions are broken, however true that might be, does not fit with the image of the country they want to see.

There are plenty of good recent examples of policy makers succeeding in presenting a positive vision: Women’s Reservation Bill activist Kavitha Kalvakuntla during her recent visit to London, Raghuram Rajan on democracy and AI in conversation with Newslaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri, Telangana Minister KT Rama Rao at a keynote address and Pradyot Manikya Deb Barman from Tripura on why the North East of India matters. 

To dispense the bitter pill about where progressives see a corrosion in Indian society and polity, they would do well to remember a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down much more smoothly. If you do indeed have an economic and social vision for shared prosperity and deeper bilateral ties with the UK, just focus on that, and let the diaspora gravitate towards it on merit.

Modi is the tallest leader India has had for at least a generation. He may be a flawed leader, but then who isn’t?

Thirdly, progressives need to organise better for the longer-term. Too often do they prefer short-term wins over long-term organising. They focus on using social media and demonstrations to mobilise the grassroots, rejecting existing institutional structures instead of using them to secure incremental change. The Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn experiment showed this method works for agitating, but not for anything remotely sensible (like governing).

Instead, slow-burn organising that approaches policy matters strategically is more effective. It needs organisations that can help people experience what collective power can accomplish. It’s mostly drudgery and operational sweat. A process of building organisational resilience, deep and broad-ranging relationships with those that agree with you and, more importantly, those you think don’t, is an opportunity to broaden your coalition.

This playbook must have a distinct voice, not simply refuting what the centre-right says, but being comfortable enough to create its own narrative.

For example, if there is misinformation being shared on closed networks like WhatsApp, why not counter it systematically in the formats diaspora would be most receptive to?

Sitting at the same table

Most of the third generation Indian diaspora in Britain today doesn’t care about what happens at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, Modi or no Modi.

Earlier generations do, but tribalism is rife. Diaspora progressives in Britain complain about rising nationalism in India today, but are unwilling or unable to sit across the table from those they regard as politically different to them. The success of centre-right diaspora narratives has, in large part, been due to its success in creating and sustaining community outreach over decades. That is to be admired.

Progressives need a playbook that is not just anti someone, but pro something. If they succeed in creating one, they will find that portions of the diaspora could become a hyper engaged set of cheerleaders.

Pratik Dattani Author


Managing Director for boutique consulting firm EPG. He was earlier UK Director for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, sits on various charity boards and frequently writes on public policy.

Published Date

October 29, 2023

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

– Mahatma Gandhi