Recently, PM Modi took the stage in Houston with President Trump, addressing the largest ever gathering by a foreign leader on US soil, ‘Howdy Modi’. A powerful statement of global influence for India.
The Indian diaspora is large, diverse, highly educated, well-off and well respected for their expertise in their fields. Together, they can be one of the biggest force multipliers for India.
We are increasingly in an era where soft power is replacing the traditional ‘hard’ power. What makes America a superpower is not just that they have the most number of aircraft carriers or the biggest economy. It is also that America is able to export its culture, its way of thinking, all across the world. This is where China chokes in comparison to the United States: for instance, most people outside China would be hard-pressed to name a single Mandarin language movie. The economy of the UK is a quarter of the size of China, but Britain is a cultural powerhouse. Who hasn’t heard of James Bond? Or The Beatles?
The large contingent of Indians abroad gives us a tremendous level of access to the minds of people all across the world. It is an opportunity for us to export our way of thinking. It is time this was recognized and harnessed as a core instrument of state power, at par with any other diplomatic initiative.
First, the problem that we face: The global reaction to the abrogation of Article 370 should be an eye-opener for us. Sure, no government in the world has taken a stand against India, mindful of our economic might. But the foreign press: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, the BBC, European media, Al Jazeera, etc virtually came together as one and produced some of the most hateful, bitter anti-India rhetoric in history. Even as governments keep quiet, the narrative is seeping into the minds of people. It is only a matter of time before new politicians get elected in those countries who are steeped in anti-India rhetoric. Take Bernie Sanders, who is now openly hostile to India. People like him are popping up everywhere.
Essentially, India is in the crosshairs of three big global forces: the Islamists, with their hatred towards non-believers. The Christian right, which is facing a recession in “core markets” and looks towards India as a place to harvest souls. And the radical left, now increasingly under the thumb of radical Islam.
So here are my seven humble suggestions about what India can do to make effective use of the opportunity created by the global Indian community. You may well find some of these a little cynical. But, propaganda is a warlike any other. To win, we must learn from both friends and enemies. Do whatever works.
1. Significantly boost the Division of Overseas Indian affairs
You can easily think of the global Indian community like a major Western European nation. So at a basic level, we need to treat the Division of Overseas Indian affairs like an Embassy in say Germany, or France or Britain. This means a significant boost to this division in terms of personnel, funding, morale and profile. This division can be our base to launch some of our most important “diplomatic” initiatives.
2. Fund NRI lobbies that can influence foreign media
Why is it that the New York Times is more sympathetic to radical Islamists than to democratic India? Part of it is ideological affinity, yes. But part of it is also that Islamists excel at creating an environment of outrage, while we do not. Just see how Pakistan’s ISI is able to organize “protests” in London or New York and how well they coordinate with Khalistani elements. And see how Khalistanis are able to significantly influence politics in Canada and the UK.
We need an institutional support mechanism from the Indian government to counter this. We need to fund NRI lobbies that will organize protests outside the headquarters of big media offices or NGOs that carry out anti-India campaigns. We have to keep annoying them till they end up listening to us. Yes, we may have truth on our side. Yes, we have lakhs of patriotic, self-driven Indians everywhere who are willing to volunteer their time and energy, to tell the truth about India. But when the enemy uses professional propagandists, we cannot win with volunteers, no matter how noble it may sound.
Somewhat cynically, let me say kalyug hai bhai. We have to hire people to tell the truth.
3. Codify the meaning of Hinduphobia and lobby relentlessly to stigmatize Hinduphobes
Hinduphobia is real. It consists of dehumanizing language directed against Hindus and their religious/cultural practices. If you have ever read foreign media talking about India (or for that matter Indian liberal media talking about India), you know what I am talking about.
The Jewish people have often faced similar hatred. Their answer was to create a multitude of organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, which had some very concrete goals. One to develop a comprehensive definition for anti-Semitism and then teach people to recognize anti-Semitic tropes in everything from print media to TV to everyday speech.
We need to do something similar regarding Hinduphobia. We need an organization to issue guidelines for media to talk about Hindus and Hinduism. No, gaumutra jokes are not okay. Those who make such utterances should be stigmatized. Just like damaging and dehumanizing caricatures of Jewish people have been “socially outlawed” all over the world.
(Note: One may well ask why I am conflating ‘Hindus’ with ‘Indians.’ Indeed, not every Indian is a Hindu. Just like not every Israeli is Jewish. In fact, almost 20% of Israelis are Arab Muslims. But the fact is that anti-Semitism and hatred towards Israel often come from the same groups of people. Just like anti-India rhetoric and Hinduphobia come from pretty much the same sources).
4. Dual Citizenship for Indians abroad and their descendants
Every Indian settled abroad and all their descendants are potential friends of India. To tap into their strength, the most basic thing is to give them a stake, a reason to connect with India. As with their parents, the children of Indian diaspora are generally high achievers. Tomorrow they will be running the biggest corporations, dominating the most prestigious universities, perhaps even ruling entire countries. Some already are. How much would it help to make sure these new generations preserve their link to India? With every succeeding generation, as the descendants of Indian immigrants integrate ever more deeply into the fabric of other nations, the dividends would grow.
If you have moral qualms about this, consider this: India is a civilization, not just a country defined purely in terms of borders and passports. The concept of ‘Indianness’ is thousands of years older than the concept of nation-states! What was the “citizenship” of Adi Shankara or Ved Vyasa? Does anyone know?
5. Influence Hollywood the way China does
The Chinese understand that literally everything can be used for power politics: even the pandas that they loan to zoos in countries around the world, which they can recall any time if the host country should displease them. Seriously.
We have to learn from this attitude and adopt it. One way to influence global culture is through Hollywood.
Here is what China does: the Chinese government has a quota for the number of foreign films that they will allow each year into their country. However, which movies they will allow depends on the whims and fancies of a Chinese government panel. So what is a Hollywood studio supposed to do if it wants to get their movie into the Chinese market? The trick is to subtly embed in their movie positive cues about China and the Chinese.
You are probably watching and absorbing these positive cues about China in Hollywood movies right now, without knowing it. Movies showing regular people in America using products with Chinese labels. Or a throwaway reference to something good that the Chinese may be doing inside the fictional plot. Blink and you miss them. But they are there. And we are all absorbing them.
We in India could easily adopt this strategy. Due to huge English language penetration, India is a big target market for Hollywood. If India makes Hollywood bend to our will, half the battle is already won.
The only way a common person anywhere in the world can hate India is if they have never visited our country! Just think: would anyone who has ever come to India fall for the nonsense of the ‘lynchistan’ narrative? Or the absurd claims of Khalistanis?
Tourism is the ultimate instrument of diplomacy. It brings in money and it breaks all mental barriers. And with the kind of history and culture that India has, we could be the biggest tourist destination in the world.