As I write this column, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is touring the United States, with engagements at universities including Stanford and meetings with the Indian community.
His trip to the UK earlier this year caused a huge political row as he strongly criticised the Modi government and the state of Indian democracy, leading the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to accuse him of defaming the country abroad.
The row got so ugly that parliament was repeatedly adjourned by the treasury benches no less as they demanded an apology from Rahul.
The Congress party has reminded the BJP that it was the Prime Minister who started it first by attacking previous Congress governments during his rallies abroad.
In one instance he even said people were ashamed to be born Indian before 2014. The old unspoken rule of keeping a united front in another country therefore no longer exists after 2014.
Today, Indian politics has found a new battleground — the Indian diaspora all over the world, where domestic politics has increasingly played out over the last decade. Prime Minister Modi elevated this relationship with non resident Indians when he came to power in 2014.
Almost all his bilateral visits abroad have had a diaspora event, with thousands of excited members of the Indian community turning up to listen and cheer him on. I have reported on the ground from three of these events myself — in the US in Silicon Valley, in Shanghai and in Israel.
Modi’s rockstar events
Having covered several of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visits abroad earlier, I could see the visible difference in how things transformed under Mr. Modi.
The overseas visits were no longer merely foreign policy events but very much with a political angle with the BJP using the diaspora to bolster the Prime Minister’s image back home.
Mr. Modi’s rallies are big, telecast live on television, uninterrupted. Other world leaders have been surprised at the huge turnouts. Nearly 50,000 Indian Americans came to watch him in Houston in 2019 for example.
For the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, it is difficult to match those crowds but they clearly believe engaging with Indians living abroad, even on a smaller scale, helps back home. Even though he doesn’t get thousands of people in a stadium, it is clear there is much interest in what Rahul Gandhi has to say.
His events in the US have been very well attended, with people keen to ask him questions and take selfies. After the Congress win in Karnataka and the Bharat Jodo Yatra, there is a greater stridency in the Congress camp.
So why should the Indian diaspora matter when they don’t have voting rights? Why are India’s top politicians wooing them so aggressively?
Part of the reason is that the Indian diaspora plays a much bigger role today in the politics and economies of countries like the UK and the US. Leading names in Silicon Valley are Indians, for example.
A polarised diaspora
The Indian economy benefits from remittances from Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). Indian origin politicians are also more visible like Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister or members of the US Congress. And while they may live and work abroad, many still have strong ties back home. And like Indian voters, the diaspora too are very polarised today.
Only a couple of weeks from now, Mr. Modi will be back in the US, on a state visit. It will be a visit full of photo opportunities and banner headlines back home.
Last month the Prime Minister went ahead with a visit to Australia despite a meeting of the Quad being cancelled, largely because he wanted to address the diaspora event which made big headlines in India right after the Karnataka defeat.
It is smart politics. Whether Rahul Gandhi can make an impact too will be interesting but it isn’t a level playing field. TV channels won’t give him the same space and newspapers have reduced his foreign trip to page 11 stories. But it is making an impact on social media.
Can it however chip away and be more impactful? Watch this space.