Written by Amit Dasgupta.

The Indian diaspora is estimated to be a little less than 30 million. This is larger than the population of many countries. Over centuries, Indians have migrated and set up home and businesses across the globe. The human capital they collectively represent is considerable.

While all prime ministers engaged with the community, the emphasis accorded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been qualitatively different and far more intense.

Since India’s independence, there have been three distinct waves of migration. During the 1960s, the best students, particularly from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and medicine, went for higher studies and a professional career to the US and the UK. This was referred to as ‘brain drain’ and official circles fiercely opposed it on the grounds that such migration depleted India’s human resources.

This attitude shifted when the American national of Indian origin, Har Gobind Khorana, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1968. Every Indian was filled with a sense of great national pride.

The second wave of migration started from around the late 1970s to the Gulf countries that were reaping the benefit of rising oil prices. Indian migrants, particularly from Kerala, built the flourishing Arab cities. Stories of how much money they earned and the opportunities the Gulf boom offered were attractive enough to encourage migrants from other parts of India as well. The repatriation of foreign exchange by these workers boosted India’s dollar reserves and significantly transformed local economies, especially in Kerala.

The third wave was of students pursuing higher studies heading to the US and UK in particular and, in recent years, to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The crisis in India’s higher education because of the significant demand-supply mismatch will see growing numbers of Indian students seeking foreign education.

Many might never return to India. Yet, it is a unique feature of the diaspora that they continue to maintain strong emotional, cultural and physical ties with their motherland.

This has led to the gradual recognition of the significant role that the diaspora can play and hence, on the need to harness their potential. This strategic shift is clearly visible in terms of the heightened engagement Indian diplomatic Missions have with the resident Indian community. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the diaspora is presently perceived as a strategic asset.

To a significant extent, this is a consequence of the 2002 Singhvi Committee Report, which, for the first time, drew attention to the immense potential of the diaspora and the need for it to be seen as an indispensable pillar of India’s foreign policy. While all prime ministers engaged with the community, the emphasis accorded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been qualitatively different and far more intense.

The influential role the diaspora played in successfully championing the India-US 123 Agreement is well-documented. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly acknowledged their considerable contribution.

At the same time, the diaspora has also integrated into the community that they have now adopted as their family. The action by the Indian community in Houston to honour Ian Guillot, who courageously tried to save the life of Srinivas Kuchibotla, a victim of a hate crime, deserves special mention. The community gifted him a cheque of USD100,000 as an expression of deep gratitude. This was done in the presence of Navtej Sarna, the Indian ambassador to the US.

What is particularly fascinating is the extraordinary ability of the diaspora to actually straddle two worlds – their adopted home and the one that they left behind.

Harnessing the significant potential of the diaspora could well emerge as a game-changer.

To do this, the government needs to strategically engage with the diaspora beyond waving the Indian flag when Prime Ministers visit.

India has lingered on the cusp of transformational change for over a decade. A deep sense of impatience at the slow pace of reforms is increasingly felt. The leap from good to great governance requires collective participation. Harnessing the diaspora, both financially and in terms of their considerable professional talent, can provide the strategic impulse that India desperately needs.

If, for instance, the Indian diaspora of 30 million were to invest USD1000 per annum for an India Resurgence Fund, the country would receive USD30 billion annually. But apart from financial contribution, several members of the diaspora represent an extraordinary pool of knowledge and human capital that needs to be unlocked and channelled into India’s nation building.

This is the strategic shift that India requires in engaging with the diaspora. If it is able to do this, India would have finally arrived.

Amit Dasgupta is a retired Indian diplomat and the India Country Director at the University of New South Wales. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.

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