Sydney to Tokyo: What explains Modi’s overseas appeal

India's PM has a profound impact on the diaspora and his country's international standing

Published : 26 May 2023 07:40 PM

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned home to a warm welcome on May 24th after a remarkable and highly successful three-nation visit. It was a diplomatic triumph, beautifully orchestrated and curated by External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, showcasing India’s strength in international relations and new leadership role in the global south.

Nothing symbolised this more eloquently than Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister James Marape’s spontaneous gesture of bending down to touch Modi’s feet on May 22 after the two leaders warmly hugged each other.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remarked, “He’s the boss” after Modi’s tumultuous reception at the Qudos Bank Arena. Modi rocked the adoring Indian community of 20,000 who had gathered to listen to him and cheer him.

The Modi cult, so prevalent in the diaspora, was thus amply evident down under too. What explains his extraordinary appeal overseas even as it came after a reversal of fortunes in the recent Karnataka elections?

Role of Indian expatriates 

The BJP lost badly to the Congress, despite the fact that Modi himself had camped in the southern state for a week, holding dozens of rallying and personally appealing to the electorate to vote his party back to power.

The answer is simple. Modi makes overseas Indians feel good about themselves and their country of origin, India. Especially the more prosperous ones, who have broken through the glass ceiling in their host countries—the most advanced and developed nations of the world such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

The over ten million Indians in these four predominantly English-speaking countries know that their position and status in their adopted homelands depend to a great extent, not only their talents and achievements, but on the image of India, their motherland.

The more powerful and prosperous India is the better regarded they are in their host countries. Modi has hit upon a win-win formula to woo and captivate this powerful audience. 

The fact that the key members of the Indian diaspora played a significant role in Modi’s ascent to power both in 2014 and 2019 only add to their value.

Overseas Indians are not only rich and highly influential in their host countries, but also in their motherland, India. They have family and friends back home, plus strong mainstream and social media presence as influencers. They—and Modi—know that they will be called upon to support him, yet again, for a third consecutive time, in next year’s general elections in India.

Bolstering diplomatic gains

In Sydney, Modi was greeted with crowds chanting his name, “Modi, Modi, “Modi.” His rousing 45-minute speech was frequently interrupted with loud clapping and cheering.

Modi not only highlighted Indo-Australian ties, going back to colonial times, referring frequently to parliamentary democracy, food, and cricket, but also underlined India’s achievements on the global stage, especially after his assumption of the top political office of the country’s prime ministership.

Indeed, given the dynamics of the Quad, the Indo-Australian relationship has never seemed stronger. To cement this moment in history, Modi also announced a new Centre for Australia-India Relations to be based in Sydney’s “Little India.”

Modi’s visit to Japan for the G7 summit earlier on May 21st was also hugely successful. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida extended the guest list to include more nations to bolster diplomatic and strategic gains. Modi also met US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during this visit, in addition to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The latter for the first time since the Russian-Ukraine war. Modi promised Zelenskyy that he would do “whatever is possible” to bring the war in Ukraine to an end. While in Japan, Modi visited the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima and inaugurated a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in that city, devastated on August 6, 1945, by the first nuclear bomb detonated on planet earth.

Apart from the feel-good optics and sonics, what were the solid gains for India from Modi’s three-nation tour? The political gains and image refurbishment of Modi himself I have already touched upon. The additional gains may be summed up as follows.

(From L) Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Mathias Cormann, Managing Director of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, France's President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrive for a family photo of leaders of the G7 and invited countries during the G7 Leaders' Summit in Hiroshima on May 20, 2023

irst of all, the strengthening bilateral and multi-lateral relations. Through strategic meetings, dialogues, and agreements, Modi ensured that diplomatic ties were deepened, leading to enhanced collaboration in various sectors such as trade, economy, defence, culture, and technology.

Secondly, economic advancement. Modi knows that investment, trade, and manufacturing in India are keys to India’s rise in the new world order. Through bilateral talks and addresses to business forums, Modi projected India as an attractive foreign direct investment and trade destination.

Thirdly, cultural exchange. Modi is quite the master at this. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, he released the Tok Pisn translation of the ancient Tamil Classic Thirukkural. More than any predecessor, Modi has leveraged India’s past glory and cultural riches in his outreach to other nations. True.

There is hardly any notable country more in the world with which India has not has a meaningful cultural exchange either because of its earlier civilizational pre-eminence or more recent colonial crosscurrents.

Successful three-nation visit

Cultural solidarity breeds peace and goodwill; Modi well-understands this mantra. He exploits every opportunity, therefore, to strengthen cultural relations between India and the nations he visits.

Finally, India also addressed global challenges, including the climate crisis, during Modi’s three-nation visit. Terrorism, regional security, vaccine maitri (friendship), and quad, were all part of his diplomatic agenda.

In sum, the visit showcased Modi’s diplomatic acumen, leadership, and commitment to fostering stronger international relations. By focusing on strengthening bilateral ties, promoting economic growth, facilitating cultural exchanges, addressing global challenges, and achieving significant diplomatic milestones, Modi, ably assisted by Jaishankar, strengthened India’s role in increased global cooperation and mutual benefit among partner nations.

It is another matter that soon upon returning to India, Modi immediately faced an opposition boycott of his inauguration on May 28 of the new parliament building. I wrote about the latter in my last column.

Perhaps, Modi’s triumphs abroad should also be complemented by his mending fences with the opposition so that statesmanship, not bitter division, prevails at home too.

Else, it would be rather unconvincing to keep proclaiming during our foreign visits that India believes that the whole world is one family (vasudhaivakutumbakam), while we are very much a house divided 

at home.

Makarand R. Paranjape is a Professor of English at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal. 

Source: Gulf News