Posted on April 11, 2024

Narendra Modi’s Secret Weapon: India’s Diaspora

The Economist, March 27, 2024

On a grey morning in north-west London earlier this month an enthusiastic group gathered outside a community centre to fly the Indian flag—plus another one featuring the lotus flower, symbol of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp). Some wore saffron scarves, a colour associated with Hinduism. After staging a car rally through the neighbourhood, they reconvened outside a Hindu temple. A British Conservative mp addressed the crowd, praising the government of Narendra Modi. The gathering, organised by the Overseas Friends of the bjp, the party’s diaspora arm, got little attention in the local media. But footage of it soon appeared on the websites of many Indian outlets.

The rally was just one of countless such events run by the overseas branches of India’s parties, as the country’s general election that starts on April 19th beckons. India’s huge diaspora is an increasingly powerful force for mobilising support at home and abroad. Indian politicians court it for its financial and campaigning punch. As in India itself, the bjp has been more systematic and successful than its rivals. If Mr Modi wins a third term, as seems likely, he can partly thank the diaspora.

Indians abroad have long played a disproportionate role in politics at home, going back to India’s fight for independence. Many of the anti-colonial movement’s leading lights, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, spent years studying in Britain. Trained as lawyers, they used the ideas they had absorbed to argue for freedom back home. Some of the most notable post-independence prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, also spent long periods abroad.

Since then, India’s diaspora has grown in size and influence. Some 18m Indians who retain their nationality live abroad, according to the un. That makes them the largest diaspora in the world, followed well behind by Mexicans (11.2m) and Russians (10.8m). If those who have relinquished their Indian passports are included, the number may exceed 32m, according to the Indian government’s estimates.

Most Indians abroad have been highly successful. In 2023 they sent home nearly $125bn in remittances, equivalent to around 3.4% of India’s gdp, according to World Bank estimates. In America 80% of citizens of Indian origin have college degrees. The median Indian household income there is $150,000, twice America’s national average. People of Indian descent lead Google, the World Bank—and Britain.


The real impact of the diaspora in politics is in funding, campaigning and spreading India’s influence. As overseas Indians have become more prominent in their host societies, many have begun to take more of an interest in politics both in their new countries and back home. So political parties, Indian and foreign, are wooing them more keenly.

Mr Modi and his bjp are acutely aware of this. Their election manifesto in 2014 called the diaspora “a vast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globally” that would be “harnessed for strengthening Brand India”. The next year the party’s general secretary said the bjp saw the diaspora as India’s voice abroad, “the way the Jewish community looks out for Israel’s interests in the United States”.

Many Indians abroad have risen to the task. The Overseas Friends of the bjp in America plans to send 3,000 Indian-American activists back to India to put up posters and canvass voters. They say they will make 2.5m calls to people in India to persuade them to vote for Mr Modi. The Indian Overseas Congress, the equivalent outfit representing the opposition Congress party, has similar plans, though its organisers are vague about numbers. India’s opaque electoral-finance system makes it tricky to gauge exactly how much money the diaspora contributes; parties are rarely required to disclose the source of donations. But it is bound to be a lot.


One reason for the government’s success in courting the diaspora is that the bjp’s activities abroad are as efficient as its electoral machine at home. Cabinet ministers on foreign trips make a point of meeting diaspora groups, often to raise cash. Hundreds of groups close to the bjp are active in Britain. Such diaspora mobilisation has also picked up in America.