Modi’s Politics of ‘Soft Power’ in times of Hard Realities of the Indian Diaspora


Even as the general elections are round the corner, the Narendra Modi Government makes it a point to use religion and culture as effective tools to sustain itself in power, beyond 2019. This is done in an orchestrated manner deploying strategies of both ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’ in the domestic, regional and international settings. The latest in a series of strategies is the way the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) is organised, that too in Modi’s electoral constituency in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on the eve of Kumbh Mela, one of the largest Hindu pilgrimages, further linking it with the Republic day of India on 26 January. Politics as a ‘performing soft power art’ will be this year’s ‘Diaspora Mela’ in India.

This is not the first time that religion and culture are increasingly used as new currencies of politics, diplomacy and international relations. Way back in 1990, Joseph S. Nye coined the term ‘soft power’ in his analysis of the declining power of the United States (Nye 1990). A neoliberal that he has been, Nye argued later that when you could “get others to admire your ideals and to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction. Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive” (Nye 2009). The term became a sensation in the post-cold war period when scholars of IR began to use the term in a variety of contexts in the studies and analysis of politics and foreign policy. A cross section of studies in IR actually deals with how religion becomes an effective tool in the hands of ruling regimes. For example, the Brookings studies on the geopolitics of religious ‘Soft Power’ seek to analyse “the global impact of religious propagation activities sponsored by several countries” in West Asia, North Africa and the Gulf “which for decades have deployed religion as a form of soft power in pursuit of foreign policy objectives”(Brookings 2018). It underlines that in virtually “every Muslim-majority country that aspires to regional or global influence, Islam is an important and sometimes the only ideological currency that mixes effectively with more narrowly defined realpolitik. With the decline of pan-Arabism and socialism, the only real competing ideological orientation other than liberal democracy is nationalism, but, by definition, nationalism is difficult to “promote” outside one’s own nation” (Ibid). Based on an array of studies about how one state “can persuade others to do what it wants without the use of force,” Gerasimos Tsourapas shows how authoritarian regimes deploy “cross-border mobility as a ‘soft power’ strategy.” He says that many authoritarian regimes “adopt an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ approach and let these diaspora communities be. Others carefully monitor their activities via consulates and embassies” (Tsourapas 2018).

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD)

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) is organised (once in two years) to reinforce the activities of the Indian diaspora (overseas Indian communities) with the Government of India. During the occasion, selected overseas Indians will be honored with the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Awards’ in recognition of their contributions to various fields, both in India and abroad. The 15th PBD Convention is celebrated on 21-23 January 2019 in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The focal theme of PBD 2019 is “Role of Indian Diaspora in building New India” (India, PBD 2019). A Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement says that “In reference to the sentiments of the larger diaspora community to participate in Kumbh Mela and Republic Day celebrations, the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention is being organized from 21 to 23 January 2019 instead of 9th January. The Convention will be held at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. After the Convention, participants would be given the opportunity to visit Prayagraj (the erstwhile Allahabad) for Kumbh Mela on 24th January, 2019 and witness the Republic Day Parade at New Delhi on 26th January 2019” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2018). The change of date from 9 to 21 January itself has no other justification. Usually PBD is celebrated on 9 January every year to mark the contribution of the Indian diaspora in the development of India. January 9 was identified as the day to celebrate this because it was on this day in 1915 that Mahatma Gandhi got back from South Africa and took over the leadership of India’s freedom struggle which changed the course of nationalist movement. PBD meetings are held every year since 2003. These conventions are expected to provide a platform to the Indian diaspora “to engage with the government and people of the land of their ancestors for mutually beneficial activities. These conventions are also very useful in networking among the overseas Indian community residing in various parts of the world and enable them to share their experiences in various fields” (India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs 2019). Critics say that the BJP is using the PBD this time with two main objectives. First, it seeks to use India’s cultural (thereby religious) power with a view to mobilizing public opinion, both in India and abroad. Secondly, the PBD will provide a platform for mobilizing the much-needed funds for the forthcoming elections. The Sangh Parivar is expected to utilize the prevailing ‘goodwill’ in the Indian diaspora in the West keeping in view the larger objective of winning the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

A frequent question raised in relation to PBDs is whether such gatherings convened with huge financial liability could provide any solution to the problems of the Indian diaspora across the world. Many complain that these meetings are essentially to woo the ‘haves’ in the diaspora under the ‘NRI’ label and the Government seldom invite and set up platforms for hearing the problems of the struggling communities in the diaspora. A major example is the way the present Government refused to have a session for the Gulf, the region wherein the largest segment of the Indian diaspora in the world live. The same situation happened in the previous years also. However, the UPA Government had shown some interest in the affairs of the Indian migrants in the Gulf. It also set up a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) to look after the interests of Indian migrants, particularly in the GCC countries. The Item No. 23 of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs’ Action Taken Report on suggestions of PBD 2015 underlined specific the issues of Indian diaspora in the Gulf. The Report noted that necessary action “to safeguard the interests of Indian diaspora in Gulf” was already being taken by concerned agencies. Further, a separate session on issues of Indian diaspora in Gulf was also conducted in the PBDs. The issues raised and deliberated upon during the 2014 PBD session (exclusively for the Gulf region) included voting rights of NRIs, shortage of Air India flights operating between India and Gulf region, waiver of taxes on remittances, legal services for the NRIs, Indian Community Welfare Fund for the NRIs, pension schemes for poor NRIs, need to increase the staff at overseas Indian missions, dispatch of dead bodies of NRIs and problems faced by jailed NRIs (India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs 2014a; India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs 2014b).

However, the BJP-led NDA Government decided to dispense with the MOIA and made ‘Overseas Indian Affairs’ as part of the MEA. Though Prime Minister Modi visited the GCC countries and signed several agreements and contracts during the last few years, he did not show any serious attention to the problems of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf. All GCC countries have been formulating and implementing new regulations on migrants which resulted in thousands of Indians being forced to return. The worst scenario is in Saudi Arabia where, as a result of the introduction of Nitaqat (nationalization), lakhs of Indians had lost their jobs and they had to shut down local business and trade under pressures of the localization drive (Seethi 2018: 23-51; Seethi 16: 97-118). Kerala, the state which sent the largest segment of Indian migrants in the GCC, started experiencing major setbacks in terms of the social pressures of accommodating the return migrants from the Gulf. This was estimated to have crossed 2 million in recent years which appeared to be a higher portion of the total number of migrants from Kerala. This will surely have implications for Kerala’s livelihood security as more than 5 million people in the state are still dependent on foreign remittances.

Problems of migration and the life-world experiences of diaspora constitute a major segment of public policy on the external front. There has been a substantial increase in migration during the last few decades (particularly from low income countries to high income countries) and inevitably problems and challenges associated with migration remained a high-priority public policy issue for many countries. The number of international migrants reached around 244 million in the recent past. Almost half of all migrants worldwide were born in Asia (primarily originating from India, the largest country of origin, China etc), and India and China were the top remittance-recipient countries (IOM 2017:2, 19, 31). Quite naturally, the meetings held, from time to time, should have focused on the specific problems of the migrants, from the point of view of the sites their origin as well as the destination. But it seldom happens. The Government’s priorities, on the other hand, are essentially focused on the big business in the diaspora. The Modi Government’s policy in the context of the flood disaster in Kerala in 2018 also generated controversy. It did not allow the State Government to accept the offer of assistance from the UAE Government under the pretext of a policy change in place introduced by the previous UPA Government. However, the Indian diaspora in the Gulf as well as in other parts of the world were generous to offer help by contributing to the Chief Minister’s disaster relief fund. The 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention would have witnessed this solidarity of the Indian diaspora had the Union Government shown interest in widening the agenda of the meeting, including its role in the context of such crises and disasters.

‘Soft Power’ Showcasing and Sangh Hijacking

As the NDA Government sets out to make political mileage out of the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, the Sangh Parivar has already made all-out preparations to hijack the pilgrimage gathering with a view to unleashing a saffron tide across the country and abroad, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The RSS was reported to have started training thousands of its followers who would be available in the Kumbh Mela area with help and assistance. The RSS has also appealed to all its affiliates to be an indispensable part of the six-week-long event, which was set to begin from 14 January (Jha 2018). For the Modi Government, the importance of this Mela is palpable enough. Having faced a series of setbacks in the State Assembly elections, in the recent past, and a series of defeats in the Lok Sabha bye-elections, over the last four years, the Modi Government is desperate to make inroads into the various sections of the society in each state. Caste-communal equations are very critical for the NDA election strategy and states like UP, with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats, are important for a victory. It knows that the opposition parties are harnessing their electoral energy by using the same caste-communal cards in different ways. Inevitably, the Sangh Parivar organisations are frantic to ensure that their ‘image’ should not be culturally tarnished. Hence, their options would be multi-pronged.

The 2019 Kumbh Mela is plausibly a good occasion to mobilize both internal and external constituencies of the Sangh organisations. Therefore, it is projected as “showcase of India’s rich cultural heritage and tradition, of which people from all walks of life – from the intelligentsia to tribals – will be a part” (Pawariya 2019). Sanskar Bharati, cultural wing of the RSS has been “directly involved in ideation and execution of this innovative nationalist project.” Pawariya writes that it also set up “a vast cultural complex in the mela exclusively for the northeastern states where the cultural attributes of the eight states of that region will be at display in a museum along with their historical linkages with the rest of the country…Dharma gurus, priests and religious leaders of various sampradays (sects) will also participate in lively discussions and hold debates over important matters related to culture, religion and civilisation. Priests from tribals areas from over 25 states will also be present. Sewa Samarpan Sansthan, a Hindu organisation based in UP’s Sonbhadra district and which works for upliftment of tribals, is playing a crucial role in this.” He says that many “ideas presented by RSS affiliate organisations to the Uttar Pradesh government are being executed as well.” Pawariya also quotes a leader: “We are an organisation of ideas. So, we have contributed a lot in the form of ideas. Our view was that since a world organisation like UNESCO has declared Kumbh an intangible cultural heritage, we should make sure this heritage is visible to anyone who visits Prayagraj during the mela” (Ibid). Another plan is to have “Sanskriti Gram – a temporary but grand tech-enabled museum spread over eight acres that has been reportedly designed by set-makers of the Baahubali movie and is being executed by the state tourism department.” Sanskriti Gram is created “specifically keeping in mind the comfort of non-resident Indians, foreigners and rich, elite Indians, one-night stay here in the tent city can set you back by Rs 2,500 to Rs 35,000 depending on the luxury of the tent you choose to stay in. Primarily, this will be the target audience of the gram” (Ibid).

Evidently, the task set is to explore the possibility of deploying India’s cultural artifacts as ‘soft power’ currency for saffron mobilization and thereby using it for electoral campaigns. Having a pilgrim mela for showcasing is not new for cultural diplomacy, but it is being deployed on a much larger platform with a clear political-electoral objective.


Brookings (2018): “Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power,”

India, Ministry of External Affairs (2018): “Celebration of 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas from 21-23 January, 2019 at Varanasi,”

India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs (2019): “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas,”

India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs (2014a): “Action Taken Report on suggestions of PBD 2015,”

India, Ministry of External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs (2014b): Twelfth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas: Engaging Diaspora: Connecting Across Generations, 7-9 January 2014, Proceedings and Moving Forward,

India, PBD (2019): “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas,”

IOM (International Organisation for Migration), UN Migration Agency (2017): The World Migration Report 2018,

Jha, Dhirendra K.(2018): “Following BJP’s electoral defeats, RSS sets out to take control of Ardh-Kumbh Mela,” The Caravan, 21 December,

Nye, Jr., Joseph S. (2009): Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Hachette UK.

Nye, Joseph S.  Jr (1990): Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, New York: Basic Books.

Pawariya, Arihant (2019): “When India’s 151 Rivers Got Maa Ganga’s Invitation: How Sangh Parivar Is Helping Curate 2019 Kumbh,” Swarajya, 11 January,

Seethi, K.M.  (2016):  “Distress Signals from Kerala’s Remittance Economy,” Journal of Political Economy and Fiscal Federalism, Vol.2.

Seethi, K.M. (2018): “Migration and Remittance: Implications of the Gulf States’ Policy Shift,” in K.M. Seethi Development Rebound: Challenges in India’s Development Scenario, Calicut: Raspberry.

Tsourapas, Gerasimos (2018): “How authoritarian regimes use migration to exert ‘soft power’ in foreign policy,” Washington Post, 6 July,


The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]


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