Indian and Pakistani 'Strongmen' Are Consolidating Diaspora Politics

Indian and Pakistani 'Strongmen' Are Consolidating Diaspora Politics
‘Diaspora’ as a term has seen its gradual historical and academic evolution over the years. Used previously as ‘classical’ or ‘victim diaspora’, referring to unpleasant experiences of violence and subsequent dispersion of Jews and Armenian people around the world, the term over the years has gone through a rather loose proliferation. The term has brought forth an increased interest among scholars to make sense of the ever-increasing complexities surrounding its usage. With some suggesting ‘diaspora’ to be strictly not used “as a bounded entity but as an idiom, stance and claim” to others presenting a strictly narrow definition of what is and ought to be considered a “genuine diaspora”.

Coined by Bennedict Anderson, the term “long-distance nationalism”  deals with transnational political activities of the diasporas. In this environment of seemingly ubiquitous research on the subject, not much attention has been paid to the diaspora in nationalist or ultra-nationalist projects, or its contemporary variants in support for strongmen and populist governments. The term falls short in explaining two things: the mechanisms which go behind such (nationalist) ambitions, and the systematic way this form of “responsibility-less nationalism” could be used for a certain political agenda. It thus downplays the possible repercussions of nationalism for home or the host society in which the diasporas are residing.

With nascent global upsurge of populist and strongmen governments, mainly witnessed during the last decade, the leaders have been using more or less similar public galvanizing techniques to attract voter attention with their “anti-elite, anti-establishment anti-pluralism sentiments”, an overarching framework invented by Jan Werner Muller (What is Populism?, 2017) to identify populism. Some leaders have transgressed these defined paradigms by attempting to garner transnational support for their political agendas among their diaspora communities abroad, giving impetus to what Erin Jenne (Is Nationalism or Ethnopopulism on the Rise Today, 2018) refers to as “ethno-populism”, while ascribing it to describe Viktor Orban’s advocating of the rights of ethnic Hungarians abroad.

The South Asian strongman leaders (Imran Khan & Narendra Modi) have also been broadening the support of their political agenda among the South Asian community in diaspora, especially in the United States.

Both leaders displayed massive diaspora power in United States last this year, with Khan addressing the Pakistani expatriates in Washington, cheered by a crowd of almost 30,000; and Modi holding an event called “Howdy Modi” in Houston in September, attended by more than 50,000 Indians in U.S. Attendance. Both events were noticed to be the biggest in modern American history beating past South Asian leaders' address in the U.S.

Populism in the South Asian context is a “discursive and a stylistic repertoire” employed by both leaders commonly. Both strongmen enjoy messianic depiction among the diaspora, and have been perceived as messiahs, who could get rid of the corrupt elite back home and bring the respective nations back to the promised glory. The outright authoritarian shift among their policies after coming to power tells us that they are strongmen and not just populists.

Apart from the burgeoning interest of both leaders to engage in the transnational populist foreign policy through diaspora, a major shift of both towards diaspora-centered policies is due to the perceived economic opulence of South Asian diaspora, plausible chance of electorally mobilizing these massive communities, and ‘boundary maintenance’ and continued ‘homeland orientation’ through religion. Religion seems to play key role among South Asian diaspora, as a means to harness transnational support for their political vision.

The role of religion comes more pronounced in the case of India with Modi’s political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its militant and parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) envisioning to make India a Hindu rashtra (nation) and subsequently trying to spread Hindutva, a right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology which wants to take “the nation to the pinnacle of glory through organizing the entire society and ensuring the protection of Hindu Dharma (religion)”, beyond national borders. This vision was clearly shared by BJP’s and RSS’ core ideologue, M.S Golwalker, who while deeming Hindu diaspora extremely vital for RSS vision abroad said that, “the Hindus who have settled in several countries all over the world have contributed significantly to the all-round development of social, economic and cultural life of the countries of their residence. Current times demand that they carry on constructive and social welfare activities with greater zeal with harmonious cooperation of the local people to make universal brotherhood a reality.”

The role of religion in Imran Khan’s & Pakistan’s case is less conspicuous but could still be latently seen due to Khan’s continuous theological references to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state and the nature of the Pakistani diaspora abroad, which is perceived to use religion as one of the important ‘boundary maintenance’ elements.

Brief history of concentration of South Asian diaspora in the US

One of the biggest and highly dispersed diasporas around the world, South Asian diaspora has a huge presence around the world, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. It all started with British colonial experience coming handy for those South Asians after the end of colonial rule in 1947, “who were proficient in English, found and acquired white-collar jobs, such as medicine, scientific research, and engineering and information technologies, settled in middle-class suburbs and appeared to fulfill the American Dream.” The ‘old’ South Asian diaspora which could be stated as creation of colonial capital started settling abroad in the colonial times while this new ‘new’ English-proficient diaspora, seeking better economic opportunities, gradually started to move abroad in the sixties peaking in the nineties and early 2000s.

In the United States only, the South Asian diaspora during the period of 2000-2005 saw an increase of almost 38%. This sharp rise could be attributed to rapid economic liberalization and multiple trade opportunities which ushered in both countries in India and Pakistan in the nineties, opening enhanced opportunities for those wanting to settle abroad for regular labor or trying to establish their businesses to what Peter Reeves (The South Asian diaspora: transnational networks and changing identities, 2008) refer to as “entrepreneurial diaspora”.

Economic opulence and electoral mobilization of diaspora

Both Khan and Modi have been trying to use the economic well-being of these communities abroad, especially in US, to further their political cause back home; either through massive electoral funding coming from diasporas, most true for India, or expecting diaspora contributing to nation’s economic uplift during precarious economic situation at home, falls most true for Pakistan. The electoral mobilization narrative for allowing the diaspora community to vote in home elections could be ascribed to strongmen’s growing popularity among the diaspora and their working towards transporting that popularity back home.

“In the US, according to the 2,000 census, the revenue per capita of the Indian community was $68,000 a year, more than twice that of the average American.” In the case of India, BJP and its affiliates in the form of RSS & Sangh Parivar (an umbrella term for all the Hindu nationalist organizations working in India & aboard), took the political lead in recognizing the diasporan economic importance and started building links with the Indian community, well before the party first came to power in the early nineties. Before that, the Congress party worked on its founder’s (Jawaharlal Nehru’s) vision, which “refused any responsibility for the well-being of people of Indian origin living abroad” and did not pay much attention to transplanting these transnational connections into economic advantage. According to Christophe Jaffrelot and Ingrid Therwath (The Sangh Parivar and the Hindu Diaspora in the West: What kind of “long-distance nationalism?", 2007) the first fund raising campaign by the BJP among the Indian diaspora in US was started in 1989 for the construction of contentious Ram temple in Ayodha (Northern India), which led to Indian community in America contributing an amount of $350,000.

Subsequently similar fund-raising campaigns were led by BJP leaders in the United States, allowing the party to spend exorbitantly on its election campaigns. BJP is famous for its election campaigns marked with its tech-savvy political communication tools, inundation of Hindu symbols shown through 3D and hologram shows. These economic advantages and rising popularity among the diaspora forced BJP to transfer this support to political power, when in 2018 the party passed the bill in Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian Parliament) for allowing NRIs (Non Resident Indians) to vote in general elections of 2019. The bill still needs to be passed by the Upper House and it is quite likely that by 2024 elections, NRIs would get a chance to vote through online platforms.

The Pakistani case is less straightforward as compared to India because the trend of a Pakistani leader trying to mobilize diaspora economically and politically is very nascent. In the past, not much attention was paid by successive governments to go beyond the mainstream efforts of just trying to increase the diaspora remittances. Pakistani Americans’ economic standing could be judged equivalent to their Indian counterparts because of the similar working employment sectors. However, Indians could be given little advantage in certain sectors due to a bigger “entrepreneurial diaspora” presence and much older diaspora-centered policy of Indian state than Pakistan.

Bolognani and Lyon (Pakistan and its diaspora: multidisciplinary approaches, Springer, 2011) talk about this penchant of Pakistani Americans towards free-market and voting behavior tilting towards Republicans. Being aware of this perfect ideological match, right after holding office in 2018 Imran Khan knew it was a very precarious economic situation in the country and hence, in his first address to the nation, in a strongman-populist tone, Khan requested the Pakistani expatriates to invest in Pakistan to help the country overcome the economic crisis. The next step was the introduction of flagship diaspora funds which would encourage expatriates to invest in Pakistan, simultaneously helping to raise country’s revenues. The efforts were further increased when after his landmark address in Washington last year, Pakistani government hired a lobbying firm in the US.

Electorally, just like his Indian counterpart, Imran Khan has been trying to introduce I-voting, which would allow Pakistani diaspora to vote in the general elections, in fact a small test was run in bi-elections last year.

Transnational Hindutva of Modi & Islamic welfare state of Khan

The secular analyses of scholars who were writing on migration and diaspora studies in the 70s and 80s perceived role of religion among diaspora communities to be diminishing. Contrarily, John Hinnells while trying to debunk such analysis wrote; “studies of transnational or diaspora communities at the turn of the millennium commonly found that migrants tend to be more religious after migration than they were before, because their religion gives them a stake of continuity in a sea of change.” The view was also reinforced by Gerd Baumann (Contesting Culture: Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London, 1996) who, based on his research on South Asian communities in Southhall, England, said that “religion continues to function as the local community marker par excellence”. Apart from religion, the community’s cultural traditions through intra-marriages, maintenance of a patriarchal family system an unabated ritual practices are testament to the cementing role religion and culture plays in their ‘boundary maintenance’ and ‘ homeland orientation’.

Despite living in a rather pluralist and liberal American setting, South Asian American community is still far from being completely assimilated into American culture. While the ideological moorings of diaspora were always there but in an under-nourished form. The rise of strongmen nationalist projects have finally seemed to provide these views an outlet.

In the case of Indian diaspora such views were carefully crafted over the years by BJP and its ideological counterparts, operating in America and other parts of the world. They attempted to solidify their founders’ (M.S Golwaker and Vinayak Savarkar) ideas to give impetus to what we call ‘transnational Hindutva’. Dissemination of Hindu nationalist ideas beyond Indian borders and trying to gain transnational economic and political support to realize the dream of a Hindu nation at home is the modus operandi of these organizations. Efforts were made for the creation of Shakhas (Hindu theological schools) and training camps to inculcate Hindutva visions among the young generation in diaspora. This is also done through arranging summer schools and youth camps. The first Shakha was created in Kenya in 1940s but over the years, these Shakhas have spread to Western Countries like UK, US and Canada. Today, RSS claims to have 570 Shakhas in 34 countries. Vishva Hindu Parishad (right-wing Hindu militant organization), which usually organizes Modi’s huge public addresses in America, like Howdy Modi, created its American branch in 1997. One another important aspect on which Biju Mathew and Vijay Prashad (The protean forms of Yankee Hindutva, 2000) shed light too, and could be true for Pakistani diaspora conservatism as well, is that this form of “Yankee Hindutva” could not only be attributed to these Hindu organizations’ tireless work. It is also a response to American racism and tensions of diasporic life, which reinforce nationalist passions.

The Pakistani diaspora support for Imran Khan does not drive from similar Islamic organizations working in diaspora, as in the case of BJP. However, there are Islamic movements like Tablighi-jamaat who champion the re-Islamization of the diasporas in the West. Pakistanis started settling in the US and the UK and other parts of the world in large numbers in the 60s and 70s, owing to the enormous surplus of labor which was generated in the result of haphazard industrial and agriculture growth in the country, forcing the male-dominated pool of labor to look towards transnational employment options. This male dominated migration resulted in forming hierarchical and patriarchal family structures, with a keen focus on kinship and religion. Katherine Charsley has studied how this male-dominated migration led to intra-marriages among Pakistani diaspora under a conservative family composition where Islam continued to be a marker of identity.

Nadeem Malik in his empirical study on Pakistanis in Australia finds that religion, gender and family remain the key components of identity construction among Pakistanis in Australia. Also, the political consciousness of this ‘new’ diaspora mainly germinated under the military rule of 60s, which continued to assert religion as a key identity marker. Separated from United India in 1947 on the basis of religion and having no territorial existence of its nationalism, religion continued to remain a unifying tool for the state to construct its identity. It is safe to assume that religion as a key marker of identity remained intact even after Pakistanis moved abroad, i.e. the second generation of post-colonial ‘new’ diaspora.

American case becomes more complex due to 9/11 and subsequent rise of Islamophobia, which gave backlash to American multiculturalism among Pakistani diaspora and reinforced their Islamic way of life. Imran Khan is among this cohort of politicians who in his early days was a huge critic of American policies on War on Terror (WOT), its impact on Pakistani state and the role it played in the rise of Islamophobia. His continued references to make Pakistan a Medina-style welfare Islamic state which existed in the times of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) ushered a new wave of hope among both citizens and Pakistani diaspora tired of “corrupt” political establishment. They long had been in search of a charismatic strongman messiah like Khan who would clean the mess of corruption.

This narrative gives us substantial evidence for existence of what academic Vijay Prashad calls “apolitical conservatism” even among Pakistani diaspora who, allured by state-driven political consciousness, something which Khan has been propagating as well, continue to malign political establishment, while it has been proven through history and prolonged rule of military dictatorship in the country, that in a hybrid regime like Pakistan, military is the absolute power-center.

Long distance nationalism

Both strongmen (Khan & Modi) in South Asia see diaspora extremely vital for consolidation of their political agendas. This is visible from the way both leaders have enacted their diaspora-centered policies in recent years, majorly shifting from the previous governments policies. South Asian diaspora is important for them because of the economic advantages the diaspora brings forth; either through electoral funding or perceiving diaspora to help the homeland during insecure economic situation. It also gives these leaders a chance to electorally mobilize them in homeland elections and transport their rising transnational popularity for political power at home. South Asian diaspora’s strong ‘boundary maintenance’ and ‘homeland orientation’ mainly emerging from the strong role religion continues to play, gives these leaders advantage to easily mobilize this diaspora under their political rhetoric. To conclude, contrary to the rather innocuous picture presented by Bennedict Anderson in his work on “long-distance nationalism”, this newly emerging form of “long-distance nationalism” could have huge repercussions for the homeland politics and society. It also tells us that this diasporans’ “apolitical conservatism” might not be producing any promising hope for the future of democracies in their home societies, and instead is making them more exclusivist and chauvinist.

A lot has been written on the populist/strongmen upsurge and the implications on respective countries’ democracies and their futures. In the Indian case, the regime of Narendra Modi, since 2014 is fast-pacing towards a majoritarian Hindu rule. The last six years have witnessed rising communal tensions in the country, stifling of the minorities especially Muslims. The forceful annexation of the Kashmir in 2019 and the controversial Nazi-like citizenships laws passed this year, which would disenfranchise huge chunk of its minority population of Indian citizenship, tell us that Indian democratic system is slowly receding towards fascism.

It would be unfair to put Imran Khan and Narendra Modi in the same category. But Khan’s ambivalence towards democratic politics and a penchant for power-maximising ‘chameleonic politics’, his disregard and continuous maligning of political opposition and other dissenting forces in the country, is polarizing Pakistan’s already amorphous political spectrum. In addition, Khan's worldview is aiding the maintenance of Pakistan’s hybrid state structure; neoliberal economic policies and an anti-politics narrative thereby making him a questionable candidate for the consolidation of Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

The writer is a graduate from LUMS with a degree in Economics & Politics and harbours a keen interest in politics and global affairs. He can be reached at