The role of the diaspora was more important earlier than perhaps is the case now. When the two countries weren’t so engaged clearly the diaspora helped considerably because of the people-to-people contact. But once governments themselves have a strong strategic interest, then its relative role is not as important.
If there is any place that India ought to have soft power then it ought to be in South Asia. You should have soft power in Nepal, in Sri Lanka; the cultural influence of India is so much greater, or at least ought to be, in its own neighbourhood. I don’t think soft power is a substitute for the realities of military and economic power. It can complement it, but not substitute it.
If you look at television programmes, American novels and all of that, people of Indian origin are relatively now more mainstream characters. It is not, therefore, entering through the Indian cultural medium, but instead the American cultural medium. For instance, if you look at television programmes, there will be an Indian character; there is a new novel, Freedom (by Jonathan Franzen), which has got a lot of hype and has a key character who is Indian American. So that crossover is happening; but how significantly will it shape an India-US collaboration vis-à-vis China, well that I am a lot more sceptical about.
Versus Chinese diaspora
Well, I think there is a Group-of-100 of elite Chinese Americans who do play a behind the scenes role in US-China relations. We do not have, interestingly enough, any such equivalent. We have some groups and organizations that do that; in our case you can argue that since groups such as the Confederation of Indian Industry have very strong links with Indian American entrepreneurs in that sense you could say that it is broader and deeper. The reason, of course, is that you can knock on an open door rather than on a door that is relatively closed. And, because US-China relations have relatively greater tension and suspicion than India-US relations—the US does not see India as a strategic threat like, say, it does China—the Chinese diaspora has to be relatively more cautious in openly advocating certain things.
(As told to Anil Padmanabhan)
Devesh Kapur is Director, Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of Diaspora, Democracy and Development: The Impact of International Migration from India on India.
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