In a tiny, second floor office at the bustling New Delhi headquarters of India’s ruling political party, Vijay Chauthaiwale plots how Prime Minister Narendra Modi can sell India to a diaspora greater in number than Australia’s population.
A long-time Modi confidante, Chauthaiwale, 53, was hand-picked by Amit Shah, the president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, to lead the organization’s foreign affairs department. He has since driven the prime minister’s efforts to reach roughly 28 million expatriates and people of Indian origin around the world, helping plan glitzy events at venues such as Wembley Stadium.
Forging better relations with the diaspora is part of Modi’s plan to lure foreign investment and entrepreneurs to India. It also allows Modi to increase the profile of Indians in the U.S, United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, turning these large communities into politically potent constituencies that can push local politicians and businesses to seek closer economic ties with India.
“This government sees diaspora as a part of the development story,” Chauthaiwale said in an interview. “And we want them to be informal ambassadors for India in their own country, engaging themselves with local politicians and actors.”
A skeptical audience
But not everyone is convinced. Modi’s reform efforts have yet to compel a significant number of non-resident Indians to invest or return, said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs and author of a book on Modi’s foreign policy.
Part of the challenge is that India’s economy remains as unpredictable as ever: On Nov. 8, Modi plunged the country into social and economic uncertainty by suddenly invalidating 86 percent of currency in circulation, leading analysts to downgrade growth forecasts.
“NRIs still look at India with some skepticism, because ease of doing business in India has not improved that much,” Chaulia said.
India’s diaspora — the world’s largest, according to the United Nations — includes millions of migrant laborers in the Persian Gulf as well as professionals in North America and Great Britain.
It is a crucial part of India’s economy: In 2015, the World Bank said the diaspora sent back $72.2 billion in remittances, more than India’s bilateral trade with the U.S. and almost as much as the $74.9 billion trade relationship with China.
The diaspora, including groups like the Overseas Friends of BJP, can also help Modi’s attempt to change the Indian economy’s reputation for corruption and red tape, Chauthaiwale said.
“Rebranding was necessary, because when Prime Minister Modi took charge, practically everyone had written off India because of the corruption scandals, nepotism and indecision,” said Chauthaiwale, who has a PhD in microbiology and worked at India’s Torrent Pharmaceuticals Ltd. before joining Modi’s 2014 election war room. “People are rediscovering the potential of India, especially the NRI community.”
In an era characterized by a backlash against immigration — with the election of President-Elect Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and Modi’s clash with British Prime Minister Theresa May over student visas — India’s global workforce is under threat.
Modi is pushing for looser migration rules for India’s mobile professionals and Chauthaiwale said the government has made it easier for non-resident Indians to return to India, invest and do philanthropy in their home villages.
‘Big Fundraising Mechanism’
Outreach to diaspora groups is a key plank of Modi’s foreign policy that “helps India get accepted as a rising power,” said Chaulia said.
Modi’s high-profile events, such as an address before 20,000 at Madison Square Garden, help transform these communities into political constituencies that can deepen trade ties between India and other countries, Chaulia said. These wealthy communities are also a large source of political donations for the BJP, he added.
“It’s a big fundraising mechanism,” Chaulia said. “They don’t mention it. But it’s there.”
Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said major parties rely on NRI funding and that Chauthaiwale’s “parallel structure” outside of the government and embassy network is “an interesting institutional innovation.”
Chauthaiwale said fundraising “is not the objective.”
‘Sense of Identity’
As the BJP prepares for crucial state elections next year, the party won’t end its global outreach, Chauthaiwale said, and will help to coordinate foreign visits for cabinet ministers with newly engaged diaspora groups.
“They have a new sense of identity, and they are now also seeing themselves as a force to be reckoned with,” he said.