Diaspora diplomacy has become a thing in recent years. First used to such spectacular effect by the Chinese Communist Party, it has now become a cornerstone of the foreign policy of the current Indian government. And the rock star reception given by diaspora communities to Indian PM Narendra Modi on his overseas visits seems to bear out the wisdom of this strategy.

Still, there’s something a bit troubling about this form of diplomacy. Perhaps it’s the hypocrisy of political parties that base their legitimacy on a sometimes-rabid nationalism demanding fealty from citizens of other countries by trading on long standing ethnic ties.

After all, if Indian Muslims and Catholics must prove their loyalty to their nation above Mecca or the Vatican, then shouldn’t the same be required of British and American Indians?

(In an irony of ironies, even the American-returned governor of the Indian central bank was taken to task for still holding on to his Green Card, a clear sign of divided loyalties.)

The truth is, of course, that in real life most people have multiple identities. The luxury of having a single orientation is afforded only to a privileged minority.

But it is one thing to practice the culture you were born into within a multicultural state and quite another to participate in the political life of another state.

Diaspora diplomacy recognizes and exploits these ambiguities, but then at the same time turns around and reduces pluralistic cultural traditions to unitary national ones.

The term “diaspora” itself implies an unchanging essentialness to being Indian, Chinese, etc.—a quality that never leaves you no matter how many generations you have lived elsewhere.

Your family may hail from Chaozhou and have practiced a freewheeling and eclectic Buddhism, but if you’re Chinese you have to hold sacred the teachings of Confucius. And you have to learn Putonghua, never mind that nobody you know speaks it. Hence, Lee Kuan Yew’s insistence that Singaporean values were Confucian values.

Or if you’re from the subcontinent, you have to love Bollywood films and their celebration of the patriarchy, never mind if you speak Malayalam at home and come from a matriarchal society.

Diaspora diplomacy makes national governments elsewhere nervous, because it blurs the boundaries of citizenship.


This is the case even in liberal Canada, a country with a large immigrant population whose members often continue to be politically active in their land of origin. In the 1984 Air India bombing, the then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered the Indian government his condolences although the victims were mostly Canadian citizens.


And then, in 2014, the government passed a law that literally created a second class of citizens with its Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, permitting the revocation of citizenship from a dual citizen who gets embroiled in political mischief in his or her country of origin, among other things.

The act rightly came under challenge for its unconstitutionality, but at the very least, it was an acknowledgement that our current understanding of the term “citizen” may be insufficient.

More recently, the Brexit vote made it evident that conflicting interpretations of the rights and duties of citizenship are concurrently in circulation.

Ironically, the pro-Brexit voters are more in line with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who, sixty years ago, had a more traditional take on citizenship: “If they adopt the nationality of that country, we have no concern with them. Sentimental concern there is, but politically they cease to be Indian nationals.”

Time has passed and realities have changed. And you could argue that diaspora diplomacy is no more than developing countries using globalization to their advantage, for a change.

But here’s the thing: if we’re headed in that direction, we need to take another look at what we mean by the nation state and citizenship. The old definitions no longer work, although many people still cling to them. And the governments that practice diaspora diplomacy would do well to recognize the double standards at play.