In the run-up to the regional ASEAN India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), Connected to India asks Dr Kanti Bajpai, Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, to highlight India’s relations with South East Asia and the growing popularity of PBD.
“A lot of economic, technological and cultural power is moving East.” he said. Dr Bajpai holds the post of Director, Centre on Asia and Globalisation and Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies at the university “There is a greater understanding among Indian diplomacy that the South East Asian region is impressive, and the overseas Indian communities here have done very well,” he said.
India’s interactions at ASEAN level have been important to India for over two decades when there were signs that India wanted to open relations with ASEAN.
“Recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, we’re not just going to look east, but also Act East,” Dr Bajpai added. “ASEAN sits between many power centres; China, India, Japan and the United States. What ASEAN represents is an ability to deal with them and not allow the region to be dominated by anyone. It’s a vehicle for maintaining a balance between the big powers and ASEAN.”
ASEAN provides a political space where India can engage with other world powers, without anyone becoming too dominant. With robust ASEAN economies like Singapore, fast developing countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar among others, there is extensive economic interests in maintaining relations.
Last but not the least India has strong historical and cultural links with so many of the countries, which adds a dimension of soft power.
Trade and investment with ASEAN have increased over the years. As of now, it is India's fourth largest trading partner. India's trade with ASEAN has increased to USD70 billion in 2016-17, according to Indian government figures.
India's relationship with ASEAN is a key pillar of foreign policy and the foundation of the Act East Policy. The upgradation of the relationship into a Strategic Partnership in 2012 was a natural progression to the ground covered since India became a Sectoral Partner of the ASEAN in 1992, Dialogue Partner in 1996 and Summit Level Partner in 2002. There are, in total, 30 Dialogue Mechanisms between India and ASEAN, cutting across various sectors.
Pravasi Bharatiya Divas
Touching on the event that is scheduled for January 6 and 7, 2018 in Singapore, Dr Bajpai said that both China and India are keeping an eye on the affairs of their diaspora in recent times and that the countries in the region are aware that New Delhi is interested in overseas Indians.
“Hosting the PBD here will draw attention to the contributions of the South East Asian Indian diaspora and their contributions and achievements. It’s a nice idea to have it in South East Asia. For economic, political and cultural reasons, it can be very important to show that India is a political influence in the region,” he said.
Recounting the history of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, he added, “PBD has been around since India opened up the economy, but it was BJP PM Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 who first gave expression to the event. The PBD is a showcase of the overseas’ community’s taking pride in being Indian. It was inevitable in a way. When a country rises in power, the overseas community is going to be proud of their home country’s success. When India’s economic stock rose in the world, Vajpayee ran with it, and Modi has carried it on to another level.”
Modi represents new confident India
“Narendra Modi represents the new, confident India that the diaspora is proud of and wants to see,” says Dr Bajpai, in response to why is PM Modi so popular with Indian diaspora worldwide. His last address in Singapore on November 24, 2015 was attended by over 18,000 people.
“The PM’s body language and statements highlight his comfort with power, which also sends the message that India is comfortable with its power. With Narendra Modi, the man is the message. He bristles with energy, and more than the official events and India’s foreign policy, Modi represents the new India which is what they want to see. His technocratic approach to problem-solving struck a chord with the diaspora. He also exudes a confidence and spontaneity that overseas Indians find impressive.”
Dr Bajpai added that another reason for Modi’s foreign success is that he’s much more overt in displaying pride in Indian culture, and projects an image that is attractive to the overseas Indian. “They want to see a PM who looks dignified and sharp, speaks well and typifies the new India,” he added.
He also pointed out that Modi has made a shift from a political-based engagement with South East Asia to one that has added a dimension of a military coalition.
“Under Modi’s leadership, India has decided to look closely into relationships with those countries in East Asia who have military capabilities like Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the United States. This is primarily to serve as a balance against Chinese power here,” he said.
“On the whole, the Modi government has hit just the right note in dealing with overseas Indians, especially in South East Asia. I don’t think any previous government has made such a big outreach to Indians abroad,” he added.