For years, Indians have been exasperated by how far their country lags behind China on several parameters of national power: the gross domestic product, per capita income, military hardware capabilities and more. Yet, in my book, “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership,” I argued that two unique factors set India apart: a loyal and influential diaspora, and Mumbai’s Bollywood.
China has long been vexed by the diverse political values of its diaspora. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests, thousands of young Chinese students fled their country and settled across the West. Not surprisingly, that diaspora has spent the last several years antagonistic to Beijing and commemorating its crimes. In recent years, even as China has tried to exert influence over them, key expatriate media outlets have resisted — keeping the diaspora relatively shielded from the partisan narratives back home. On occasion, these influence efforts have even drawn rebuke from their host governments.
By contrast, India’s diaspora has long been a tool for policy influence — often well-integrated and widely embraced by their countries of residence. The landmark India-U.S. nuclear deal, for instance, was aided in Washington by strong lobbying from the Indian diaspora. Not long after, Australia lifted a ban on uranium exports to India, encouraged proactively by the Indian diaspora in that country.
The Indian diaspora’s sense of belonging has been facilitated by civic nationalism and democracy back home, which have long allowed them to feel a simultaneous sense of loyalty to both their countries of residence as well as their home country. Across much of the West, the Indian diaspora remains influential in local politics with no apparent conflict with their ties to India.
That paradigm is now under assault.
Affected by the inherently divisive nature of religious Hindu nationalism, the Indian diaspora is increasingly polarized in its view of India and the world. This September, communal violence broke out in the U.K. between Hindus and Muslims from the subcontinent. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim parades in New Jersey exposed fault lines in the U.S. Separatist sentiments are also more palpable amongst Sikhs in the West.
Bollywood too is beginning to suffer a crisis of credibility. For several years, Indian films were building a cult following abroad, unparalleled by most foreign cinema. Between 2015 and 2019, Indian movies more than doubled their box office revenue overseas, according to Statista. But since then, that growth has gone flat.
In recent years, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has actively promoted partisan movies in service of Hindu nationalist causes to devastating effect. Last month, things came to a head at the International Film Festival of India that was held in Goa. The head juror at the event, the renowned Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, singled out “The Kashmir Files” — a movie purported to depict communal violence against Kashmiri Hindus and promoted by the BJP — for a scathing assessment. “It felt to us like a propaganda and vulgar movie that was inappropriate for an artistic and competitive section of such a prestigious film festival,” Lapid said.
Lapid’s comments elicited an angry backlash from Hindu nationalists, who accused him of downplaying a historical atrocity. But as Lapid later pointed out, his criticism did not deal with historical facts but with the artistic quality of the film, which he said whimsically portrayed good and evil like a “cartoon for kids.”
“Doesn’t an event like this, a tragic event, deserve a serious movie?” he asked pointedly.
The growing global perception that Bollywood is being coopted for partisan political purposes by the BJP is immensely costly for Indian foreign policy. For one, it makes those movies less appealing to a global audience — especially if New Delhi hopes that Bollywood will help build India’s influence overseas. But more importantly, it risks killing Bollywood’s tradition of creative freedom in the long run. And lack of creative freedom is precisely what has ailed China’s own efforts to use its film industry for foreign influence.
Over the last couple of years, New Delhi has prided itself on a newly adopted muscularity in foreign policy rhetoric, which it hopes will make India more powerful and respected overseas. But in the absence of the hard power elements that have characterized China’s rise, India ought to be expanding its traditional soft power — not squandering it away over domestic politics. It takes far more time and effort for a nation to build up its global brand value than it does to break it all down.