Diaspora plays an important role in transforming bilateral relations by changing the attitudes and perceptions of the decision makers between two countries that have limited contact and hostile attitudes.
Fortunately, NZ-India relations do not face any such challenges.
In a reflection of the changed world that we are living in presently, where India has become more proactively engaged with the wider international community and New Zealand has become more active on trade and global governance, the political elites of both the countries meet very often around the world.
The relationship between the political elites of the two countries has never been better and there is a shared sense of mutual fondness and warmth.
India has made considerable progress post the deregulation of its economy and New Zealand has acknowledged it by making India its first destination of NZ-Inc strategy in 2011, thereby targeting the country as its core trading partner as well as a close political ally.
However, this relationship has not taken off on the expected lines given the mutual fondness at people-to-people and political leadership level.
There is something ‘critical’ missing from this relationship, thus preventing it from reaching the ‘ignition point’ for a safe take-off. Unfortunately, many experts are trying to find that ‘critical’ element in the trade that can propel the relationship to the next level.
Our assessment suggests that diaspora, and not trade, would be that critical element that has the potential to transform this relationship to the next level.
To be sure trade would definitely follow and at a level expected from a trading state like New Zealand. But diaspora will have to be utilised more effectively to bring that change.
This is not to suggest that there is no recognition at the political level about the possible role the Indian diaspora in New Zealand can play in transforming this bilateral relationship.
Prime Minister John Key, in an exclusive interview with the Indian Weekender, acknowledged the significance of this strong element in New Zealand and its role in facilitating the political and economic links between the two countries.
"It is a big opportunity for us to advance this relationship by using the Indian diaspora that lives here in New Zealand," said Key.
Despite this recognition, it is argued here that the Indian diaspora is an underutilised resource in the NZ-India bilateral relationship.
A clear example—and a well-argued case by the Indian Weekender in the recent past—is New Zealand’s non-matching pace with other English speaking countries of the global west like Australia, Canada, and the US, in appointing Indian-origin diplomats as the head of their respective missions in India.
For the uninitiated, there is already an emergent trend of Indian-origin western diplomat as the head of mission in New Delhi. Recently, Australia became the third western country after the United States and Canada to send an Indian origin diplomat to represent their respective governments in New Delhi. But where is New Zealand?
Diasporas, when used effectively, have the capability to make an effective ideational impact on the decision makers, which goes a long way in altering the ‘perceptions’ that hold back the significant political and economic relationships from forming.
In NZ-India relationship, "perceptions" are a big factor that is holding back the relationship.
Case in point, India perceives NZ as a small business opportunity for its own businesses to risk opening its highly protected agricultural sector. New Zealand on the other hand "perceives" India to be too arrogant and busy in its own bustling universe to pay enough attention to what the country has to offer.
Unfortunately, such perceptions are coagulated at the bureaucratic and track-two level diplomacies in both the countries.
Let it be clear, this statement is not to undermine individual efforts of lead trade negotiators and senior bureaucrats on both sides who invest significant emotional energy to advance this relationship.
It is just to reiterate an important characteristic of the institution of the bureaucracy itself, which, by default, becomes trussed with overlapping layers of ‘perceptions’, thus affecting the possible growth in any bilateral relationship.
Devesh Kapur, the director of Centre for Advanced Studies of India and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania—a renowned scholar on the role of Indian diaspora in transforming Indo-US relations, argues that, "any diaspora’s ideational impact depends on its size, socio-economic characteristics, and its access to points in the power structure in the country of origin".
The role of the Indian diaspora—in transforming the US attitudes towards India's nuclear ambitions, its non-proliferation track record and eventually in effectuating the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005—is widely recognised in international politics.
Similarly, Harold Isaacs, noted American journalist and political scientist, had commented that perceptions are particularly important in any foreign policy relationship where there is little shared history, and "neither high politics nor high emotion."