No Longer a Mere Ethnic Celebration, Diwali Exudes Soft Power

Diwali celebrations at Times Square New York

By Manik Mehta

NEW YORK: What was once considered a mere ethnic affair celebrated by the Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian and other Asian diasporas scattered around the globe, Diwali is today weighted as a festival wielding soft power but also has merits to “stand on its own legs”.

U.S. politicians, enchanted by the colourful culture of the Diwali festival, celebrated in autumn,  have also recognized the vote-catching and fund-raising attributes of Diwali, and are making it a point to be seen at Diwali ceremonies and rubbing shoulders with those organizing the event

“As the powerful Indian diaspora grows in size and wields a heavy financial clout, more and more U.S. politicians will be inclined to participate in the Diwali festivities, some even playing an active role in organizing the festivities,” says Dr. Shyam Batheja, a political analyst based in New York. Courting the Indian diaspora has become a common feature of political life, with both Republicans and Democrats joining in this courtship. The motives behind such endeavours may be to garner votes or lobby for money or simply a love of Indian culture and traditions. Diwali is another arrow in India’s soft-power quiver, along with yoga, Bollywood, cuisine and family values.

US Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney

Indeed, a U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) recently announced, at a Diwali-related press conference in Washington DC, that she proposed a piece of legislation to designate Diwali a federal holiday. “I am joined by members of the India Caucus as well as New York and national advocates to introduce this legislation which would make Diwali a federal holiday,” she said.

Maloney’s bid to get Diwali designated as a federal holiday – the proposed legislation has to pass through Congress before becoming law – was in keeping with her pledge some five years ago, when she had succeeded in getting a special Diwali postage stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service to celebrate the onset of the Diwali season in the U.S. The Diwali postage stamp had been passionately lobbied by Ranju Batra, a New York based Indian-origin woman.

The Festival of Lights, as Diwali is epitomized, is celebrated for several days, mainly, among the Indian diaspora but also increasingly joined by Malaysian, Nepalese, Singaporean, Tibetan, Indonesian, Guyanese, etc.  People of Indian origin from various countries, now living in the United States, mingle with each other at the proliferating Diwali street festivals, which also attract crowds from the mainstream American population drawn to the bazar-like stands displaying colourful clothes, gift items, sweets, DVDs of Bollywood films, etc. and the fragrance of Indian and South Asian food offered at such festivities.

Maloney received strong support from some of her colleagues in Congress. Prominent Congressman Gregory Meeks, (D-NY), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was also present at Maloney’s press conference, praised Maloney’s proposal.

Some days earlier, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, had attended a Diwali celebration in Corona, New York, where she lit the traditional Diwali lamp and had been joined by Maloney, State Senator John Liu, India’s consul general in New York, Randhir Jaiswal and other political luminaries.

At a White House President Joe Biden, together with First Lady Jill Biden, lit the ‘diya’ (lamp) on Diwali while Vice President Kamala Harris relayed a Diwali video message.

“May the light of Diwali remind us that from darkness, there is knowledge, wisdom, and truth. From division, unity. From despair, hope,” Biden wrote in a Twitter post that also showed him and his wife lighting the ceremonial lamps at the White House.

Being of Indian origin herself and having celebrated Diwali even when she was not in politics, Vice-President Harris’s video message, an excerpt of which read: “Greetings everyone. I want to extend my warmest wishes … to everyone celebrating the festival of lights here in the United States and around the world.”

Diwali festivities were held in many cities across the United States by Indian and other business and cultural associations that are mushrooming in the country.  There were Diwali bazars, shows and festivities organized at important venues in all the big cities of the U.S.  The World Trade Center, the iconic Times Square and other major landmarks in New York presented a colourful and brightly lit countenance, as crowds of Americans, Asians and visiting foreign tourists poured in to witness the singing and dancing by young Indians born and raised in the U.S.

Celebrating Diwali at Times Square has become an annual tradition which was started by Neeta Bhasin, president of New York based ASB Communications, a multicultural marketing and event-management company. Bhasin said that “we are here to uplift the spirit of the people” after the disruptions caused by the pandemic

While Diwali is undoubtedly a manifestation of India’s global soft power, though many American fans and followers recognize that Diwali has its own merit and can “stand on its own legs”, as one female American told me at the Times Square celebration.

This year’s Diwali, she added, conveyed a strong message of hope and joy amid the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of daily life.