Beyond Remittances: The Role Of Diaspora In India’s Politics
The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs estimates that there are around 25 million Indians or persons of Indian origin living overseas. India has the second largest Diaspora in the world. What started as a brain drain has now become a brain gain, not just for India but for the world as a whole
Making a strong pitch for greater connectivity with youth Diaspora, the 12th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was held between 7th and 9th January 2014. The conclave was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the valedictory address was given by President of India Pranab Mukherjee. This year’s theme was “Engaging Diaspora: Connecting across Generations” and it was also the first time that the Youth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was held on the first day of the event. More than a thousand delegates participated in the three-day event which was expected to open up horizons of a strong network of young overseas Indians to contribute to India’s engagement with youth in all sectors. This year’s Pravasi Bharatiya conclave took a new turn, when both national parties, the Congress and the BJP, jostled to get the maximum attention of the NRIs and PIOs, eying the coming general elections. While the PM assured the delegates that good times were around the corner, BJPs prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi took a jibe saying that those good times would come in the next few months—implying that by then BJP would win the general elections and he would be crowned as PM. From being seen as a source of remittances, to industrial investments, philanthropic assistance and now to political engagement, these Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin community have travelled a long distance. The right to be included in the voter list, for which they have to come to India to cast their ballot, has made them an important asset for the political outfits of the country in the upcoming elections.
India has the most diverse and complex migration history in the world. Since the 19th century, Indians have established communities on every continent of the earth, as well as on islands in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. From the indentured labour in the far-flung colonies, to high-skilled professionals in America and low-skilled workers in the Middle East, the flow of Indians has evolved over time. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs estimates that there are around 25 million Indians or persons of Indian origin living overseas. India has the second largest Diaspora in the world. The overseas Indian community estimated at over 25 million is spread across every major region in the world, which is the result of migration over hundreds of years, due to mercantilism, colonialism and globalisation. In the last three decades of the 20th century, the character of migration began to change and a new kind of Diaspora evolved. This Diaspora consisted of high-skilled professionals moving to the western world and semi-skilled contract workers moving to the Gulf, West and South East Asia. The movement of the Diaspora is no longer unidirectional as it was in the past. What started as a brain drain has now become a brain gain, not just for India but the world as a whole. After the Balance of Payments crisis in the last years of decade of 80s, liberalisation policies were introduced in 1990s. Many Non- Resident Indian (NRI) invested in Indian economy considering its huge potential of growth. These investments were attracted after many beneficial schemes for them were started. It helped Indian economy raise foreign currency funds, develop various sectors of industries, quality improvement through competition and in creating new opportunities in India. It also helped the government in diverting its finance towards infrastructure and basic social factors. Thus NRIs have been helpful in growth of Indian economy and development of Indian infrastructure apart from indirectly raising the standards of living of Indians, through remittances. Through all these years, different governments had remained indifferent to the potential of this overseas Diaspora of Indian community. They were considered most the source of foreign currency reserves in form of remittances. Well within the past decade, the government of India has moved from a position of somewhat disapproving indifference towards the worldwide Indian Diaspora to one of actively seeking their involvement in India’s development. It has followed a multi-pronged strategy, pursuing portfolio investment, direct investment, technology transfer and trade links through the Diaspora.
“I FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT OUR TIME HAS COME”
“As India stands at an important juncture of history, I am reminded and inspired by its glorious past. India was also the birthplace of self-governance and democracy, through its village communities. In fact, surajya (good governance) and sushashan (good administration) were concepts extensively explored and developed in Indian traditions of leadership. Unfortunately, however, independent India’s government has not been able to live up to these expectations. Even after decades of Independence, the country has not been able to make the important transition from swarajya (freedom) to surajya (good governance),” said Narendra Modi at Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan in New Delhi.
He further stated: “The last decade in particular has witnessed unprecedented depths of petty politics, self-interest and exploitation overwhelming the exalted principles of inclusive and sustainable nation building. A deteriorating economy, unrelenting stream of scandals and corruption exposés, poor delivery of basic services, policy paralysis, stagnating society and an overall atmosphere of divisive politics have severely hit the people’s perception of, and trust in, the government and its leaders. Morality has been thrown out of governance, with trust being the biggest victim. A government of acts rather than action has paralyzed India’s polity into one of promises over performance. Institutions have been destroyed. A misleading sense of entitlement has further highlighted the missing delivery mechanism. Today, if there is one thing holding back our nation brimming with potential and energy, it is the lack of surajya. This must change. India’s leadership at all levels must rise to the challenge elevating their thoughts and actions to a higher plane of ideals and principles. Surajya and sushashan need to be firmly placed on the agenda! India’s roughly 2.5 crore strong Diaspora is spread in over 100 countries across the world. You have assimilated wherever you have settled. You have engaged constructively with the local communities, taking up responsibilities to play major roles in society. This is a matter of great pride. You thus take India and all that it stands for, to the world.
“Moreover, in spite of being thousands of miles away, you also continue playing a crucial role in nation building back home. Gandhiji had returned to India in 1915. I appeal to each of you to mark the 100th year of this momentous occasion by making 2015 a year when you too give back and contribute to the Mother India. India faces a watershed election in a few months. At this crucial juncture in our nation’s history, you too should not stay back. You must be a part of the revolution taking place. Try and come back to vote at the time of elections. If that is not possible, actively engage with the political process from wherever you are debating and brainstorming on the right path ahead with friends and family back home, as well as the nation at large. This will add to India’s strengths—its development, governance and unity. Friends, India stands at an inflexion point today, poised to play a fundamental role in defining the future of the world—economically, socially, culturally, spiritually as well as politically. I firmly believe that our time has come! It is pertinent that we reach back into our rich traditions, seeking inspiration and learning. And revisit our foundations of knowledge, leadership and governance to seek to build a modern epitome of surajya and sushashan, blending tradition with modernity to create a unique ethos. Our fellow citizens deserve nothing less—our glorious nation deserves nothing less—the entire world itself deserves nothing less!”
In May 1998, the Vajpayee government detonated five underground nuclear bombs in Pokhran, declaring India a nuclear power. The tests were criticised from various quarters and drew economic sanction on India from the US and other western countries. It was at this time that the idea to engage the overseas Indian Diaspora in the development of their home country emerged. A month after the blasts, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Jaswant Singh during a dinner meeting of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) exhorted the NRIs to ”stand up for India at this critical hour”. Even a small ”symbolic” financial contribution, Singh told Indian Americans, would go a long way. The BJP government cashed in on the patriotic fervour among its overseas friends. Shortly after the nuclear tests, the Indian government launched a massive sale of five-year bonds guaranteed by the Reserve Bank of India and available only to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). Named “Resurgent India Bonds”, the proceeds were in part, intended to help offset the impact of the economic sanctions imposed after the nuclear tests. Though “patriotic fervour” was the key theme underlying the sale, the government understood it could not count on patriotism alone. And therefore, it added more benefits to make the bonds attractive: an interest 2 per cent higher in dollar terms than the US bond market, the option of redemption in US dollars or German marks, and exemption from Indian income and wealth taxes. The Indian government launched a massive marketing campaign for the bonds in the US and Europe. The sale was a success: NRIs worldwide purchased bonds worth pound 2.3 billion in just over two weeks, more than 50 per cent of which came from the Middle East and South East Asia and 20 per cent from Europe and North America. Another bond issue named “the India Millennium Deposits” was issued in year 2000, which also raised over pounds 3 billion.
In September 2000, the Indian government tasked a high-level committee on the Indian Diaspora to analyse the location, situation and potential development role of the estimated 25 million Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). The report of the high-level committee on the Indian Diaspora (also called the LM Singhvi Committee) was released in January 2002. The report recommended a “new policy framework for creating a more conducive environment in India to leverage these invaluable human resources”. In accordance with the recommendations made by the LM Committee, government decided that January 9—the day Mahatma Gandhi returned India from South Africa—should be celebrated each year as a day to recognise the contributions of eminent PIOs and NRIs. The first Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan was held in 2003 in conjunction with the first major Indian Diaspora conference, which attracted more than 2000 NRIs and PIOs from 63 countries. The conference was co-sponsored by the Indian government and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI) and was opened by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At the conclusion of the conclave, many reforms and measures were announced by the government. A new division in the Ministry of External Affairs was made, named “NRI and PIO Division” to give more attention to the overseas Indian community. Another agency, “Investment Information Centre” was also opened to give advice on all the options available for investment in the country. This centre is considered the ‘nodal agency’ for the promotion of investment by the NRIs in the country.
“WE ARE HEADING FOR BETTER TIMES AHEAD”
“Many of you have questions about the future of the Indian economy and concerns about social challenges, the shape of our polity and the issues of governance in our country. There is a perception in some quarters outside India that the country is losing its momentum of the past decade. This is also amplified by the political contestations here in India, which are inevitably louder in the election season that is now on the horizon. I wish to assure you that there is no reason to despair about our present or worry about our future. Indeed, as I have said earlier, we are heading for better times ahead and I would urge you to remain engaged in the future of this country with confidence and optimism,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan in New Delhi. He further said: “Regardless of the outcome of the next elections, they will once again demonstrate to the world the strength of our democracy and our institutions, and the enduring nature of these ideals that constitute the bedrock for our nation’s progress and our quest for a life of opportunity, justice and equity for all citizens of our diverse country. India’s economic growth has not only accelerated, it has also become socially more inclusive and regionally more balanced. Inclusive development has always been the guiding principle of our Government and we have pursued it with great vigour and purpose in recent years. This is the result of path-breaking legislation and schemes that have created unprecedented rights to work, food security and right to education. For our government, inclusive development is not merely a moral imperative or a political necessity, but an essential ingredient of sustainable long-term economic growth and social stability.
“One of our key priorities has been to provide open, transparent, accountable and clean government. The Right to Information, the Lokpal legislation, the Government Procurement Bill, changes in the systems for the allocation of natural resources and empowering our law enforcement and audit agencies are some of the steps we have taken in that direction. The task is complicated because we have to overhaul entrenched practices and systems while respecting the federal nature of our polity. Strengthening governance is an ongoing process and we can never say that we have done enough, but I am confident that we are moving in the right direction.
“India is changing rapidly from within at the same time as being called upon to adjust to a rapidly changing world. This is a formidable challenge for a country of our size and our diversity. But it is a challenge we are equal to. In particular, we draw strength from the energy and optimism of India’s youth; from the freedoms that empower our people; from the debate that enriches our thinking; from the sense of unity that only becomes deeper when tested the most; and from the political consensus that underpins our economic policy.
“I have no doubt that we are prepared to assume the international role and responsibilities that the world at large expects from a rising India. I am also confident that the association between India and its over twenty-two million roving ambassadors in the expatriate Indian community will continue to deepen and prosper in the years that lie ahead.”
The focus of the debate on the contribution of the overseas Indian community towards their country of origin has always remained on attracting direct investment, portfolio investment, and other humanitarian or philanthropic assistance, but the recently concluded 12th Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan has changed the scenario. Both the major political parties, BJP and Congress, were seen trying to woo the migrant population for the political gains. While the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promoted his government’s achievements and the schemes started for engaging the overseas population in the development of country, the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi tried to woo the NRIs by asking them to do something for their country of origin, including promotion of Indian tourism. The Gujarat Chief Minister also urged the overseas community to use the social media to connect their next generations to their native land. He also used the opportunity to advertise his candidature for the top job, citing the development projects in his state.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his characteristic diplomatic language highlighted the works done by his government in felicitating the investment opportunities to the overseas community. While both the national parties tried to engage with the Diaspora and lure them into their fold, BJP got the upper edge, when it conducted its own Overseas Friends of BJP conclave ahead of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. The conclave was attended by delegates from 32 countries and the idea behind organising such conclave was to leverage the overseas support base of the party in the election year. Delegates in this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas also seemed to be bowled over by the recent phenomenon- AAP. The trouncing of the three-time Congress government of Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP caught the imagination of the NRIs. The heavy inflow of donations from overseas Indian community to AAP shows the interest this community is having in the political process of this country. Engaging the Diaspora in
politics of the country is a completely new phenomenon and it will have an impact on future policy process of the country.
“NRIS SHOULD BE GIVEN RIGHT TO VOTE”
Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), the organisation rooting for Modi as the next PM, tried to engage with their overseas supporters in a bigger manner this year by organising a convention in New Delhi just ahead of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2014. The idea of the convention was to leverage the huge overseas base in an election year. BJP president Rajnath Singh exuded confidence that India will become a superpower with the help of NRIs. Attending the meeting were delegates from several countries including Australia, the US, Britain, Canada, China, Nepal, Norway, the UAE, Israel, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Italy, Vietnam and Mauritius. “BJP will get a clear majority in this year’s Lok Sabha election,” party president Rajnath Singh asserted. Inaugurating the meeting Rajnath Singh gave credit to overseas Indians for providing economic stability after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. He also advocated that NRIs should be given the right to vote in Indian embassies. He told the NRIs that the UPA government has hurt the country’s credibility in its 10 year rule and BJP is the only party which has a firm commitment and strong leadership. He claimed that the BJP has a target of winning 272-plus seats in the Lok Sabha and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi deserves to be the prime minister of India. He urged American government to have a relook at the Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, as the visa fees have increased and Indian IT engineers are facing problems in going there and finding jobs. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has become a role model for all Indians, claimed BJP leader Vijay Jolly on the occasion. A 10-point OFBJP agenda to connect NRIs & PIOs and to connect their families and friends in India with BJP was released by Mr. Jolly along with OFBJP Co-Convenors Amit Thaker, Dr. Rajni Sarin and Raj K Purohit. The assembled NRIs supported an OFBJP resolution to allow eligible NRIs to vote through postal ballots in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Mr Jolly asserted.
Mr Jolly also urged overseas Indians to make telephone calls and send out 10 e-mails to their relatives and friends in India every day soliciting support for the BJP. He also called upon overseas Indians to make extensive use of modern-day communication and mobilise funds in favour of the BJP. BJP President Rajnath Singh honoured Lord Raj Loomba CBE from United Kingdom for welfare of widows, YP Reddy from Fiji for welfare of Girmitiyas and Mahendra Chaudhary, former Prime Minister of Fiji, for global fight for democracy with citations, shawls and bouquets on the occasion.
Rajnath Singh promised that his party would ease FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) for NRIs if BJP assumes power in 2014. Senior leader of BJP, Jaswant Singh lambasted the UPA government for failed foreign policy while Arun Jaitley blamed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for failure on the economic front.
A video film on the history and progress of BJP titled BJP Ke Badhte Kadam, directed by OFBJP Convenor Vijay Jolly, was screened and a global website of OFBJP (www.ofbjpglobal.org) was also launched by Leader Of Opposition, Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. A collection of Veer Ras Poems CD was released by senior BJP leader M Venkaiah Naidu. A photo exhibition was also exhibited on overseas association of BJP leadership. Printed rubber balloons with BJP election symbol “lotus” and Narendra Modi pictures were waived by the assembled NRIs and PIOs at the programme.
Senior BJP leaders Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Dr. Harsh Vardhan addressed the delegates. LK Advani, Chairman, NDA, and senior BJP leader delivered the valedictory addresses. Narendra Modi has a huge fan following in the overseas community, as it is a known fact that Gujaratis are largest in overseas population, followed by Punjabis. Some experts on Indian Diaspora believe that it is due to this fact that Gujarat Chief Minister has done a lot to engage with the Diaspora world over. The personal effort made by Narendra Modi in engaging with Gujaratis overseas is a big draw. This year’s Pravasi Bhartiya Divas was held on the theme of engagement with the younger generation of the Diaspora. On this front also, Modi seems to have garnered more applause from the NRIs and PIOs, as he used the opportunity to engage with young members of the Diaspora more vehemently. Congress failed to leverage Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to garner NRI and PIO support for the elections, as despite the theme being the engagement with younger members of the Diaspora and its youth icon Rahul Gandhi failed to show up.
Pravasi Bharatiya Divas: A Futile Exercise?
According to some scholars, the organising of Pravasi Bharaiya Divas by the Indian government is a sheer waste of money. In their opinion, Parliament and media should conduct a performance audit on the net gains of the yearly gathering called the “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas” for which considerable tax-payers’ money is spent. While the rich NRIs were feted by the government, the not-so-rich NRIs were left to fend for themselves in the foreign lands. The gulf between the Indian Missions and the Indians in their country of settlement can be gauged by the manner in which they are treated by these consulates, especially in the case of obtaining an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. Whether a three-day extravaganza wash off such deficiency in service is the question asked by the scholars. The Indo-US nuclear deal or any other deals with United States cannot be concluded without the lobbying strength of the Indian community living there. Scholars are of the view that instead of organising such meaningless conclaves, government should improve their services to the Indian community living abroad.
Indian government did not think of recognising the Indian Diaspora’s capability for doing investments in India until the IT boom placed the overseas Indian community as the leading pool of innovative talents in the world. Along with this, Indian business houses and business organisations like FICCI and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) started building up relationships with the overseas Indian community. They started organising cross-border business initiatives, thus becoming the catalyst for global business relationship. It was only then that Indian government woke up to the great potential of the overseas Indian community. With the passing of The Representation of People’s Amendment Act, 2010 voting rights were conferred on overseas Indian passport holders and it paved the way for the political engagement of the Diaspora in Indian political system. Increasing demand for giving the right of postal ballot to this community shows the importance they are being given by the parties in the country. From being the remittance provider to investors in the development of the country, now the overseas Indian community seems all set for their political engagement with their country of origin.
By Nilabh Krishna