“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.”
– Manmohan Singh (January 8, 2014)
India’s general election, polling for which begins on April 7, is grabbing world attention as it demonstrates once again the strength and soft power of the country’s pluralist democracy and resilience of institutions. What is making this year’s contest more captivating is not just the emergence of new political forces, but the active participation of a set of campaigners, members of the multi-million strong diaspora.
It is not for the first time that the expatriates are taking interest in Indian political affairs. They have been doing that in some way or the other. Just as they send money home to their families (India is the world’s largest recipient of remittances), the non-resident Indians (NRIs) have also been contributing to political campaigns. What is noteworthy this time is the volume of their donations and the sheer number of donors. And more significant is the physical presence of a large number of people from overseas and their active participation in the electoral campaign, which reflect the enormity of interest and magnitude of support for various parties.
For the fledgling Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), the skilled diaspora has been an important source of funding. In the United States, techies of Indian origin have built what they call a “game changer” “Next Generation” technology platform to raise online donations for AAP. In the Silicon Valley, they have helped the AAP with initiatives like Google Hangouts and streaming live news conferences. Some 18,000 Indian Americans have volunteered for AAP’s phone-o-programme to make calls to friends and families in India asking them to vote for its candidates.
Reports from the Gulf say AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s promise of “parivartan” (change) has resonated well with the expatriates with many registering as party members. In Saudi Arabia, enthusiastic expatriates have demanded online voting through biometric cards. According to one report, about 12,000 NRIs have enrolled their names through post for the elections in Kerala alone. And in Australia and New Zealand, groups of supporters have set up stalls at community events to spread the word about the newbie in the Indian political firmament. Others had postponed their winter visits to come to India and join the electioneering.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party, its overseas friends have been quite active for some years now. This time, the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) is more active because of the candidature of Narendra Modi, the corporate-friendly chief minister of Gujarat. According to some NRI organizations, around 10,000 people living in the US, UK and Southeast Asia will be in the country to campaign for Modi till the elections are over.
The OFBJP, which is organizing NaMo tea parties and Modi for PM events in the US and elsewhere, has created two separate team of volunteers — one for social media activity and anther to make phone calls to people in India. The BJP’s “Modi for PM Fund” is said to have attracted huge funding. Amit Tiwari, OFBJP general secretary for UK and Europe, says the mindset of the Indian diaspora this ime is different. “Earlier they would send emails or SMSes to back home. Now they want to be part of direct action.”
The immediate reasons for the massive interest are the rise of the AAP and the emergence of Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial contender. The formation of AAP and the party’s win in Delhi assembly election has shaken the politics in India and is having its reverberation abroad. “Indians living in America understand India’s true potential at a very fundamental level, and it makes them sad to see India not living up to its full potential.The emergence of the AAP as a credible alternative offers us hope,” says AAP-USA leader Pran Kurup. Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US-India Political Action Committee, says the rise of the AAP has been “received very positively given that governance or corruption has been one of the biggest concerns of the Indian American community”.
The Indian diaspora comprises a large community people with origins in Gujarat. Sources in the OFBJP say many of these expatriates in the US, UK and East Africa are driven by the buzz around Modi’s probable victory at the hustings.
Then there is the interest in the policies the new government would make regarding foreign investment, taxes and visa regulation.
But there are other important factors that have contributed the heightened diaspora interest in the affairs of India. Unlike in the past, new communication technologies have improved abilities of people to get in touch with the parent country and facilitated two-way communication.
Also, the composition and character of the diaspora have changed significantly over the years. Today, there are more high skilled people and their achievements in diverse fields have given them a very significant global profile. Many have become highly successful entrepreneurs. And since the 1990s, the Indian government has been trying to court them as “strategic assets” as the community has been contributing to India’s development and “interprets India for the world and helps advance its interests abroad. “
The diaspora’s engagement with India has grown multifaceted as the country is changing, as the prime minister says, “in a significant way, not always evident to those who do not see the big picture”. Its economy has gained depth and scale. The Indian industry has developed a global orientation. The industry’s dynamism and the country’s success in technology have given the world a new look of India and the desire to engage with it.
At the same time, India is engaged as never before with the geopolitical dynamics of the world outside. The diaspora sees immense benefits from the standing of India in the international arena.
(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)