Delivering the keynote address at the inaugural convention of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin in New Delhi on Jan. 6, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called for “a partnership among all children of Mother India so that our country can emerge as a major global player.” Noting the seminal contributions of the Indian diaspora to the information-technology, biotechnology, agriculture, space and energy sectors in adopted countries, he asked for a similar contribution by them to their mother country.
Vajpayee’s call is a welcome acknowledgment of the role that overseas Indians can play in India’s development and advance. It is also belated, halfhearted and incomplete in its appreciation of the role of nontraditional channels of diplomacy amid the changing contours of world politics.
The business of the world has changed almost beyond recognition over the course of the last 100 years. There are many more actors today, and their patterns of interaction are far more complex. The locus of power and influence is shifting. The international policymaking stage is increasingly congested as private and public nonstate actors jostle alongside national governments in setting and implementing the agenda of the new century. The multitude of new actors adds depth and texture to the increasingly rich tapestry of international civil society.
Political frontiers have become less salient both for international organizations, whose rights and duties can extend beyond borders, and for governments, whose responsibilities within borders can be held to international scrutiny. New actors from civil society — nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, churches — have become progressively more assertive in demanding a voice at all top decision-making tables.
In this new-age diplomacy, countries that have an extensive network of overseas expatriates have a built-in advantage over others. An expatriate community located in powerful countries gives an extra lever of influence that is there for exploiting.
This is especially true of China and India, which have sizable overseas communities. The number of Indian-Americans (not to be confused with American Indians) is estimated at 1.5 million. Concentrated in the professional, knowledge-intensive occupational groupings, they are exceptionally affluent among “hyphenated” Americans.
Their influence has been especially marked in information technology, the sector that is widely acknowledged as having given the U.S. the edge over the rest of the world in recent years. The rise of India as an IT powerhouse in the developing world has also drawn wide comment. Germany and Japan are but the latest countries interested in trying to tap into the vast reserve of IT labor in India.
Expatriate Indians, along with Asian Americans in general, are starting to exert themselves politically. Their role has been especially pronounced in U.S. Congressional politics. Over 100 lawmakers are now said to be members of the India Caucus in the U.S. Congress. In Canada they have risen to be provincial premiers and Cabinet ministers in the federal government.
Some 10 years ago, an e-mail message was distributed to all subscribers of a list serving the Indian-American community. It drew their attention to a bill before Congress that would be damaging to India’s national interests. It asked all Indians to rally to the cause of their motherland despite their own individual experiences with the Indian embassy or consulate.
Almost all Indians who at that time would have had cause to interact with an Indian diplomatic mission knew what the authors of the message meant. The situation has improved greatly since then. But even today, in my experience, most Southeast and East Asian ambassadors cultivate and nurture relations with the expatriate community far more actively than their Indian counterparts (although of course, there are honorable exceptions).
Below the ambassadorial ranks, some (but not most) embassy staff treat visa applicants as supplicants for a favor rather than people seeking what is their due. This is a hangover of an old public disservice mentality that needs to be changed rapidly and urgently.
India’s two biggest natural political constituencies are its own people living abroad, and foreigners visiting India. The latter begin with a reservoir of goodwill. The first crack comes with the realization that a visa is needed in advance for a foreigner to travel to India. In this day and age, this is an unnecessary, costly, time-wasting and irksome imposition. The antiterrorist justification does not withstand scrutiny. The revenue lost from those deterred from visiting India must greatly exceed the pitiful sums collected (after the costs of processing the applications and issuing visas).
On top of this, the government has now imposed highly discriminatory entrance fees for many historical monuments. Where Indian citizens have to pay five rupees, for example, we were recently asked to pay $5 each (when the rate of exchange is over 46 rupees to the dollar!). We simply refused. And we will inevitably warn others of this. So India is going to great lengths to alienate a foreign constituency that is most naturally sympathetic to it.
The other complaint that overseas Indians have is about the denial of dual-citizenship rights. The basis for this is so terribly out of date. This is an especially strange policy for India, when multiple identities are part of being a Hindu. When the Indian prime minister asks the Indians in the U.S. to remember their motherland, often the response is: When India needs our help in lobbying Congress or the administration, we are Indians, but in every other respect we are treated as foreigners.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.