Sunday, July 19, 2015

Be indifferent, pay huge cost

Pankaj Sharma

19 July 2015, New Delhi

Times to come will not allow any political party to appear indifferent toward the Indian diaspora.

I am travelling to some European countries these days which have large presence of Indian community. Meeting the people from different sections of Indian Diaspora is an entirely new experience for me this time. I found no dinner table where I did not witness tremendous enthusiasm among the members of Indian community for getting soon the right to vote in future elections held in India.

Indian Diaspora has a strong presence of more than two and a half crore people across the world and around half of them, that is approximately 1.25 crore, will be able to vote in Indian elections once the law is passed. Government of India has already accepted the suggestion of the Election Commission in this regard and a bill to enact the law can be introduced in the parliament anytime.

The voting right to more than one crore Non-resident Indians might otherwise look like a minor factor in comparison of the fact that more than 81 crore people were entitled to vote in last year’s Parliamentary election. But the way NRI’s political mindset has changed in last few years, the secular parties, especially the Congress party, have reasons to get worried and need to reshape their strategies for overseas Indians. Last general election had seen thousands of NRIs coming to their homes for campaigning for a political party of their choice and it is not a hidden fact that vast majority of them was supporting Bhartiya Janta Party. En-block tilt of around 1.25 crore voters in favour of any specific party is capable of changing the basic dynamics of any Parliamentary election in days to come. Hence, no surprise if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is so keen to give voting rights to NRIs, a step which in any case must be welcomed by everybody.

There was a time when the Congress party used to actively make efforts to interact with Indians living abroad. I remember how Rajiv Gandhi tried to create and revive the units of Indian Overseas Congress. But that is a history now. BJP has left Congress behind and has attracted quite a large chunk of NRIs. For at least two decades now, the BJP and the outfits of Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh have worked very actively among Indians in different countries. RSS headquarters has different desks for various geographies of the world on the lines similar to Ministry of External Affairs and selected RSS Pracharks are sent to different countries to work among Indian community. RSS recently had a silent reshuffle of these postings. “Overseas Friends of BJP” have strong organisational setups in all the countries which have large presence of Indian Diaspora. RSS efforts have yielded political results for BJP and NRIs have helped fund the RSS and its affiliates such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Now, let me take you 93 years back. It was the year 1922. Mahatma Gandhi made a special request to depute somebody from the Congress party to United States of America and Canada to meet Indians living there. Gandhi felt that this exercise should be of permanent nature. Narayan Subbarao Hardikar, who founded Congress Sewa Dal a year later in 1923, was deputed to travel to USA and Canada. After coming back from these countries Hardikar prepared a report and made five recommendations. One, India must create and control public opinion in foreign countries at her own expense in order to safeguard the interest of her sons and daughters and to let the world know of India’s Ideals; two, the propaganda work should be in the hands of overseas Indians working under the direct supervision of the Indian National Congress; three, the Congress should supply authentic social and political news every week for dissemination overseas; four, Indians in foreign lands should help Congress leaders when they travel abroad on political work; and five, some of our first class students overseas should be specially trained for publicity work. Ironically, the BJP’s work among their “Overseas Friends” has followed precisely the five steps outlined for the Congress by N.S. Hardikar.

Mahatma Gandhi was a master of communication and knew how to spread his message wherever it might reach. He knew how important it was to canvass support among the Indian Diaspora during freedom struggle. It was because of Gandhi’s efforts that in the 1930s and 1940s, the Congress cause was promoted by some outstanding NRIs living in the United States—such as Krishnalal Shridharani and Taraknath Das. J. J. Singh, whose India League played a critical role in raising public consciousness about the need for freedom from British colonial rule, is a name that needs special mention in this regard.

Indian economy began to grow rapidly after 1990 and with this NRIs began to look nostalgically back to their motherland. This was the time when Congress should have made efforts in shaping the thought process of overseas Indians, because it was Congress which had taken the long required step for liberalisation. However, it was the BJP, and not the Congress, which reached out to NRIs. I have been travelling to different countries of the world as a journalist for more than three decades now and find a vast change in the psyche of Indians living abroad whether in North America, Europe, Australia, Gulf, or Africa. Not long ago, NRIs used to represent all Indians regardless of religion or ethnicity. But now the “overseas friends” have successfully converted the meaning of “Indians” to “Hindus”. They prefer to support Modi’s BJP politically as well as with their money than pre-Independence Congress which fought for the freedom of India and then worked tirelessly for building a strong foundation for the nation.

Congress must not lack in imagination, energy, and effective leadership in promoting its ideology to the global audience. Times to come will not allow any political party to appear indifferent toward the Indian Diaspora. Congress party, in its manifesto for 2014 general election had vouched that “protecting Indians overseas from exploitation or threats will remain a paramount concern”. Indian Diaspora is an important vehicle for furthering our national interests and enhancing India’s ideological image abroad. Congress and other like-minded political organisations have a responsibility to see that world understands the real meaning of Indian-ness.

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