Next week’s pre-election Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas has been accorded extraordinary priority by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Every Indian embassy and high commission in countries with large numbers of People of Indian Origin (PIOs) has been on an overdrive to boost attendance at the tamasha at Varanasi, to which Modi will vigorously lend his presence.
The tens of thousands at Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Dubai have probably worried the BJP. Thus, more the reason for Modi to reach out.
The history of the majority of Indian emigrants since independence has been to kick India in the teeth by throwing away their passports at the first opportunity. Indeed, they pride themselves at being of a superior status compared to their brethren in India by doing so.
It is such people that the Government of India, especially the two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stewarded administrations, have been pandering to, climaxing in a now annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister.
Persons of Indian origin (PIOs) have for decades wanted to have their cake and eat it too; and the Indian government have increasingly obliged. This has now reached a stage where under the Narendra Modi dispensation Indian taxpayers’ money and government resources are being squandered considerably for the benefit of the BJP.
The rumblings of discontent among the foreigners of Indian descent, perhaps arising out of a belated sense of guilt, intensified in the 1990s, when PIOs in the United States began lobbying the Indian embassy in Washington for rights equivalent to “green card” holders in America to enable them to regain the economic status they forfeited by virtue of abandoning their Indian passports. In a climate of India needing foreign investment, Siddhartha Ray, then the Indian ambassador in the US, proposed an “orange card”. This did not quite materialise; but what manifested as a first step of accommodation was a PIO card, which has since evolved into an OCI card.
Following the December 1984 general election, when the BJP was reduced to two seats in the Lok Sabha, not even businessmen in India, hitherto sympathetic, were willing to entertain it. This is when pracharaks of the Rashtriya Swayansewak Sangh (RSS) embarked on reconnecting with East African Hindus, who, because of persecution in Uganda in particular, had sought refuge in the US and Britain. They had historically been easy meat for the RSS. Therefore, it was a shrewd gambit; and it paid off. In effect, the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) took off.
On matters crucial to India, whether it is Kashmir or Khalistan, the PIOs are mostly unmotivated. Families who have lived outside India for generations have understandably little in common with the country their forefathers forsook
Among those who fanned out to preach and instil the doctrine of Hindus being under threat in India and in need of protection was Modi. He was despatched to the US. The likes of him tugged at heartstrings of the unsuspecting, who in turn became generous donors to the BJP.
With the BJP coming to power in 1998, the outreach redoubled and became a part of government expenditure. In 2001, Vajpayee appallingly appointed an ambassador-at-large for NRI affairs in the US, a man closely associated with the RSS and OFBJP called Bhishma Agnihotri, thereby undermining the authority of the Indian ambassador. The adventure was soon terminated, as the US state department refused to grant him recognition.
Indian voters ousted the BJP from office in 2004. But feelings towards it in no way diminished among the faithful abroad. On the contrary, when Modi was being pilloried after the 2002 Gujarat riots, Americans of Gujarati extraction leapt to his rescue. They helped to rebuild his image by projecting him as a man who had performed a miracle in Gujarat and would wave a magic wand over the rest of India.
In the past 35 years, transfer of funds to the BJP – in the past decade primarily towards Modi - has run into billions of dollars. The cash flow in what is shaping into a desperate battle to save Modi in the next general election is likely to persist, over and above the under-writing by Hindu big business in India.
Sushma Swaraj has spent much of her time as external affairs minister playing agony aunt over Twitter to people overseas with Indian sounding names, some of whom turned out to be foreign nationals. Staff at Indian diplomatic missions have been activated after office hours or weekends, only to be sent on a wild goose chase. Why? Because PIOs are such a backbone of support to the BJP.
Presently, engagement with pro-Modi Indian extraction elements is central to India’s foreign policy. People considered to be close to him – who could well be foreign nationals – are indiscriminately extended disproportionate access at chanceries and even dictate the agenda to heads of mission. Indian nationals or NRIs, unless enthusiastic about Modi, are rendered short shrift.
On matters crucial to India, whether it is Kashmir or Khalistan, the PIOs are mostly unmotivated. Families who have lived outside India for generations have understandably little in common with the country their forefathers forsook. Their bond is generally with Hinduism; and consequently proximity to the BJP and Modi. Indeed, many are currently busy recasting themselves as British Hindus or American Hindus rather than persevering with their Indian identity.