Christmas Thought: Why are Indian millionaires renouncing Indian citizenship?

Even as Indians celebrate the success of Indo-American CEOs, we need to reflect why the rich and the well off, the bright and the brilliant Indians are increasingly opting to settle abroad

Satya Nadella, Parag Agrawal and Sundar Pichai
Satya Nadella, Parag Agrawal and Sundar Pichai

Samir Nazareth

The news of Parag Agrawal stepping into the shoes of Jack Dorsey at Twitter was greeted with much chest thumping laced with humour. Puns and memes on ubiquitous sweet shops named ‘Agarwal Sweets’ owned by members of a community known for their business acumen with ‘Agarwal Tweets’ did the rounds of social media.

Messages like ‘Padhega India tabhi toh badhega India’ (only when India is educated will India progress) was changed to ‘Padhega India tabhi toh badhega America’ indicating that it is the American economy which is the ultimate beneficiary of Indian education. A list of Indians heading global software companies was also shared by many with considerable pride.

We have been basking in the ‘reflected glory’ of people of Indian origin doing well abroad for long. So, the fleeting moment of national pride was not surprising. What was however lost was the continuing self-deception of mistaking name and birth with affiliation or affinity to India.

One can argue that in a global world, people are citizens of the world, that citizenship and borders do not matter. After all it did not matter to nationalists that a churner of nationalistic movies – Akshay Kumar, the Bollywood hero-- turned out to be a Canadian citizen.

The fact that Agrawala, an IIT, Mumbai alumnus, is an American citizen should surely not come in the way of celebrating his Indian origin or celebrating the iconic IITs. But the what the occasion demands is an answer to the question why well-to-do and well-educated Indians are increasingly relinquishing their Indian citizenship.

People of Indian origin who own or run conglomerates in Africa – for example Vimal Shah, the billionaire CEO of BIDCO Oil Refineries Limited, the largest manufacturer of edible oil in East and Central Africa—are however not celebrated back in India with similar enthusiasm. This might be due to a colonial hangover.

Another interpretation could well be that Indians are racists and therefore don’t see achievements in Africa to be as defining as in the US or Europe. The other explanation is that the degree of adulation shown by Indians is proportional to the wealth of the company, brand recall and global reach of the company, and possibly their India connect.

The uncharitable view could be that Indians have suddenly been stricken by a Post-Colonial Stress Disorder (PCSD). Though it should normally affect those who have themselves lived under colonial rule, the disorder is being manifested generations later among those who have had no experience of the colonial period.

Still, it is possible that subconsciously Indians mistakenly perceive a person, who is no longer an Indian citizen but helms an American or European company, as someone who has snatched authority back from the ‘white colonial masters’ and is now lording over them. For those with PCSD, an Indian’s promotion to CEO is akin to the takeover of this land by the British and other European powers, reversing the role of the rulers and the ruled.

Those with PCSD extrapolate and magnify individual success into an occasion that crowns the country. Hence every Indian athlete winning a medal or tournament abroad is hailed for having done the country proud. Many Indians consider Mukesh Ambani rising in the ranks of global billionaires as a reflection of the country’s progress, ignoring abysmal global rankings in hunger, sustainable development, freedom of press and democracy?

Knowing somebody in authority, to be followed by him on social media and even a chance meeting or selfie taken at an event is often passed off as proof of familiarity, if not proximity. Such kinship is taken for granted and the person in authority is expected to help the fleeting acquaintance as and when required. The kinship is even stronger if they share the same caste, language or religion. It should therefore come as no surprise if every Bengali takes pride in Amartya Sen and every Agarwal similarly puffs up at the mention of the Twitter CEO.

But if national pride is governed by the potential of powerful people to help the country, then Vimal Shah should be feted constantly. Wouldn’t his position in Africa be of use to the Indian government to aid it in its attempts to blunt China’s growing presence there?

A survey conducted by an investment bank tattled a dirty little secret – between 2014 and 2018 – the year of the report- 23000 Indian millionaires chose to renounce their Indian citizenship.

A recent Global Wealth Migration Review report determined that 7000 High Net Worth Indians left India in 2019. This is besides the lay Indians migrating and opting out of Indian citizenship.

India ranks 139 out of 149 countries in the 2021 Happiness Index. India ranked 111 out of 156 countries in 2013. As per the 2021 report, India’s scores on anger and worry are very high as is the score on lack of social support and perception of corruption.

Could these be the consequences of - the growing manufacture of socio-religious conflict as a socio-political weapon, the use of police and other administrative arms against citizenry, and the calculated decimation of the political system? It is only natural then people choose to relinquish their citizenship. Another reason is those living abroad get acclimatised to a society and system that is far more respectful. Returning to India is therefore not an option.

One winter, Emperor Akbar challenged anyone to stand through the night in the freezing Yamuna. After many failed, one poor man accomplishes the impossible. The wonderstruck emperor asks the poor man how he succeeded. The man truthfully replies that he stared at a lamp glowing on the distant fort’s ramparts and drew warmth from it. Akbar deigns that this amounts to cheating and imprisons the poor fellow. On hearing of this injustice Birbal ties a pot containing rice and water high up on a tree and lights a small fire under it. Akbar passes by this scene and tells Birbal the rice will never cook with such a small fire so far from it – then the penny drops.

One can argue that currently, India is like the poor man drawing succour from a spark on a distant shore. But I would like to believe that India is like emperor Akbar because then there is hope for a Birbal to come and save the day.

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