With the conclusion of the grand finale of world’s largest democratic fete, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it brought to the fore the dichotomous nature of the political debates we have in India. With the ruling party and their likes try to capitalise on narrations of majoritarian muscular nationalism pointing fingers to our neighbour Pakistan and questions of faith as we have seen in Sabarimala row; the opposition and its (not-so) allies countering them by raising concerns on jobs and secularism. Of the millions of people who have cast their votes, many are non-resident Indians (NRI) who flew down from where they live and work. Majority of these enthusiastic NRI voters were from the Gulf countries who have charted flights and smartly planned their vacations alongside the election dates. Despite NRIs being at the forefront of funding and campaigning from overseas, the issues which they face in their adopted lands were never featured majorly in our political discourses and the larger narratives of state, even during elections. Concerns about the inadequacies of pension schemes, regulating airfares during vacation time, easing the technicalities and inconveniences in the repatriation of the mortal remains of Indians dying abroad at a reasonable expense or rehabilitation programs and employment on return were all taken lightly despite years of community lobbying. It is in this context that Congress, India's grand old party, in its Election Manifesto said it “promises to re-establish the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) and promote an NRI Invest Scheme to offer more opportunities and options to NRIs to invest in India.” This has particularly given us an afresh reason to return to the diaspora question we have been trying to engage in for decades now.
The pre-independence Gandhian approach of considering Indians emigrated to the Crown Colonies as part of ‘India’ as well as appealing to them to identify with the national movement was way contrasting from the Nehruvian stance that “expatriate Indians being forfeited their Indian citizenship and identity by moving abroad did not need the support of India.” This policy exclusion continued to be the dominant approach until the 1990s, except when the briefly-ruled Janata government introduced new entry laws post-1977 election. A major paradigm shift took place, in the late 1990s, with the introduction of the Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card thus acknowledging the potential of diaspora as a prospective resource in a globalised economy and later as cultural ambassadors as well. The notion of de-territorialised cultural citizenship has entered our political jargon imagining India as a country of not just its residents but non-resident Indians too. This was a deserving but late acknowledgment of their allegiance, loyalty and contribution to the development of this country.
Establishment of the MOIA as a separate ‘services’ ministry during the Congress-led UPA I government in May 2004 was the culmination of this strategic shift. Since then, we have seen several initiatives directed under its aegis not only to connect with the global Indian diaspora but also to deal with the NRI welfare matters, most noticeably, the signing of several of labour and social security agreements with foreign countries. A range of schemes was implemented and awareness programmes, conferences and seminars were organised. We have also seen how effective the Ministry was in dealing with the situation of Indian nationals abducted in Iraq and their safe return to our country. Hence, when the Central government decided to merge MOIA with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in January 2016, it came as a surprise to many. Though mainstreaming diaspora engagement was highlighted as one of the priorities of ‘Modi’fied foreign policy, the merger raised eyebrows as it was perceived as a partisan political decision diluting the commitment to diaspora welfare. Consequently, the wordings of 2019 BJP Manifesto regarding its diaspora policy are quite vague that, “we will create an institutional mechanism to deepen the relationship of culture and heritage with people of Indian origin and to regularly engage with them”. Launching a ‘Bharat Gaurav’ campaign and strengthening the MADAD portal services are a really meagre commitment to our diaspora. This sounds more like a verbal irony with no commitment to concrete actions. This is owing to the fact that at the policy implementation level, the merger certainly had a disruptive impact. Instead of a merger, a better approach would have been strengthening the institutional mechanisms of the MOIA to continue with the already implemented as well as avant-garde policies and programmes. A minor bit of duplication is expected in the functions of the two ministries – MOIA and MEA, and it is not dependence or duplication per se but cooperative governance for effective delivery of services to the stakeholders.
Likewise, the efficiency in addressing diverse NRI issues will only enhance with a dedicated ministry when considering the phenomenal number of Indian emigrants and the diversity of the countries they have migrated to work and settle down. The current focus of the government on diaspora business and investment as well as one-size-fits-all approach of tying up their welfare indiscriminately with initiatives such as Digital India, Make in India, innovation and entrepreneurship, soft-power-yoga, and the Bollywood-Hollywood cultural connect will exclude the majority of the blue-collar unskilled labourers, especially in the ECR countries. The myriad issues affecting emigrants - harassment or desertion of Indian women by their overseas spouses, fraudulent marriages by NRIs, registered and unregistered recruiting agents, problem of salary for blue-collar workers, increasing instances of suicides, the case of domestic workers or the question of rehabilitation of returnees from abroad – justifies further strongly the indispensability of a full-fledged ministry. Relegating MOIA to just a subsidiary department of the MEA has certainly pushed such socio-psychological matters to the side-lines since they fall outside the primary foreign policy objectives of conducting political and economic diplomacy with the world. While dealing with situations of conflicts in the emigrated lands can only be conducted with the coordination of the MEA, rehabilitation on return or dealing with the impact of migration on families left behind could most effectively be undertaken by the MOIA. Thus, re-establishing MOIA will significantly enhance a coherent and practical diaspora policy as well as the executive capacity of the government to prioritise diaspora welfare from otherwise competing demands of bilateral and multilateral foreign affairs.
- Prof. Divya Balan- Assistant Professor - International Studies