There is a 10 Million strong constituency of untapped Indian voters – roughly half the population of Delhi – that political parties have been scrambling to attract ahead of India’s national elections. The group has no regional base, no particular vested interest, but in some areas, the parties hope, it could influence the outcome of what many still expect to be a close contest. Non-resident Indians, living in all corners of the globe from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, can for the first time return home to vote in the general elections – the results of which will be known on May 16. And with an influence disproportionate to its size – the diaspora makes up just over 1 percent of the 800+ Million eligible voters in the country – everybody from the current favourite BJP to the fledgling Aam Aadmi party is vying for overseas support.
Let us take Dubai, which is a focus of this issue. The bulk of the NRIs in Dubai are breadwinners for their families back home, so to a large extent they’re in a position to influence the voting pattern back at home even if they don’t personally go across. Another aspect of this is that there is a very large younger segment of NRIs that is likely to play a key role in influencing voting.
Winning over the diaspora has become especially important for Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, whose international image has been in the past marred by riots that broke out in Gujarat soon after he took over as chief minister more than 12 years ago. This is the first general election where the roughly 10 Million non-resident Indians who have retained Indian citizenship will be allowed to vote. As few as 12,000 are expected to exercise their franchise given that they must return to India to cast their ballot, but the diaspora remains quite crucial to the country’s leading political campaigns. “Many more NRIs have come back to India and are helping Mr Modi’s campaign,” says an eminent statistician and election analyst. “There is a huge professional team working behind the scenes here.”
Cross-party courtship of the diaspora is a reflection of the critical role that overseas Indians play in Asia’s third-largest economy. When the rupee plunged during a financial crisis that swept emerging markets in 2013, RBI – India’s central bank, made it easier for overseas nationals to invest, a move that attracted US$ 34 Billion in what was in effect a bailout by the nation’s high-income diaspora. Even when there is no crisis, Indians living abroad tend to send vast sums of money home, making India the world’s largest recipient of global remittances with inflows of US$ 70 Billion in 2012, according to the World Bank.
Narendra Modi, supported by independent groups overseas such as the Overseas Friends of the BJP in the US, also benefits from the powerful diaspora from his home state of Gujarat, which has seen marked economic development under his leadership. “For Modi the overseas Gujaratis who are clearly wealthy, are a way to acquire a degree of legitimacy,” says Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, explaining that this powerful community has been lobbying to improve Modi’s reputation in the US. “Remember that it’s the Gujaratis in the US, the UK, and in the powerful countries that matter.”
Overseas support for the AAP – formed just one year ago on an anti-corruption platform – has been boosted by the scandals that have damaged the ruling Congress party. “Because they [NRIs] have lived in foreign countries with a different attitude, with a different style of government, they have started comparing the governments and their performance in their host countries to the government back home,” explains Srujal Parikh, vice-president, executive committee, at the Federation of Indian Associations. “They want India to grow up, they want India to prosper.” Thousands of overseas supporters are involved in the current general elections, with 30 country teams. And, according to Girish Mailar, the AAP point of contact in New Zealand, many of these teams are taking responsibility for specific candidates in the elections, looking after everything from raising funds to campaign strategy. Using the party database, these Indians are reaching out to people back home at the ward level and sending candidates detailed analysis on sentiment among the electorate. For an upstart party without an existing network for fundraising, financial contributions from NRIs have been one of the main sources of funding, with more than 30 percent of the INR 286.67 Million (US$ 4.75 Million) total raised, coming from Indian citizens abroad. “We’re like a start-up company with no funds so anything we can scrounge is of tremendous value,” says Pran Kurup, who is based in Silicon Valley and works on technology and media for the AAP. “If NRIs are more amenable to contributing then that’s what the party needs.”
Modern technology also mean that this large diaspora is now better connected than ever before. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t read an Indian newspaper every day,” says Suman Babbar, a former senior adviser at the World Bank who lives in the US. “Now I read, I get tweets, I get messages 10 times a day about what’s going on.” Whether change will come about in the political dispensation is a moot point, however, modern technology like ICTs does have the potential to surely bring the diaspora closer to the home country, as the current scenario denotes.