What do others think of Tamil Nadu

The Indian diaspora has an influence even without voter turnout

Indians abroad have an influence on the economy, politics, culture and society in their country of origin. All major parties enjoy some support in the diaspora.

Protesting farmers shaped the winter in India. Farmers from the Punjab, where many Sikhs live, were prominently represented. Tens of thousands gathered on the outskirts of Delhi, where they were subjected to police violence and bad weather. They campaigned against the national government's agrarian reform plans because they feared the dismantling of subsidies. The government wanted to strengthen market forces.

The situation was tense, but support came from prominent Indian expatriates. Many have relatives in India who tend to be dependent on agriculture. Sikhs were again particularly well represented. For example, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who sits in the House of Commons for the Labor Party, tweeted: "I stand by the farmers from Punjab and other parts of India, relatives and friends who are peacefully protesting against the looming liberalization of the agricultural markets."

Another prominent supporter was Canada's Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, also a Sikh. A tweet from him read: "Reports of police violence against peaceful protesters in India are very worrying." Even Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented. He said his government had communicated "our concerns through multiple channels" to Indian counterparts.

Indeed, Sikhs are a major interest group in Canadian politics. It consists of 18 of the 338 members of parliament. As a result, all of the major Canadian parties have commented on the controversial reform plans in India.

In January the Supreme Court stopped the reform plans. The government and farmers' associations are now negotiating a way out of the crisis. However, the situation remains tense, and at the end of January even the famous Red Fort in the capital was stormed as part of a demonstration.

However, it became clear once again that the diaspora has weight in Indian politics. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi naturally rejects foreign influence on internal affairs. However, everything that drives Sikhs in India will also become an issue for Sikhs abroad.

Basically, the entire Indian diaspora has an influence on the home country. The right-wing populist Modi therefore does not like the fact that foreign Indians hold important positions in the new center-left government of US President Joe Biden - above all Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother came from Tamil Nadu in southern India. Many Indians are proud of such careers, which is why leaders like Harris are important role models.

However, all major Indian parties enjoy some support in the diaspora. This also applies to Modi's Hindu chauvinist BJP. All politicians want something like this to be known domestically. Politically, Modi was close to Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, for whom prominent foreign Indians also worked. The best known was UN Ambassador Nimrata Nikki Haley, who resigned at the end of 2018. Modi himself has supporters in the Indian diaspora, and during his visit to Texas in 2019 tens of thousands of so-called NRIs (non-resident Indians) celebrated him and Trump at a rally entitled “Howdy Modi”.


31 million people

India is one of the two Asian population giants. According to UN data (International Migrant Stock of 2019), 17.5 million citizens live abroad, with the number rising by ten percent from 15.9 million in 2015. Indians make up 6.4 percent of the world's international migrants, more than any other country. They are the largest group among the highly skilled immigrants in OECD countries. On the other hand, many unskilled Indian migrants also work in the oil-rich Gulf states. The Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that in 2019 the total number of NRIs as well as descendants of Indian migrants with other nationalities was 31 million.

In the past decades, India was one of the countries that received the most transfers from home (see also Dilip Ratha on page 32 of this e-paper). In 2019 they amounted to around three percent of the national economic output. However, experts expected a decline in the total of around nine percent to $ 76 billion in 2020 because of Covid-19.

The influence of the diaspora is not based solely on money, however. For example, India's information and communication technology companies benefit from the networks that connect them to Silicon Valley and other centers of technological development. This applies accordingly to all high-tech industries.

In the long term, emigrants who are successful abroad shape the attitudes of people who stay at home. This applies to gender roles, among other things. Bollywood films regularly take up diaspora themes, and sometimes they are even set abroad.

The way NRIs are viewed is ambivalent, says French journalist Ingrid Therwath, who wrote her doctoral thesis on politics and the Indian diaspora. On the one hand, NRIs stand for the modern capitalist consumer society, but on the other hand they also represent patriarchal Hindu traditions. Some observers saw them as "instruments of Western influence in India", while others see them instead as recognized representatives of "India's international importance".

In many cases, successful migrants prove the importance of formal education. This is especially true when members of lower castes move up abroad. On the other hand, high caste members in California are known to have practiced caste discrimination in the United States as employees of large software companies. This shows that diaspora communities have an influence on both their destination and their country of origin.


Indian elections

So far, the role of the NRIs in Indian elections has remained marginal. Anyone who has retained Indian citizenship can participate, but must visit a polling station in India and be registered there accordingly. As a result, only 25,000 NRIs voted in the 2019 general election. On the other hand, many intervened in the election campaign in other ways - with donations, strategic advice, technical and other support.

The Indian electoral authority recently proposed to allow the NRIs to vote by mail. This can already be done on a test basis in state elections this year. NRIs would then be able to vote by mail in the states of Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal.

There is now a heated debate as to which parties could benefit from it. Some political scientists see the Congress party at an advantage. Others disagree, because Modi's BJP worked intensively on the diaspora. The left front, which is currently the state government of Kerala, could also get many NRI votes. She has done a lot for migrant interests in state politics. Kerala is unusual in several ways. It has large Muslim and Christian populations, and the number of migrant workers moving from there to the Gulf States is particularly large.

It remains to be seen whether NRIs will play a greater role in Indian elections in the future. But it is already clear that they are important for the development of the nation even without voter turnout.


Roli Mahajan lives as a freelance journalist in Lucknow, India.
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