Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kept his promise to the overseas Indian communities during his visits to the United States and Australia on making it easier for them to travel to India and participate in its national life. In issuing an ordinance this week to merge two separate schemes — Overseas Citizen of India and the Person of Indian Origin — Modi has implemented a decision that was first announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011. With much greater sensitivity to the diaspora and its needs than the Congress leadership, Modi was quick to make Singh’s proposal his own.
If the required constitutional amendment to the Citizenship Act was going to take time, the PM was ready to go the ordinance route. Modi’s enthusiastic engagement of the diaspora is more than a tactical move to please rich and successful Indians abroad. He has repeatedly affirmed the importance of the contributions that overseas Indians could make in the transformation of India.
At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas this week in Gandhinagar, Modi is expected to showcase the possibilities for the diaspora to contribute to various new initiatives of his government — from cleaning the Ganga to modernising India’s infrastructure. This idea, too, is not new. It dates back to the institution of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, following a report by a committee headed by L.M. Singhvi.
Modi’s intensive outreach to the diaspora can’t be explained in such instrumental terms as creating strategic assets abroad for the conduct of Indian foreign policy. That process was also begun during the years of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and developed by his successors. Nor can his interest in the diaspora be parsed in terms of promoting India’s soft power. International interest in India’s culture, arts and philosophy has been steadily growing through the last century, and there is little the Delhi Durbar can add.
Modi’s policy must be seen as the culmination of a recent shift in the way independent India thinks about the diaspora. When India became a territorial republic, it drew a definitive line of separation between itself and the diaspora. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked and answered unambiguously the question about the relationship between New Delhi and the diaspora. He insisted that the large Indian communities that had moved to far corners of the British empire and beyond through the 19th and early 20th centuries, were “not Indian nationals”. The millions of Indians dispersed around the world, in one stroke, became “aliens”. “So far as we are concerned, strictly, legally, constitutionally, it is none of our problem,” he said. Nehru argued that Delhi’s interest in them can, at best, be “cultural and humanitarian, and not political”. Nehru also abolished the Department of Overseas Indian Affairs after Independence.
The reversal of this mental separation began in earnest amidst India’s economic globalisation in the 1990s, when Delhi began to see the utility of reconnecting with the diaspora. Vajpayee injected a new dimension when he called for a “partnership among all children of Mother India so that India can emerge as a major global player”. Modi appears to have internalised Vajpayee’s proposition articulated at the first gathering of the diaspora in 2003: “We do not want only your investment. We also want your ideas,” Vajpayee said. “We do not want your riches; we want the richness of your experience. We can gain from the breadth of vision that your global exposure has given you,” he said.
The merger of the OCI and PIO cards extends the benefits of visa liberalisation to a much larger section of the diaspora. If the OCI card privileged the post-Independence emigrants from India, the new system draws in a large section of those who left the physical shores of India in the century and a half before Independence.
More broadly, Modi’s interest in the diaspora is about recognising India’s possibilities as a “global nation” that is not defined in narrow territorial terms. Delhi, of course, is not yet ready to give dual citizenship of the kind that some countries do. But short of political rights for the diaspora, Modi has begun to offer much.
Speaking at the Madison Square Garden in September 2014, Modi compared the universal character of America and India. Much in the manner that people from all over the world made America, Modi said, Indians have travelled far and wide and contributed immensely to the development of many countries.
Modi’s openness to the diaspora should, hopefully, crack open India’s generally unwelcoming attitude to “foreigners” that has congealed over the last many decades of inward orientation. While the Modi government’s policy of visa on arrival for citizens of many countries is a small step forward, Delhi is a long way from bringing its visa policies in line with an economy that today is so deeply interconnected with the rest of the world. Obtaining short-term visas for conferences and long-term visas for work and study in India remains extremely difficult. A global India needs more efficient ways of balancing the imperatives of security and openness than the strategy of setting up barriers to outsiders.
If the republic at its founding overly differentiated between those physically present in geographic India and outside it, the Partition of the subcontinent created new boundaries, as well as multiple citizenships. Modi’s new liberalism towards the diaspora needs to be complemented by the vision for a freer movement of people and goods, as well as capital and labour, across borders within the subcontinent. A global India must necessarily be a regional India.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’