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How the NRI voter could swing Indian politics

With the Election Commission’s plans to give NRIs the right to vote by postal ballot, the diaspora’s dream of being part of the electoral process may finally come true. Lounge looks at what it could mean for Indian politics

The crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 2014, waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Getty Images)
The crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 2014, waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nayanika Barat, 45, grew up in Kolkata and Jabalpur. She has been working as a doctor in Australia for nearly 20 years, and engages with the politics of both countries. “There is not a great deal of difference between labour and liberals in Australia on a number of issues—they are both right of centre and it has allowed me to see that if you go too far to the right it can end up being cruel and meaningless,” says Barat. In India, she supports the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), assuming the latter is “carried out honestly”.

“A large part of my family is East Bengali—the question of why it is based on religion can be answered by saying that the partitions of East and West Bengal in both 1905 and 1971 (and 1947) were based on religion,” she says. “If we have accepted partition not once but twice in Bengal, we have to accept that all of this is on the basis of religion. There is no reason that we should give everyone accelerated citizenship.”

Barat, who identifies as a centrist or a Social Democrat, is part of the largest diaspora in the world. In fact, the number of Indian-origin residents globally has increased by 10%, from 15.9 million in 2015 to 17.5 million, according to the UN’s International Migrant Stock report, released in September 2019. The Indian diaspora makes up 6.4% of the total global migrant population. This is a diaspora created by waves of migration over centuries, and not all remain citizens of India, though their links to the country may be strong.

Unlike the majority of those who have been away from India for decades, however, Barat has not applied for, or acquired, an Australian passport. “People have yelled at me, and said why don’t you change your passport. But at the moment it’s a connection (with India) that I don’t want to cut,” she says. This has meant Barat has not been able to cast her vote anywhere for a decade. Flying back to Jabalpur, where she is registered to vote, is expensive, and she does not have voting rights in Queenstown, where she now lives.

This is among the reasons why she is excited by the Election Commission of India’s (EC’s) November proposal to permit NRIs, or non-resident Indians, to cast their votes through postal ballots.

Last year, in a letter to the Union law ministry, the EC said it is “technically and administratively ready” to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to eligible voters in time for the Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry assembly elections, all due this year. The commission is expected to have broad-based consultations with the ministry of external affairs (MEA) on the way forward.

In the century following 1834, nearly 40 million people emigrated overseas from India to work on the plantations of Mauritius in the colonial era. There was a second surge in emigration in the 1970s. According to a 2018 report by the MEA, the total number of overseas Indians stands at 32,100,340 (over 32 million), of which NRIs, or those who retain Indian citizenship, constitute 13,459,195 (over 13 million). The rest are persons of Indian origin (PIOs).

Of these, The Indian Express reported last year that approximately six million Indians living abroad could be of eligible voting age. “They could hold considerable sway in election results, especially in states such as Punjab, Gujarat and Kerala, where a number of expats hail from,” it noted.

When news of the EC’s proposal first broke, it was suspected that NRIs in Gulf countries would be excluded from the proposal. A large number of them are from Kerala. It was a peculiar exclusion, given the stake and investment of Indians living in Gulf nations—where naturalisation is limited. The EC eventually clarified that it did not intend to exclude this population.

As Chinmay Tumbe, an economics faculty member at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and the author of India Moving: A History Of Migration, pointed out in Mint in 2019, the diaspora has acquired “newly minted political clout in an independent, aspirational India”, with politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi courting it.

“You have played an important role in creating a positive image of India not just in America but globally as well,” Modi told a crowd of over 22,000 supporters at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014. The event, celebrating his first victory in the general election, is estimated to have cost $1.5 million (around 10 crore now).

It’s not just the US where the Indian diaspora is influential. Indians account for a third of the United Arab Emirates’ total population. Countries like Canada, the UK and the US have a number of politicians and representatives who trace their roots to India—from US vice-president Kamala Harris to Canadian senator Sarabjit Marwah.

Over the last six years, the Indian diaspora has been exceedingly vocal on issues back home. Examples of this range from the pro-CAA rallies or demonstrations celebrating the Supreme Court’s Ram Janmabhoomi verdict in Times Square, New York, to the Sikh diaspora in Canada and Australia rallying in support of protesting Indian farmers in the National Capital Region against the latest farm laws.

A demonstration celebrating the Supreme Court’s Ram Janmabhoomi verdict in Times Square, New York, (Photo: Getty Images)
A demonstration celebrating the Supreme Court’s Ram Janmabhoomi verdict in Times Square, New York, (Photo: Getty Images)

The Gujarati diaspora is believed to have played a crucial role in Modi gaining acceptability in the US. In 2014, the Vedanta group of the London-based NRI Anil Agarwal was the single largest donor to both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Earlier, the India Against Corruption movement, and subsequently the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), received considerable NRI support. More recently, in October last year, a group of NRI Ambedkarites staged protests in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, demanding justice for the 19-year-old Dalit woman who was gang-raped by four upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian diaspora then, away from home but jostling for space and political relevance in its country of origin, has long hoped for direct involvement in its electoral outcomes.

The movement to allow NRIs to cast their vote remotely began in 2010, with unsuccessful PILs filed by NRIs in the Supreme Court in 2013 and 2014, and a lapsed Bill in the Rajya Sabha after the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha in 2019—the government had moved an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to grant the right to vote by proxy to overseas Indians.

With the latest proposal, these intentions may finally be bearing fruit. “I see this move as a recognition that we are still Indian,” says Barat.

Skewed priorities

Abheyraj Singh, 30, works as a product designer in Berlin, Germany. Raised in a Sikh family in Delhi, Singh’s politics was shaped by the anti-Sikh violence under the Congress government in 1984. He remembers growing up amidst a staunchly anti-Congress ideology until Manmohan Singh became the prime minister.

Over time, as he moved to Uttar Pradesh for higher studies, he became familiar with entrenched issues of social inequality like caste, and on moving to Germany, of religious minorities. “I made a friend in Berlin. In India, we grew up a kilometre apart from each other, but lived diametrically different lives. He’s a Muslim from Jamia (Nagar) in Delhi and with the current political climate, he tells me he doesn’t feel safe in India,” says Singh. Such interactions have made Singh more invested in ideas of social justice.

An AAP supporter, Singh says the Union government could have handled the covid-19 crisis better, and going forward, that will be an important consideration for any voter. In Germany, Singh was furloughed, with a part of his salary being paid by the government. “The company I worked for availed the government scheme where it paid 60% of my salary. It was so jarring to see this as someone who comes from India. I have never experienced life like this.” More jarring, he says, was watching what transpired back home as millions of migrant workers trudged thousands of kilometres on foot to reach home after the prime minister implemented a nationwide lockdown overnight from 25 March. It’s issues like these, and an awareness of what elected representatives should stand for, that now move him, says Singh.

Internal migrants are much larger in number and are unable to vote remotely from the place they move to for work without first moving their registration.. (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Internal migrants are much larger in number and are unable to vote remotely from the place they move to for work without first moving their registration.. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

As India prepares to celebrate its 72nd Republic Day, recognising the right of every citizen to vote perhaps seems like a fitting move to commemorate the constitutional guarantee of universal adult franchise. But experts are concerned about whether this move will prioritise NRI views over the rights of voters, less privileged and larger in number, back home.

“My own view is that NRIs are organised, they have influence, the potential to donate money to political parties, to facilitate the position of India in other countries, etc., and they have been demanding this for the last 10 years,” says Jagdeep Chhokar, founder and trustee of the non-profit Association for Democratic Reforms. “But internal migrants are much larger in number and are unable to vote remotely from the place they move to for work without first moving their registration.”

The mass exodus of internal migrants following the covid-19 lockdown highlighted their numbers and plight. Chhokar had hoped this would have made election bodies take note as well, allowing them to vote through ETPBS. and simplifying procedures, “since registering is not simple, and many of them are not literate and registering again would cost them a day or more in wages”. They, and not NRIs, should be the priority, he says. “The NRIs have chosen to go out of the country for their betterment. They want to influence political activity where they don’t even live. This cannot be a priority.”

Currently, in India, members of the armed forces like the army, navy and air force, members of the armed police force of a state (serving outside the state), government employees posted outside India and their spouses are entitled to vote by post.

Through his three years in Germany, though, Singh has looked on with envy as expat friends from countries like the US and the UK voted in their national elections via postal ballots. “I would feel very left out because I have been following Indian politics closely,” he says. “It does freak me out a little when I think about NRIs getting the option to vote because while I would love to vote, this opens up a bigger right-wing vote bank. Whereas in American politics there are more liberals living outside the US.”

The duality of diaspora politics

According to a May 2019 report in Foreign Policy, four million NRIs in the US were campaigning for their preferred candidates for the general election in India. Some, it reported, spent up to $2,000 to book tickets to fly to India and vote. “With the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in the US, how it votes at home matters. The four million Indian-Americans are the wealthiest and most educated ethnic group in America—with a median income almost double that of an average American household,” the report said.

In the US where just seven per cent of Indian-Americans claimed they would vote for Donald Trump, the duality in the ideologies of the diaspora, NRI and otherwise, has become increasingly stark. They are promoting more conservative politics back in India and liberal politics in their country of residence.

In this context, Sanjeed Schamnad, 27, a Malayali Muslim who grew up in Mangaluru and now works as a senior software engineer in Seattle, stands out. “I am a Muslim, not a practising one, but it doesn’t matter,” he says. “With the Modi government—whether it is the CAA-NRC, revocation (effectively) of Article 370 (of the Constitution) in Kashmir, demonetisation or the lack of transparency with electoral bonds—the problem is that the regular public does not criticise them. It has become a matter of blind faith rather than politics.”

Schamnad took part in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020 after George Floyd, a black man, was killed by the police on 25 May in Minneapolis. The protests were primarily against police brutality, an issue that Schamnad now feels is a global one. “Tear gas, I get; water cannons, okay; but the way cops indiscriminately beat protesters in India blows my mind,” he says.

Around the same time as the BLM protests, on 30 June, California’s department of fair employment and housing regulators sued Cisco Systems Inc. The lawsuit accused the multibillion-dollar tech conglomerate based in San Jose, California, of denying an engineer, who emigrated from India to the US, professional opportunities owing to his caste.

Though caste diversity among NRIs still remains virtually negligible, some anti-caste activists and the Dalit diaspora have become more vocal.

Protests in Times Square, New York after the gangrape of a dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras. (Photo: AIM)
Protests in Times Square, New York after the gangrape of a dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras. (Photo: AIM)

“The current administration in India has really given importance to what the US-based NRI is doing, and let this be very clear, not what the Dalit NRIs are doing, but mostly the ones who are proud to talk about their upper-caste Hindu identity,” says Yashica Dutt, journalist and author of Coming Out As Dalit, who moved to New York six years ago. Dutt says her politics has always been “progressive, even radical” and a lot of her ideas have been shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US since 2014, when she moved to New York.

While she believes there is a long way to go, Dutt does see conversations about caste becoming more frequent. Her book, for instance, is being taught at Rutgers and other universities. She and other anti-caste activists like Suraj Yengde and Sujatha Gidla are being invited to speak at top colleges across that country.

“Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste directly juxtaposes the Indian caste system with racism in the US. My book has not just been inspired by BLM but the work of black feminists as well, who have created these modes of thinking that we can then use for Dalit spaces as well,” says Dutt. “That exchange has been there since the time of Dr (B.R.) Ambedkar. Later, the Dalit Panther party was inspired by the Black Panther party.”

Proof of the mainstreaming of this conversation, Dutt believes, is that as Kamala Harris, the half-Indian, half-black, first woman vice-president of the US, takes office, caste found mention in a profile of her in The New York Times. “They have managed to successfully subdue caste for decades, that definitely is changing.”

She hopes that younger generations of NRIs, who are perhaps not as attached to the idea of “Hindu nationalism”, will make the right choices if given a chance to vote. Inspired by the politics of Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, she hopes that the EC’s move will ensure equality first to voters back home and then look at a system of accountability.

The duality of diaspora politics sometimes also manifests in this significant form—the way in which the politics of the country of their residence shapes or changes their politics back home.

A professor of drug discovery at a university in London, who did not wish to be named, moved to the UK nearly 20 years ago. He now holds an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card, a form of permanent residency for people of Indian origin who hold citizenship of another country. OCI-card holders cannot vote in India or hold public office though they can live, work and travel in India without restrictions.

Growing up in Lucknow and Aligarh, the professor’s politics was shaped by the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition. “Up until then I didn’t realise that religion could play a very important role in our everyday lives,” he says. What drove him to leave, however, was the “pure apathy of Indians to science” and that “20-odd years later, science education has not changed”.

He points out the hypocrisy of Indian-origin communities living abroad, saying that the key issue with the politics of diaspora Indians in the UK is that it does not impact their everyday life as it would in India. As someone who participated in the anti-CAA-NRC protests in London, he says: “The freedom of expression here (in the UK, US or Europe) permits them to spew any amount of hate without it impacting them. And when they face the same thing here, they cry racism and discrimination.” He adds: “We have to show our displeasure and voice concerns because it would impact the weakest section of society. NRI politics is very decisive.”

He supports this claim with recent political developments. Following the revocation of Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, for instance, Labour party MPs raised the issue in the UK Parliament, urging the then prime minister to write to the Indian government. During the 2019 UK general election that followed, a campaign was mounted against these MPs in their constituencies by pro-BJP NRIs, he adds.

The same month, Sakshi Gulati, who does not want to reveal her party of choice, moved to Hong Kong to pursue her MBA, when the protests in Hong Kong against China’s then Extradition Law Amendment Bill were gaining momentum. She prefers not to comment on Chinese politics and the situation in Hong Kong but has a clear stance on Indian politics.

As travel restrictions tighten across Hong Kong owing to the pandemic, and everything goes online, Gulati is thrilled at the prospect of being able to vote remotely. Back home, her family is divided on politics—her pro-BJP mother and anti-BJP brother would have heated arguments at the dinner table.

Gulati is a supporter of demonetisation, the revocation of Article 370 and the CAA-NRC. “If people have been staying in India for a long time and they can’t provide the basic documents, there is no harm in excluding them as India goes from being a developing country to a developed one,” she says. Gulati believes Indians without “valid” documentation should meet the same fate as illegal immigrants in the US, where they are detained by the country’s immigration and customs enforcement.

Yashica Dutt (New York), Saniya Ali (UAE), Sanjeed Schamnad (Seattle), Sakshi Gulati (Hong Kong)
Yashica Dutt (New York), Saniya Ali (UAE), Sanjeed Schamnad (Seattle), Sakshi Gulati (Hong Kong)

Despite privacy concerns, she also believes Aadhaar is a step in the right direction. “That’s how you are keeping track of every individual in the country. In Hong Kong, for instance, there is an HK ID and with that you can know the whole history of a human,” she says. “In India, it’s important to understand the motivations and agenda, though execution for a population so large is not always simple.” Among the primary considerations for her when she votes in India is that the country’s leader should be someone respected around the world.

For Singh in Berlin, German politics has helped him better understand ideological divides across the spectrum. As a result, he says he is now “even more liberal. Everyone around the world feels Angela Merkel is liberal. But when you live here and get an understanding of politics, Angela Merkel is a centrist by German standards, but left by Indian and American standards,” he says.

Down under, Barat says her voting preferences in India would be based on issues like health, gender justice and education. “Something that disappoints me is that it’s never the most important thing while voting in India—not for anyone and not for any party. Ayushman Bharat (a scheme that aims to help economically vulnerable Indians in need of healthcare facilities) has done a little bit but it’s too little and not enough,” says Barat. “Living here, that has made a difference to how I see politics in India.”

Between hope and hopelessness

The six Gulf countries are home not only to India's largest migrant population, but the share of international remittances from them has risen from a third of the global total to half over the past decade, as Tumbe pointed out in Mint. Estimates of inflows from these countries range from 2-4% of India’s GDP. Among the three leading sources, the UAE ($33 billion) has “been an important source of foreign exchange for the Indian economy for four decades”, noted Tumbe.

Saniya Ali , 23, who graduated from Middlesex University, Dubai, last September, grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the UAE in 2014. An NRI who has been personally and academically involved in Indian politics (her master’s dissertation is titled Muslim Women In Hindu Nationalist India: A Discourse Analysis Of The Exclusionary Politics With An Intersectional Approach), she flew back home to Hyderabad, where she is registered to vote, for the 2019 election. “The reason I voted was because, as a Muslim, it was seen as crucial,” she says.

Ali has been tracking the developments on NRI voting and disregards the rumours and reasons to exclude Gulf countries. “There are US citizens in Gulf countries and they have always voted in their elections through postal ballot.” The 23-year-old believes that the Middle East diaspora lives on the assumption that it might one day have to return to India. “The ability to vote there is important because the privilege of distance to avoid persecution as Indian Muslims in the Middle East may not always exist.”

Unlike Ali, some NRIs who are completely detached from Indian politics perhaps embody the criticism of the EC’s proposal. Take the example of 32- year-old Sahil Hooda, who works at a call centre in Niagara Falls in Canada and holds a Permanent Residence (PR) there, granting him all the privileges of a citizen other than voting rights. In India, he voted for the Modi government in 2014, but cares very little now about what happens back home, since he hopes to settle in Canada permanently for a better future and quality of life.

He does note the differences. In India, he finds that people vote on party lines; in Canada, he says his politics will be more nuanced. “If I could vote in Canada, the first thing I would look at is the immigration policy. I would also look at things like healthcare, education and things like that, which basically don’t exist in India” he says. “I don’t really care about what happens in India and given the option I would not vote.”

A convoy of vehicles in Toronto on 5 December in support of farmers opposing India’s new farm laws. (Photo: Getty Images)
A convoy of vehicles in Toronto on 5 December in support of farmers opposing India’s new farm laws. (Photo: Getty Images)

Straddling ideological hope and indifference, it is difficult to predict how NRIs will impact voting patterns in India. But their divergent views on policy and conservatism in India and their country of residence could serve as a significant decider in the way Indian politics proceeds.

Tarini Pal, an Indian student in Hong Kong, encapsulates the paradox by comparing the situation of the two countries. “In India, we still have some sort of hope for change. That is because we are in effect a democratic country and so hopefully one would imagine the people have the power to elect the next party that could be in power, whereas that is not the case here in Hong Kong—where citizens can only elect less than 40% of their officials,” she says. As someone who would vote back home given the option, she says, “As we know, with democracy, there is no half-way.”

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