by Moiz Mannan
India’s new Minister for Overseas Indians Affairs has made a rather predictable opening statement: Connecting with diaspora community and involving them in India’s economic progress will be a priority area for the Modi government.
As the dust settles over political landscape after the ‘Modi storm’, the country’s diaspora abroad, who not just took keen interest but active part in the long-drawn election to the Lok Sabha, would be watching how the Gujarat ‘miracle man’, now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will deal with matters that concern them.
We have discussed in this space before the nature and extent of the growing involvement of overseas Indians in affairs of their homeland. We saw during the election campaign the manner in which non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs) were in the thick of things in both the real and the virtual worlds.
Now, all 25 million or so of them are expecting things to happen. A lot has been said and written about how concerned overseas Indians are about India’s interaction with the world community. Concerns had been raised about Modi’s inward-looking approach with regard to the Western world and confrontationist tendencies when it came to India’s neighbours. In this, he has started off on a positive note by inviting Saarc heads of state, including Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif for his inauguration as Prime Minister.
He will have to follow up on this symbolism with meaningful actions. As a part of Modi stated intention of maintaining a “lean and mean” cabinet, he has entrusted both the ministries of External Affairs as well as that of Overseas Indians Affairs to the erstwhile Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj.
On her first day at work, Swaraj told the media that “Indian Missions abroad will be sensitised about problems being faced by Indians abroad so that they can be be addressed in a more effective and fruitful manner.” Now, we’ve heard that before, ad nauseum.
Established in May 2004 as the Ministry of Non-Resident Indians’ Affairs, it was renamed as the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) in September 2004. It was first headed by Jagdish Tytler and then Vayalar Ravi.
The achievements of the ministry under Ravi can best be described as a ‘mixed bag’. On some fronts, particularly in Libya and Saudi Arabia, the work done by his people came in for praise. But on other, mostly routine issues dogging NRIs, the ministry was found ineffective. Take the case of effectively arguing for absentee voting rights for NRIs. Minister Ravi just shrugs his shoulders and says, “We tried…” That’s not good enough.
Other than that, there are matters such as inadequately staffed Indian missions wrapped in red tape, regular harassment by customs officials, archaic rules made to encourage corruption, difficulties in pursuing property-related matters, bureaucratic hurdles in setting up businesses and making investments, tax regulations, airfares and destinations and most of all the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of Gulf returnees, better engagement with GCC labour authorities, and stricter control over unscrupulous recruitment agents and foreign employers.
One thing that would work in Swaraj’s favour is that she’s also handling the External Affairs portfolio. She has herself acknowledged that being in charge of the two ministries will help her in achieving desired results. There is a long list of urgent issues and demands from NRIs, particularly those in the Gulf. Involving the diaspora in the country’s progress is a Congress rhetoric they’ve had enough of.
Narendra Modi had addressed the Indian diaspora at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2014 in New Delhi and talked at length about the rich contribution of the Indian diaspora in the development of Indi. He had assured them that India would never let them down. Now’s the time for action.