State-sponsored events are usually heavy on symbolism, heaving with the sort of meaning that is derived from years of scripting public service advertising. In early December, as letters were sent out by the ministry of overseas Indian affairs to variously distinguished members of the Indian diaspora inviting them to participate in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Gandhinagar, they pointed out that this was, after all, the 100th anniversary of the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa. If that missive from the MoIA, GoI, to NRIs, PIOs, OCIs and other holders of assorted acronyms abroad wasn’t obvious enough, potential registrants were greeted on the event website with profuse displays of Gandhiana to hammer the point in.
But not all those dispersed desis with return tickets this year are necessarily going for the cultural evenings at Kankaria Lake or the Sabarmati River Front. There are two who qualify for the Divas, but have instead headed for Lutyens Delhi.
While the former University of Chicago professor of finance, Raghuram Rajan, governs the Reserve Bank of India, his fellow academic at New York’s Columbia University, economics professor Arvind Panagariya takes over as vice-chairman of the new Niti Aayog.
Panagariya’s journey has had humbler beginnings than several of his peers. He didn’t graduate from a prestigious institution in India, completing his masters in economics at the University of Rajasthan. It was a full fellowship for a PhD at Princeton that changed his course, as he once said to this columnist, this was “a HUGE jump without which nothing that happened subsequently could have happened.”
Panagariya is among a long and growing list of Indian-American economists in the US academia who devote a lot of attention to India policy. In fact, at major American campuses, their economics departments and business schools often have more Indians than the weekend throngs shopping at the local Patel Brothers grocery store.
If the Planning Commission was one vestige of India’s mixed economy, Panagariya is unlikely to have mixed feelings about its demise. At his apartment in New York, he often made his pro-reforms outlook obvious. He’s unlikely to oblige those who want to transplant Western norms to India, as he once pointed out, “While the interests of developing and developed countries may go together in some areas, in many others they do not — climate change; inclusion of intellectual property protection and labour standards in the WTO.”
That may not please the other pravasi who recently arrived in the capital — the United States’ new ambassador to India, Richard Rahul Verma. Verma was born in Edmonton, Canada, and curiously enough, America’s northern neighbour may have pipped the US in tokenism when its high commissioner to India, the Gujarat-born Nadir Patel, assumed charge in October.
That, though, may be typecasting, as Verma may just be the type to play nursemaid to reviving the India-US bilateral bonhomie. As an adviser to then senate majority leader Harry Reid, he helped speed the India-US nuclear deal through the US Congress. And between stints at the US State Department, Verma was also with the legal firm Steptoe & Johnson, which has represented the US-India Business Council and various Indian companies.
Verma is part of a cohort of Indian-Americans with growing influence in the US administration, like assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia, Nisha Biswal. As many others fill the ranks of the state department and file into US government, their presence, and often pro-India positions, have rankled some, like Pakistan’s punditry.
The liability of the brain drain has made way for a cohort of foreign assets to be drawn upon. The new wave of card-carrying Indian-origin folk is plugged into and plugging India abroad. That Quit India movement appears to have morphed into a homecoming of sorts for pravasi bharatiyas. That may be fitting, since we live in times of ghar wapsi, though this is one that few will contest.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal