One Sunday afternoon in February 2014, as the national elections in India were hotting up, I attended a meeting of Narendra Modi fans in a small restaurant in London. I wanted to observe how members of this ‘Modi Tea Club’ were hoping to support him from thousands of kilometres away.
One member stood up to say he welcomed America’s decision to meet Modi, adding that British Gujaratis would also make themselves heard. “The pressure we put [on the government] in the UK makes a difference around the world.” They were halfway around the world but the future PM of India could count on their money and influence. The following month he congratulated them on their efforts via satellite. For the Modi Tea Club this was enough.
Non-Resident Indians, or NRIs as we are frequently called, have always been integral to the image and power of India abroad. Our traditional role was seen as ambassadors: to represent its culture and heritage, tell the world about India and explain the news from back home. Our parents had always hoped to eventually go back.
But as NRIs have started settling down abroad for good, that relationship has changed. Moreover, the new PM has taken his message to the world himself. He has visited foreign countries with an unusual and frenetic pace. He tweets and reaches foreign journalists quicker than Indian ones can. So what role can they play now?
Let’s ask this in a different way. Why is someone like me, a journalist and writer from London, writing for Hindustan Times? Why should you care what I think about Indian society, or issues I discuss with you? The answer to that is important because it holds the key to what it means to be Indian in the future.
Modi has tapped into NRI money and power in a way no PM has done before. As Indians abroad have integrated into western society, they have become more politically connected and powerful. They have worked with their governments to form trade delegations and advise them on investment opportunities in India. They have helped Indian companies get a foothold in new markets abroad. They have become instrumental to connecting India to the rest of the world.
More than that, they are also using their wealth, skills and talent to help Indians at home. A few years ago Paul Ramesh, a doctor who had previously moved to Britain, came back to Chennai to work at a hospital there. There are many more like him. Charities by NRIs in Britain and America send money to good causes back in India and that philanthropy is only set to grow.
Indians receive more money from friends and family abroad than any other country in the world. In 2015 estimated remittances were 69 billion dollars, more than even China. That money goes directly into the Indian economy and helps the foreign reserve accounts too.
The growing size of the global Indian population now makes it impossible to ignore.
There are more Indian-born immigrants living abroad than from any other country in the world. 15.6 million Indians now live and work abroad. Mexico is second on the list with 12.3 million living abroad. But people like me don’t count on that list since I was born in Britain. I am of Indian origin and our total number is second highest in the world. There are only greater number of people of Chinese origin living abroad. We take Indian culture, food and language to every part of the world.
Almost everyone of Indian origin abroad has a family connection back home. We are tied not just by culture but by blood. NRIs haven’t abandoned India, they play their part in the country’s development from abroad. They too are affected by what happens in India. They always have been and always will be part of the global Indian identity.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal