In the summer of 2004, I walked to a convenience store on New York’s Madison Avenue for a purchase. The clerk, obviously South Asian, asked me whether I knew who had won the election. Since elections in the United States occur mainly in November, he was referring to the Lok Sabha polls in India. I informed him that the NDA campaign had blown up spectacularly. In return, I received a glare that almost scorched my eyebrows.
However, the level of heat generated amid the NRI community over elections in India shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. In the decade of UPA rule, many NRIs have become increasingly obsessive observers of developments in their native land. One example of this, of course, is their presence on social media, especially Twitter, where they let their biases bloom. In most cases, they’re less engaged than enraged.
So I wasn’t particularly surprised upon reading a report front-paged in this newspaper about planeloads of India-bound non-residents arriving to exercise their franchise, and I’m not referring to Dunkin’ Donuts outlets in New Jersey.
Of course, not everyone of Indian origin abroad is as exercised. Tech blogger Om Malik once coined the term Not Really Indian for a subset of the diaspora that has not just moved away, but moved on. Obviously, the second and later generations of NRIs, the Gen Ex, will be far more fired up over a vote on legalising marijuana in their state than about delving into the weeds of this Lok Sabha cycle. In these cases, we have those who are Not Really Interested.
In countries like the United States, their non-residents are active participants in the electoral process since they can cast their votes at embassies and consulates abroad. Democrats Abroad holds its own global primary and sent over two dozen delegates to the party convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012, where President Barack Obama was predictably renominated. Not only do they have events like Mumbai meet-ups, but as the New York Times reported in 2008: ‘Primary votes came from as far away as Antarctica, where an American researcher at McMurdo Station was able to vote online. In Thailand, voting took place at a Starbucks at the Laotian border. In New Delhi, voters met at a restaurant called Ploof, where they voted upstairs and celebrated downstairs.’
NRIs, though, have to be physically present at a polling booth in India for their ballot to count. Even for the extreme enthusiast, travelling from say, Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Kalahandi, Orissa, may prove a distant desire. Counting on their votes is about as reliable as the Obamacare website.
Regardless, the connection remains. For instance, prior to the assembly elections in Delhi last winter, there were those from Silicon Valley taking time off from debugging to bugging prospective voters in India over virtual VOIP phone banks.
From banking votes to hitting the high notes is in keeping with the same tune. While those who have retained their Indian citizenship can contribute to a political party, those who have opted to renounce their Indian passport and mutated into Persons of Indian Origin, also find funding mechanisms. As one particular partisan, no longer an Indian citizen, recently explained to me, they can always wire money home into accounts of their kinfolk, in amounts that do not trigger mandatory reporting requirements. If their India-based relatives decide those dollars may be donated to a campaign, that grey money may well flow into a flood of cash that gushes through the system in election season.
At a recent political event in New Delhi that I attended out of curiosity, a national spokesperson for a party was flanked on the podium by an enthusiastic NRI. Still, for all their interest in elections in India, NRIs are not yet a significant constituency for any political party. They may be treated as ATMs, but it’ll take some more capital and electoral reform before they evolve into a full-fledged vote-bank.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
He is the author of The Candidate
The views expressed by the author are personal