Non-resident Indians can now vote and run for office in their original homeland. This is unlikely to change the political landscape. Only those diaspora members who have Indian passports can avail. There is no postal ballot so they have to physically go back to their Indian homes. Nonetheless this is an important step: it allows for broader political participation, makes India’s political classes take an interest in cross-border issues and helps bind India and its diaspora closer together. The first matters because the barriers to new blood entering the political system have been rising in India, resulting in the unhealthy growth of politics by bloodline. The second because the Indian system is slow to grasp the need to take up immigration issues. The third because the diaspora is an integral part of the new India story and needs to be cultivated in ways that go beyond the purely economic.
The caution inherent in the new policy will not go down well with all overseas Indians. However, studies have shown politically involved diasporas are not always a positive. Civil wars in the Balkans and Africa, for example, have been exacerbated by the willingness of diasporas to provide support for more extreme political views. This can be seen in India: diaspora funds help sustain Hindutva groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Persian Gulf workers have strengthened Islamic fundamentalist groups in places like Kerala. This is not to say that the influence of India’s diaspora has not been overwhelmingly positive. India’s software sector, the end of its foreign exchange woes and a good chunk of its greatly enhanced global image can all be partly attributed to overseas Indians. Opening the door just a crack will allow the Indian polity to judge the impact of the non-resident. The expectation is that most fears will prove unfounded, if for no other reason than the sheer size of the Indian electorate means one or two million more votes are unlikely to have much undue influence.
There is a larger question regarding the Indian concept of citizenship and its globalisation. India is among the few large democracies that does not allow its citizens any form of dual citizenship. It has no system of absentee ballot. And it has been slow in protecting the rights of Indians overseas, belated in negotiating double taxation treaties and overseas welfare tax exemptions for Indians. That there are votes, however minimal, to be gained and lost over such issues will hopefully galvanise politicians and bureaucrats to take them up with greater enthusiasm. India and its people are globalising rapidly. It is important that its polity keeps up.