NRI voting should not be made too easy

How to raise political engagement without raising moral hazards

The connectedness of the Information Age made the issue of political rights of expatriate citizens more salient. The question of “should Non-Resident Indians get the right to vote?” was the topic of endless university canteen discussions, Usenet flame wars and online discussion forums before the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed to allow Non-Resident Indians to come back and vote in their constituencies. Many NRIs came back to vote in the May 2014 elections, and many others worked in the campaigns.

There are demands for more—that NRIs should be allowed an absentee ballot, to vote from their foreign domicile. This is sometimes coupled with the demand for internet-voting, a feature request that is common to both resident and non-resident Indians. While both these demands enjoy a certain degree of popularity, few have taken a hard look at the implications of doing so.

NRIs are citizens of India, many of who have retained their citizenship despite the lure and the attraction of a foreign passport. They have ideas, knowledge, skills, perspectives, capital and human resources that add to the quality of India’s politics, policy and industry. Leaving them out of the political process is unfair and wasteful. They must have a political voice.

The Election Commission has cited logistical challenges as the reason for not setting up polling booths in foreign countries. However, the real problem is more than just logistics. Absentee ballots have a moral hazard: the absentee voter is not around in the constituency to directly benefit from or suffer the consequences of his political decision. This insulation from the direct effects of one’s own voting decision weakens both the representativeness and accountability of the democratic process. The NRI has insurance too: if he does not like the outcomes in India, he can choose to continue foreign residency or take foreign citizenship. Of course, resident Indians can emigrate too, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Empirically, Diaspora politics tends to focus on the emotional and the ideological, and is often hardline and uncompromising. [Devesh Kapur’s latest paper on the political effects of international migration puts this in perspective]. The resident population has a greater need to balance the emotional with the quotidian and the ideological with the practical, so it makes a lot of pragmatic compromises.

The 2010 amendment to election rules balances, to a certain extent, the electoral inclusion of NRIs and managing the moral hazard arising from it. In economic terms, only those NRIs whose expected value of the benefit of voting exceeds the cost of a return trip to their polling booth will vote. The height of this hurdle protects the resident electorate from the political choices of their expatriate compatriots. It also means that richer NRIs are more capable of crossing this hurdle, and therefore, more likely to affect electoral outcomes in India. This is a price that must be paid to address the moral hazard of allowing NRIs to vote.

Allowing NRIs to vote in Indian embassies and consulates abroad lowers the hurdle. Internet voting reduces the hurdle almost to zero. The moral hazard problem gets worse with overseas polling stations and very acute with internet voting. Therefore, given the nature of dynamic compromises that characterise the politics of a highly diverse, plural India, it is prudent not to consciously stir up the pot by reducing the economic cost of voting.

That’s why internet voting, even for resident voters, is a bad idea. The inconvenience of standing in a queue for the time that it takes to cast a vote ensures that only those who value their vote more than that will turn up to do so. Yes, this system disproportionately favours those who put a low value on their time (in other words, those with lower incomes), but it is fair in that there is nothing to prevent anyone who values the subjective political outcome more than his subjective cost of voting to turn up and vote.

Another problem with absentee ballots is the question of constituency. Which constituency should an Indian citizen who’s lived in New York for 10 years belong to? She might have friends and relatives in one constituency—but putting her on the voters list of that constituency is against the principle of domicile-based voting. Many resident Indians live in one constituency but have family links in other constituencies, but they get on the electoral rolls of the constituency they are resident in. (Some resident voters do prefer to vote in their native constituencies, which the electoral system currently ignores.) Domicile-based electoral rolls are important for representation and accountability, and our New York-based voter might not know (or care) how bad public services are in her Indian native town are for her to hold the elected representative accountable.

Current electoral rules do not address the constituency question. One way would be to create a NRI constituency in the Rajya Sabha and the upper houses of state legislatures, and allow all NRIs to pick a representative who will voice their interests. We might need several NRI seats because different NRI populations have different needs. For a half-serious take on what might result, see why the sun does’t set on the Indian Republic.

It is important that all Indian citizens are included in India’s political system. After the 2010 amendment, a better balance has been struck. Further easing of the rules of voting is not advisable. Hurdles that impose economic costs on voters are not a bad thing—voting should not be made cheap.

G-20, East Asia and high-profile foreign policy

The focus on G-20, East Asia and raising India’s foreign policy profile are all the right things to do, and long overdue.

Notes for my television appearance on CNN-IBN at 9am IST today:

The Brisbane G-20 statement is so closely aligned with India’s own growth agenda: India must capitalise on this opportunity.

G-20 should become India’s most important international engagement (as my Pax Indica article from June 2010 argues). What the UN was to newly independent India, G-20 should be for a newly resurgent India. New Delhi should invest in high forums that India is already a member of is more valuable than pleading to enter stodgy old clubs like the UN Security Council.

India must contribute to the Asian Balance because it is in our interests to do so. As China and the United States contest for global power, India must project power in regions like East, West and Central Asia to defend its interests. [This is the central argument of The Asian Balance, my monthly column in Business Standard.]

It is good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invest time in international engagements: India’s growth is influenced by the world and the world’s situation influences India’s growth [This is the subject of an ongoing research project between Takshashila and the Hudson Institute]. India’s policy discourse will benefit from the prime minister’s international engagements & exposure.

(Point made in response to other panelists)
Mr Modi’s personal popularity among expatriate Indians and the enthusiasm they have shown around his visit to Australia help elevate India’s foreign policy profile. However, it is important for the media to not hype it beyond a point. It is in India’s interests for Indian-Australians to be good Australians: by being loyal, responsible and successful members of their communities.

S M Krishna’s doctrine

The focus must shift to the real Pravasi Bharatiya

S M Krishna is an unlikely person to lend his name to a foreign policy doctrine. He has, however, latched onto something that Indian foreign policy tends to ignore—that protecting the lives and well-being of Indian citizens abroad ought to be an important objective of the Indian state. In a 2006 list of top ten foreign policy objectives, I argue India must “protect—and credibly demonstrate the intention to protect at all costs—the lives and well-being of Indian citizens living abroad, (and) never forgive governments, organisations or individuals who harm Indians.”

It is easy to derogate this objective as a ‘consular’ function or set it aside as an emergency function that the Indian government engages in during times of political unrest or natural disaster. There is no doubt that Indian missions must provide consular services or help evacuate Indians during times of need. The record is patchy on the former—there are wide differences in the quality of service provided by Indian missions abroad—and fairly exemplary on the latter. Whether during the first Gulf War, during the Lebanon crisis or more recently in Libya, India has done fairly well in getting its citizens out of danger.

However, India’s foreign policy discourse is yet to grasp that how the Indian government treats its citizens abroad—and how the world sees it treat its citizens abroad—has strategic implications. As long as Indians are engaged in activities like low-skilled labour and providing low-paying services, in the popular mind of the host countries, their low social status gets associated with the image of India.

No matter how much they appreciate your cuisine, how much they adore your celebrities, how rich they grow on trade with you, their perception of India is unduly influenced by the Indians they encounter on a daily basis. What works to India’s advantage in places like the United States and Britain, works to its detriment in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia.

It is true that employers and ordinary people in some countries ill-treat immigrant workers. It’s tremendously difficult for India to get them to change. What New Delhi can do is to start treating its citizens abroad with much greater respect that it does currently. Not just the well-to-do Non-Resident Indian professionals on the top of the social pyramid, but also the large numbers of Non-Resident Indian workers at the bottom. When was the last time a visiting Prime Minister or Foreign Minister addressed a gathering of carpenters, brick layers, electricians, janitors, garbage collectors and so on? When host nations observe how seriously Indian expatriate communities and the Indian government treats people which they regard as an underclass, their own attitudes will have to change. This will change the way they and their governments perceive India. If there is such a thing as soft power, this is where it matters.

Instead of focussing on this segment, we have seen the Indian government organise gala schmoozefests for the rich and the famous among the Indian diaspora. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas are not only a waste of public funds, but a sign of misguided priorities. Public funds are better spent strengthening the size of Indian missions abroad and improving the resources ambassadors have to better serve the needs of Indian communities. What strategic objective is served by conferring awards on already rich, already famous and already respected individuals of Indian genetic stock? The government of India should leave glitzy awards ceremonies to the entertainment industry.

The focus and the resources must shift towards the ordinary Indian who carries his blue passport and disproportionately contributes towards inward remittances. If Mr Krishna’s new directives move Indian foreign policy this way, it might achieve more than merely address “the needs of Indian nationals abroad—especially those in distress.” If they are pushed far enough, they will affect the way the world perceives India.

The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

Pax Indica: We are not South Asian

The term ‘South Asia’ is an attempt to appropriate the Indian subcontinent’s geography while denying its composite civilisational history

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of the organisers argued that the “South Asian identity” has made inroads across the world. He supported this argument with an example. Many universities in the United States, he said, now have bhangra and garba troupes, often consisting of people of entirely non-South Asian backgrounds.

I nearly fell off my chair.

There is nothing ‘South Asian’ about bhangra and garba, just as there is nothing ‘South Asian’ yoga, ayurveda or tandoori chicken (when was the last time you went to a North South Asian restaurant?). Actually, there’s nothing South Asian about qawwals, ghazals or the Multani raga (when was the last time you went to a South Asian classical concert?). In fact—and you might think, I’m stretching it—there’s nothing South Asian about Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If you measure Asia north to south, roughly along the 120°E longitude from the Siberia’s Arctic coast to Indonesia’s southern islands, you’ll find the subcontinent more or less in the middle. Geographically, if there is a South Asia, then the self-confessed ‘South Asians’ are neither in it nor from it. Read the rest at Yahoo! India »

Assisting the unfortunate Pravasi Bharatiyas

The Indian government’s programmes to assist distressed workers and women overseas is a step in the right direction

Protecting Indian nationals wherever they might be in the world should be a key objective of India’s foreign policy. While India has demonstrated its commitment towards securing the lives of its nationals during major crises—like the evacuation of expatriate Indians from the Middle East during the 1990 Gulf War and the more recent conflict in Lebanon—assisting citizens in quotidian situations has not been its strong point. [Due apologies to our foreign service officers who help stranded Indian families in remote corners of the world]. Among those who most need the Indian government’s assistance are low-wage workers and women.

So it is good to see the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs do something beyond organising grand pow-wows and handing out awards to prominent non-resident Indians. Not only has it announced programmes to help distressed Indian workers and women, it has made the involvement of local NRI communities essential for their success.

The Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) covers distressed workers in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, and Iraq. The government’s financial contribution is tiny—between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1.5 million each—but constitutes seed funding. The intention is to make the fund self-sustaining through charges for consular services at Indian missions, as well as voluntary contributions by NRI communities. Similarly, the scheme to provide financial and legal assistance to Indian women deserted by their husbands in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf covers expenses up to US$1000, and is administered in partnership with community NGOs. Seventeen women have been helped so far—ten from Australia alone.

It is a good idea for the government to jump start the programme and rely on community funding for its financial sustainability. More importantly, the Indian government’s role should be to back the programmes with diplomatic clout and political resolve. Putting the onus on Indian missions abroad ensures that the ambassadors have control and are accountable for the results in the areas under their care. A degree of competition among them wouldn’t hurt at all. More importantly, getting NRI communities to chip in financially helps build social capital creating avenues for the relatively well-to-do members of the community to help the more unfortunate ones. This should also lead to community monitoring, administration and performance audit of these programmes.

And once the Indian government learns enough in these selected countries, it should extend these programmes across the globe.