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.

Maldivians in any other place

The plan to move a nation

Upon his election, Mohamed Nasheed, the new president of Maldives suggested that his government will “divert a portion of the…annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland—as an insurance policy against climate change.” While this prompted the Economist to engage in some levity—it proposed that Maldivian government buy Iceland or Wales—Mr Nasheed has something of a good idea.

Investing a portion of short-term revenues to address long-term, inter-generational problems is sound public policy. But there are practical challenges. The principal challenge is whether the destination country will accept a whole nation—even if this is a mere 370,000 people—to set up a homeland within its borders. Three precedents from the previous century come to mind: the Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Nationalist Chinese settlement on Taiwan and the Tibetan settlement in Dharamsala, India. The Jewish settlement became an independent state, and caused a high level of friction with the local population that exists to this day. The Nationalist Chinese settlement became a semi-independent state/renegade province (take your pick) and the local population got marginalised. In the Tibetan case, the refugee settlement is self-governing, but not independent, and there is little friction with the local population.

What this suggests is that if the Maldivians are transplanted into settings more or less similar to the society they leave behind, things might just work out. Such a place could be India, but it is unlikely that the religious factors involved will make this option feasible. It could be Sri Lanka or even one of Gulf states. Even so, resettling an entire nation as a political entity can have destabilising effects on the destination country.

But there is another approach—although it would mean a dissolution of the Maldivian nation-state. Instead of the Maldivian government purchasing land to house its people, it could just assign a fixed portion of the national resettlement fund to each citizen. Maldivians could then—individually or in groups—purchase land wherever they like (and are permitted to). Societies are likely to be more receptive to the idea of accepting Maldivian immigrants rather than importing a whole nation. Perhaps Mr Nasheed could implement Overseas Resettlement Vouchers, redeemable against purchase of real estate in foreign countries.

Yet the most economically efficient approach would be to simply pay the Maldivian citizens hard cash and let them spend it the way they want. Some might buy property in Kochi, Colombo or Reykjavik. Others might spend it on getting a decent education. Still others might drink themselves to death. There still is good reason to say to each his or her own.

Related Link: Over at Global Dashboard Charlie Edwards links to a map of countries buying land in other countries.