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.