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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Over 20 million people of Indian origin are dispersed in 110 countries all over the world outside India.  About half of them constitute the first generation immigrants or their immediate families – mostly in North America, Europe, Middle East, and South-East Asia, apart from our own neighborhood.

In modern times many factors caused this wide dispersion – compulsion (indentured labour), hunger for knowledge and exposure, ambition and opportunities being the most important.  India’s civilizational values, strong family bonds, nostalgia, and national identity exert a strong pull on all expatriates wherever they live.  As commonly said, you can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take India out of an Indian.

Expatriate Indians are making vital contributions to India.  Huge foreign exchange remittances, transfer of skills and technologies, establishment of market linkages, investments, and building a strong constituency for jettisoning economic orthodoxy are among their major contributions.  This role is increasingly acknowledged and appreciated.  Indian state too is responding with some sensitivity in dealing with the needs and aspirations of expatriates.  The meteoric success of accomplished Indians is helping transform the image of India, and our recent economic successes in turn are shoring up the self esteem of expatriates.

But expatriates are playing an even more vital role in transforming India.  Overseas Indians have a disproportionate impact on our national life.  Most of the million elite families in India dominating our politics, business, bureaucracy and professions have one or more close family members living abroad.  These strong bonds are shaping our attitudes, influencing policies and fueling aspirations.  How can we channelize these energies constructively to build a liberal democratic and humane society fulfilling our true potential and meeting the challenges of the future?

There are three broad areas waiting for infusion of new ideas and modern attitudes.  First, our politics has become big business, and rent seeking and abuse of power have become endemic.  Money, muscle power, caste clout and pedigree have become the chief determinants of political recruitment, not true leadership qualities and contribution to public good.  Our democracy is robust and liberties are real.  But our polity is in disrepair and needs mending. Greater representational legitimacy, democratic management of parties, better systems to make honesty compatible with sustenance in power, institutional checks and balances to prevent abuse of power, true empowerment and participation of people through local governments, accountability, and effective mechanisms to combat corruption are all critical to make our democracy work for the people. We need to reclaim the republic stolen from our people. Expatriates who have seen how democracy can work for public good and prosperity, human dignity and empowerment, rule of law and institution building can play a creative role in reshaping our polity.

Second, India is confronted by growing challenges of modernization. Vast numbers complicate the crisis immeasurably. Even if we assume the will, commitment and resources, we lack the domain expertise in meeting these challenges. Education, healthcare, urban management, policing, delivery of justice, water, drainage and sewerage systems – all are in crying need of rejuvenation. Even a casual acquaintance with European public transport, British healthcare, American universities or the world’s great cities reveals how much we have to do to make up for lost time. It is not merely a question of investment and infrastructure. We have to redesign them and make them replicable and sustainable by viable institutional and technical mechanisms. We need to adapt the best practices and innovate constantly. Who better than expatriates to make it happen, with their understanding of our special problems and intimacy with the best systems which work?

Finally, our society has unique advantages which promote harmony and happiness – strength of family, respect for elders, civilizational ethos, great sense of write and wrong, societal pressure moderating individual behaviour, contentment and natural propensity for restraint. But we also have some terrible deficiencies. Moral neutrality to inequity by birth, wealth or position, mistrust and antagonism across groups and vertical hierarchies, and lack of a sense of common fate are our great failings. These are cultural traits in an ancient society with enormous baggage. Egalitarian approach to life, fair reconciliation of conflicting interests, and fusion of private gain with public good must all be integrated with our societal life. Expatriate Indians have the advantages of distance which lends objectivity, and exposure which opens new vistas. They need to be in the vanguard of a social movement to overcome some of our egregious propensities.

Our national leaders during freedom struggle were inspired by the liberal values and rationalism of renaissance. But popular nationalism was largely shaped by resentment against British racial bigotry, cultural atavism and idolatrous sense of patriotism. Expatriates can help us rediscover true nationalism based on liberal values, human dignity, enlightened self-interest, fulfillment of our potential, mutual respect and harmony.