| “We are not a diaspora of India”
Everyone sympathized with a man I knew because his family had forced him to give up his girl friend and marry a woman of their choosing. No one stopped to consider that he might have been more of a man if he had stuck to his guns (and girl) and to hell with the family fortune. Or that he has lived perfectly contentedly ever since with the wife he did not want.
Reading about the recent jamboree in New Delhi brought back that memory. The nostalgia of exile, the romance of homecoming and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s eloquence about the diaspora’s “richness of experience” rather than its riches was all very well. But it seemed that cold calculation underlay much of the euphoria. Generally speaking, both sides were assessing the price of a bargain from which India expects financial dividends while Indians abroad expect protection and facilities.
This is of course a generalization. Not all immigrants, or their descendants, are interested in any kind of deal. Many have neither riches nor richness of experience to barter. Some like Lord Naipaul expect nothing from this country. Some, like Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, will not even acknowledge the connection. Others, Amartya Sen for instance, already enjoy the best of all possible worlds.
But a growing community also remains rooted in this country even if physically resident in Dallas or Darwin. The link can be emotional, political or commercial, or a combination of all three. They are mostly first generation immigrants. They are doing well, and they want, as Lord Swaraj Paul once said of himself, to be “100 per cent Indian and 100 per cent British”. The second label might be American, Canadian or Australian.
The entire show was staged for the benefit of this increasingly influential group. Absence makes it ultra-loyal, and patriotism is easily transferred to the traditional totems of national identity — the lotus, the lamp, the swastika and saffron. It induces support for an ideal whose custodian the Bharatiya Janata Party claims to be, and it finds expression in demonstrations of loyalty and, more to the point, vigorous fund-raising. Apparently, 60 per cent of Indians in the United States of America are from Gujarat and solidly behind Narendra Modi. In conceding the demands of these people, the grateful authorities had to decide how much to charge them for the privilege of eating their cake and having it.
Not that it was only a Tammany Hall conclave of political fund-raisers, for the entire question of immigrant and mother country is also undergoing review. When Idi Amin was evicting Indians in the late Sixties, I had a long talk on the subject with David Ennals, then home secretary in Harold Wilson’s government. Lapsing into blunt colloquialism, Ennals said that India, which was insisting that London should take in all these people, had “got Britain by the short and curly and wouldn’t let go”. As he saw it, India had legal but not moral right. Moreover, he thought New Delhi’s zeal on behalf of the East African Asians (as they were called) misplaced and shortsighted.
They had education, capital, skills and were hardworking. They were just what India needed. But they were drawn to Britain, and India backed them to the hilt, cutting her nose to spite Britain’s face. East African Asians took over all the corner shops in British cities, entered public life, collected honours and rapidly moved up the social scale. Their children, who have gone to university, are getting out of the retail business.
For some years now, India has tried to make up for its ardour in sending East African Asians to Britain. Indeed, it has been trying to backtrack on Jawaharlal Nehru’s original exhortation to immigrants to identify wholly with the country of adoption. The new remittance-inspired mantra is that immigrants must simultaneously be loyal to both countries. In short, he must follow the Paul formula.
Not everyone who attended the conference can have agreed. Sir Shridath Ramphal may be well disposed to India but I doubt if his loyalty extends beyond Guyana. Having fought to be recognized as South African when the white regime would gladly have repatriated “coolies,” the anti-apartheid activist, Fatima Meer, was quoted as saying, “We are not a diaspora of India.”
Others, too, must have stood aside from the bargaining for a variety of reasons. Few descendants of indentured plantation workers in Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean would have any prize to offer the Indian government even if they had wanted to do a deal. Not many complacent members of the Indian Singaporean middle class have any desire to explore Asia’s outer darkness beyond their air-conditioned nation. Some are too poor, some too rich, some have been too thoroughly assimilated, some are critical of New Delhi’s indifference to their social plight (in the Persian Gulf) or their political rights (in Fiji).
Understandably, India is mainly interested in British Indians who have the highest income among minority groups there and Indian-Americans with an average income that is 50 per cent more than the national average. Fiji’s former prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, was speaking into the wind in warning against “focussing too much on the affluent sector of the diaspora”. That is what the gathering was all about. It was not about persuading immigrants to donate medical equipment or set up village schools. It was about getting their cash. Idealistic or supercilious strictures matter less than whether the bargain will be honoured.
I say this because of the haste with which the diaspora scrambled out a decade ago when the Kuwait War and political instability left India with a rock-bottom credit rating and just enough foreign exchange for two weeks’ imports. The foreign debt, which had stood at $20.5 billion in 1980, soared to $70 billion in 1991. In addition, there were short-term obligations of about $4 billion.
India pleaded with the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi to deposit a billion dollars in an Indian bank account, approached the US for a bridging loan, asked Venezuela for oil, and, finally, packed off its gold to London and Tokyo. Overseas Indians, to whom the mother country also looked for succour, turned out to be very different from the overseas Chinese. They invested in India when the going was good, but took out their money when things became rough. Of the $2 billion that non-resident Indians moved out of the country’s external rupee accounts during the Kuwait War and the political upheavals of 1991-92, a billion dollars were withdrawn between April and June 1991 alone.
Could that happen again' Yes, it could. No matter how many reforms Jaswant Singh might devise to make investment simpler, no matter how many passports Lal Krishna Advani showers on the chosen few, the very fact that immigrants want a second passport means they are not putting all their eggs in India’s basket. They will not sink or swim with India.
East African Asians chose Britain in the Sixties because India did not inspire confidence. They were not certain of conserving their capital, of being able to add to it in India or, having made money, of being able to keep what they made. Confidence has increased since then because of India’s economic progress but it is still dependent on the annual growth rate. Addressing American businessmen, Manmohan Singh once quoted John Maynard Keynes. “In the final analysis,” he said, “investment is also an act of faith.”
Neither faith nor the diaspora’s commitment can be taken for granted so long as so many bright young Indians continue to vote with their feet, and prominent in the brain drain are the sons and daughters of the very men who are expected to uphold national values and institutions. The answer lies not in stopping them but in improving growth so that there is less inducement to migrate.