HOW DO INDIANS ABROAD VIEW ELECTION 2004?: DIASPORIC CONCERNS
HOW are overseas Indians reacting to the elections in India? What can we learn from their views of our latest exercise in democracy?
At the turn of the 20th Century, some of the most influential personalities in an earlier generation of nationalists spent many years abroad, including Gandhiji and Nehru. Their ability to conceive of India from the outside interacted powerfully with nascent nationalist sentiment at home. Is this true today as well?
With the growing volume of travel and communication, and the establishment of a stable political climate, expatriates' relations to their homeland seem to get normalised. An informal survey suggests that, at least to go by the example of the forthcoming national elections, the Indian diaspora is not paying too much attention.
One well-placed observer, Sreenath Srinivasan, Journalism Professor at Columbia University and co-founder of South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), remarked, "I hear more people talking about the India-Pakistan cricket series and about the impact of outsourcing than I do about the elections in India."
Even if expatriates have India on their minds, the outcome of the elections is hardly upper-most. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, those abroad usually do not vote even if they are Indian citizens, unless attached to an embassy or a diplomatic mission. Second, outside the Gulf countries, the bulk of expatriates are from a segment of the Indian population that is increasingly withdrawing from electoral participation. Third, the debates in the Indian elections are hard to discern for voters who are not already well-informed. This election has been low in terms of issue salience, despite the amount of publicity. The ruling coalition's campaign ignores criticisms and presents the image of a party destined to govern. Additionally, the media have been indulgent towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the incumbent party, while the Opposition appears unable to acquire leverage in its own campaign. The election season resulting from all this has, for all its stars, not shed any light on issues.
This is in contrast (for example) to the ongoing U.S. election campaign, the most keenly contested in recent memory, and one that has provoked serious political debates right across the society. With the Democratic nomination wrapped up unusually early, this year has also seen the longest election season on record, shrinking media space for other issues.
If the substance of the elections has made little impact on Indians abroad, the form has resonated much more. Broad contours of the propaganda can thus be recognised in what non-resident Indians say about the elections. The "India Shining" campaign designed by Grey Worldwide (formerly Trikaya Grey) was in fact sanctioned to promote the government's image abroad, even if the unofficial purpose was to promote the BJP in India during election time (Business India, March 15-30, 2004).
India's profile is high in the western media, a result of its prominence in the outsourcing debates, and the publicity given to Indian success stories in information technology. This has arrived like a belatedly-revealed economic base underlying the growing cultural success of Indian products such as Bollywood films and fusion music. The publicity given to Infosys chief M.R. Narayanamurthy's interview some months ago with CBS's "60 Minutes", where he disclosed that his son had chosen Cornell University, an Ivy League school, for undergraduate studies, only after failing the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance test, signalled a new phase in the hype over Indian values. India appears like a sequel to Japan, combining old-fashioned values with up-to-date success stories, and leavened by its ancient civilisation. That India should be seen as an economic threat to the west seems only to confirm that the country has "arrived". Small wonder that the "India Shining" campaign seems to have resonated well with NRIs, for whom the truth value of the claims may be less important than the affirmation of their own identity. New York-based freelance journalist Vivek Rai reports that even the Indian cabbie who drove him from JFK airport to New York City expressed his approval of the campaign.
The question of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins seems also to have registered with expatriates, with several expressing the opinion that a prime minister should be Indian-born. This is interesting of course, since NRIs are themselves foreigners who presumably wish to enhance, not diminish, their rights abroad. It is questionable in fact, whether they would want a similar policy applied to themselves.
Such echoes of themes from the Indian media might be an artifact of the media itself. The publicity effects of India-based campaigns occur abroad as well, even if the details are lost in transmission. It should be noted that a growing number has access to the same sources of news, via cable TV and the internet. These are in a sense post-geographic media: they are accessed in similar ways around the world.
This is not to say that their effects are the same everywhere. But they allow demographic segments of media audiences to be consolidated, and to acquire an impact exceeding their political clout in any given market or nation. The new media constituted by Indian newspapers on the net, or by news services exclusive to the net, create the impression of questions for which the answer is the same everywhere. The ever-proliferating opinion polls on the web illustrate this phenomenon. A current Outlook poll asks: "Middle class was supposed to be the main support-base of the party with a difference (i.e., the BJP). What do we think of its performance?" Results are not broken down by region, suggesting that "middle class" is a single global constituency.
To cite poll results from one of the websites is a handy way of conveying the flavour of diasporic opinion, since those who respond are literally from all over. The polls are obviously non-scientific, and offer litmus readings that are purely heuristic.
To cite a couple of polls from Rediff.com. Will Advani make a better prime minister? One thousand five hundred and twenty-five said "yes", 701 said "no", i.e., 65 pre cent and 29 per cent respectively. (120, or 5 per cent, had no opinion.)
This compares with a recent Outlook poll, where given a choice of desirable PMs, Advani was picked by hardly 2 per cent of respondents, scoring evenly with Mayawati. By contrast, to a question such as: "Are you happy that Savarkar's portrait is in Parliament?" few people responded. Forty said yes, and 35 said no, with eight expressing no opinion (or 48 per cent, 42 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.)
Even if there do not appear to be campaigns to pack the polls and tilt the results, we can tentatively conclude that the broad opinion is well to the right of political views in India. That is indeed the impression many observers have reported. "There is huge support for the BJP," says Vivek Rai, "while almost everyone from the cab driver to the investment banker and even some liberal arts students have a problem with the `foreigner' as PM." This suggests that publicity effects that form in the subcontinent tend to take on a heightened quality in the U.S. This does not exclusively redound to the BJP's benefit. Both pro and anti-Hindutva opinions seem more widespread among Indians in the west, for example, even if the former is in the majority.
Clearly, Indians abroad are far more dependent on the news media for its political information. They lack the experiential awareness of a voter in India, for whom political judgments may derive from daily life, encountering ordinary people or for that matter political leaders, complicating in one way or other the effects of media publicity. This does not mean that the Indian voter is infallible, of course, far from it.
What it underlines, however, is that for expatriates, cultural concerns are pre-eminent where their homeland is concerned. Economic or political matters themselves can be translated into questions of cultural identity when seen from a distance. "India Shining" accomplishes exactly this effect. To question the real performance of the Indian economy is treated as an assault on national identity, and as a sign of unpatriotic feeling.
Has a campaign conceived by and for NRIs become the basis for conducting a national election in India? Or have educated Indians themselves begun to regard their own nation much as NRIs would, from afar, as a matter of cultural identity, while unwilling to muck about with its poverty and wretchedness? These are questions that come sharply into focus when we ask how overseas Indians regard the Indian elections.
Arvind Rajagopal teaches at
New York University, U.S.
THE manner is confident, even brash, and the language is breezy; the talk is of Bollywood stars and their escorts, whether former, current, or putative, of super-rich entrepreneurs setting up businesses or attending high-powered conferences in the United Kingdom, and of the exploits of India and its neighbours on the cricket field. Thus do the South Asian media in the U.K. come across; the so-called mainstream British media, for their part, attempt to make up for decades of near-indifference by appointing high-profile newsreaders and correspondents of South Asian descent, who almost without exception are people of high calibre and considerable personality. In the U.K., the Indian diaspora has made it, arrived, got on the map.
Or has it? Insofar as British South Asians constitute a diaspora, they may not be the oldest Indian in the widest sense diaspora in the world, but they are a complex one. Those specifically of Indian extraction number some 1.05 million, or 1.8 per cent of the U.K.'s population. Although in educational achievement they and those of Chinese descent do best among all groups in the system, substantial proportions of the Indians are, or are the descendants of, former poor peasants from rural northern India, particularly the Punjab. Following a decision by the British government, they settled here in hundreds of thousands in the 1950s and 1960s, doing the donkey-work of post-war British reconstruction. In their desire for a better life (how are they different from the white Britons now settling in Spain or Australasia?), they left everything they could call home, and bore the separation, the drudgery, the racism, bore their twilight life in a society which wanted only their labour and seemed not to care what else happened to them.
Lasting wounds remain from these encounters with the imperial legacy in its very home. Unemployment among those of Indian extraction is 7.5 per cent against 4.5 per cent among white Britons, and 30 per cent of Indians here are on low incomes, as against 20 per cent of whites. And in spite of their consistently high educational attainments, professionals of Indian descent in the U.K. find it hard to break into the upper ranks, where they are severely underrepresented. The world of arts and letters is not very different, and the acclaimed novelist Monica Ali recently refused to participate in an interview because it was to be broadcast only on an "ethnic" channel and they had insisted on sending along an "ethnic" interviewer.
There have been good things, to be sure. For example, the long involvement of trade unions has provided participation and protection for tens of thousands of Britain's South Asian settlers. The grassroots of the Labour Party, despite frequent pusillanimity at the top, such as the (only recently-ended) exemption of public services, including the police, from the laws against racial discrimination, have done much to encourage South Asians to stand and win in local elections. Today, whatever their own ethnic background, local and national elected representatives take their South Asian constituents seriously, and not just at election time. And the government of India has for some 20 years maintained good contacts among British South Asians, partly as a result of the dangers posed in India by secessionist movements with contacts in the U.K.
So how is all this connected with the elections in India? The answer is, hardly at all. While the Zee and Star TV channels cover Indian affairs intensively, the British media have not taken much notice of the campaign.
This may be because there have, fortunately, been few violent incidents so far, but the indifference probably has deeper roots. News coverage here is remarkably unhistorical one member of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) staff recently told me, in a formal reply, that history (by which he meant five years ago) is not a matter for news broadcasts and in 35 years of relatively close attention to the U.K. media I have seen only the most fleeting references to the fact that South Asians and West Indians migrated to the U.K. not just because they wanted a better life but because the U.K. needed them. In the current and often feverish British coverage of asylum and refugees, it has sometimes been said that the U.K. now faces a labour shortage; yet that compounds the exclusion of those who gave their best years to redeeming the previous labour shortages but happened to come from South Asia.
The British media did, however, carry short items about Prime Minister Vajpayee's announcement of the general election. Some broadsheets have begun to carry election reports from India, and one has included a comment on the possible consequences of the result. But the same paper's Sunday stablemate carried a front-page box naming "Hindu" as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and a week later called Calangute "Calungate", like "Watergate". A telephone call pointing out the errors brought no correction, despite a stated policy of publishing corrections.
That about sums up the Indian general election as seen, or rather not seen, from the United Kingdom. It's only a billion people, only 640 million voters, only we are told an emerging economic superpower, only possibly a deadly serious battle for the very soul of India. But it's all very far away. Post-colonial relations obviously mean different things to the colonisers and the colonised.
Dr. Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is a lecturer in politics and law at Taunton's College, Southampton, U.K.
FOR most of this year, Danish newspapers have been full of news about forthcoming elections in the world's greatest democracy. No, they do not mean India. They mean the United States.
Until a few days ago, there was hardly any news in Danish newspapers and magazines about elections in India. Well into March, Politiken, a major national daily of Denmark, had only one news article on the Indian general elections: a short piece announcing the news on February 29.
The situation in other Danish newspapers is the same. And Swedish and German papers are only slightly better, if that. It is true that the Indian general elections have received more coverage in the United Kingdom. After all, India used to be the jewel in that nation's crown once upon a time. But only the most obdurate nationalist would claim that Indian elections have received more than a decimal fraction of the space and attention devoted to the U.S. preliminaries or, for that matter, soccer, cricket, the royal family, the weather and a host of other things that involve around one thousand people in Europe rather than one billion in India.
And yet, even in Danish newspapers, there is some indirect evidence of the fact that, technically speaking, 670 million Indians could be casting their ballots in April and May. Articles have appeared on bride murders in India, and on the oppressive caste system. Now, I count myself among that small minority of middle class Indians who believe that both are serious problems and that it is diabolical to find excuses for them. But I cannot help feeling that every few years, when Editor Hansen-Jones-Gottlieb wakes up and realises that there are elections in India again, he says to his underlings, what ho, do you have something on Inja? And the underlings scratch their heads and reply, Inja? Isn't that where they kill brides and untouchables for sport? And so they drag out some old articles, change the dates on them, and hey presto, the Indian elections have begun being covered.
Of course, in April, there will be more news of elections of shooting and booth capturing and rigging and, finally, an announcement of the coalition that wins, but even that carries with it a certain sense of déjà vu. No matter how many atomic warheads we have, India still does not feature prominently in the media discourse of North and West European countries.
Much of what gets written about India has been written about it for roughly 200 years and very soon India's much vaunted computer revolution will be entering those post-septuagenarian ranks too.
Indians would like to believe something else especially, those of us who belong to the classes and professions that have been making it good recently. In this respect, Indians resemble Americans. Both tend to believe that their country is the centre of the world. Except that in the case of the Americans, everyone else even rabid anti-Americanists like Osama bin Laden seems to believe it too. In the case of India, only people who are writing a PhD (or a book) on Indian matters or representatives of countries/companies out to make a profit from us locate India at the centre of the world. Such people seem to be much quoted and interviewed in the Indian media though.
I agree that there is no point putting the blame for this sad scenario on Indians alone. Surely, the fact that general elections in a country of one billion people should have stayed on the margins of European media coverage reveals something that is rotten not only in the state of Denmark but about the state of Europe too. And yet, some of the blame surely accrues to us.
In terms of public education, literacy, per capita income and so on, we trail behind most Asian and South American and even some African nations. In terms of infant mortality, female infanticide and social inequality, we are far ahead of most. The little attention we do get is the result of our size, on paper, and the capability and visibility of the professional Indian middle class. But this class is very small compared to the rest of India, though it remains largely unwilling to comprehend its own relationship to the rest of India.
Speak of different classes in polite circles in India and some intelligent young babu-type starts frothing from the lips. Surely, you are simplifying, he screams. Yes, surely, I am; but only as surely as it is a simplification to say that slaves were exploited on Caribbean plantations or that colonisation was no gift to India.
Surely, we are good to our servants, he shouts in reply. And surely we are: just as the rich world is good to India. The alms of goodness that we give to our poor are just as many as the alms of media attention we receive from the world. Europe overlooks us not due to moral considerations, but because we can be only as strong as the weakest among us.
At the heart of our failure to grab the world's attention lies the answer to a question that is often asked in polite circles in India: why is it that we can hardly produce world class athletes and sportspersons in spite of having a population of one billion?
And the answer is that some of us are comparatively too rich to really make an effort, and the rest of us are comparatively too poor to really have the opportunity. Our failure to produce world-class athletes is related to our failure to hold "world-class" elections.
That is something the Americans, in spite of all the rigging there these days, still manage quite well, thank you.
Tabish Khair is Associate Professor
at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.
INDIANS in the diaspora, much like the Jews, the Armenians, the Chinese, and others in a similar predicament, have conflicting views about the impending elections to the Lok Sabha in the next two months. Political slogans, such as, "India Shining", or "Feel Good Factor", or "Mera Bharat Mahan", are well known for their fatuousness and flatulence (stemming, possibly directly from the high protein dal-bhat diet of vegetating politicians and the immoral advertising agencies who manipulate the message and media while raking in handsome profits) to Indians abroad, many of whom are successful professionals, media-savvy, and not easily taken in by blatant lies, unrealistic promises, and plain flummery. They recognise that these are latter-day versions of an earlier, equally empty boast called "Garibi Hatao".
Elections no matter in what country, be it the United States, or India, or Taiwan, are mass exercises in: conjuring images, projecting personalities, subverting true issues while raising false ones, inciting communal riots to create a fear psychosis and prevent voting, and buying votes by cash in areas where everything else fails. Yet, one cannot be cynical about the fact that the largest electorate in the world of 67.5 crores will go to the polls.
Given the above, what does an Indian abroad expect from this staggering, supposedly democratic exercise? The reply in a word is: self-interest and variants thereof. There are those Indians abroad who have carried with them deep wounds of Partition and the trauma of communal riots which ensued on either side of the sub-continent, not to forget their caste, sub-caste, linguistic, and ethnic roots. This section, together with its succeeding generation which is now rapidly coming to the fore, is certainly interested in the success of the communally divisive and nationalist "Hindutva" agenda and the "Mahanta" dimension.
They are deeply concerned with India's identity as primarily a Hindu nation, thus salving their wounded psyches from earlier anguish, and simultaneously affirming/finding their earlier lost identity in their land of exile.
There is no getting away from their preoccupation with self and loss of self when one talks, observes, and interacts with this slice of the Indian community. They walk-their-talk by contributing in cash and kind to all sorts of communal, politico-religio-economical projects all over India. Their self interest in the forthcoming election is most pronounced when it comes to securing various concessions from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, be it tax breaks as non-resident Indians, secured investment opportunities, setting-up educational and medical enterprises (while blatantly distorting earlier established national priorities and allocation of scarce resources) in India for delivering goods and services to the global market, and dual nationality status.
Another section of the diaspora, which can broadly be called the children of the global revolution in the information technology and other sectors, is equally interested in a different notion of self-interest. They are keen to see an India where all its citizens find equality of economic opportunity and realise the dream of creating a nation where one's religion is not the determinant, but education, work, and productivity are the primary indicators for future advancement.
To this end, they intentionally deny all political, religious, and other differences among Indians and work seemingly as united Indians abroad. To call this group apolitical would be a misnomer, because they aren't really so, but pretend to be. This segment of Indians abroad hopes that the forthcoming elections will ensure political stability, peace with Pakistan, and greater domestic and international, economic opportunities for themselves and their native partners, either in setting up "outsourcing" enterprises in India, or making more money. They bet on and support every horse in the election race; no matter who looses, they come out winners. Their self-interests are assured.
What struck me on a recent visit to India was the astute and sobering comment by a taxi-driver. I asked him what he thought about the coming elections, politicians, and slogans, such as: "Mera Bharat Mahan" and "India Shining". He tartly, though resignedly, replied: "Kya Kahein saab, sau mein ninya-nabbe beiman lekin phir bhi Bharat Mahan. (What can I say, sir. Out of a hundred politicians, 99 are scoundrels and still India is a great country, is it?") There was no self-interest there, just pure perception, penetrating the dense fog of vacuous slogans.
Vivek Pinto, scholar, author and activist, is based in Tokyo and teaches at Sophia University. .
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