Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The politics of Indian-Americans and Non-Resident Indians -- Double alienation


Ever since I posted on the Facebook that that the stupid NRIs do not believe in Indian democracy, many young Indians among the NRIs hit back with force and energy. It was in the context of the Madison Square event where Prime Minister Narendra Modi got a thunderous welcome on Sunday. I found the NRIs' adulation of Modi rather mindless. Perhaps there is a need to look closely as to why the NRIs are hero-worshipping Modia need to understand the politics of the NRIs, many of whom are also Indian-Americans because they are American citizens, and quite a significant number of them are taking part in American politics, either by joining the Republican and Democratic parties or by forming an Indian-American pressure lobby. Experts have praised the role played by the Indian-Americans in the successful passage of the necessary legislation through the tow houses of Congress connected with the India-US Civil Nuclear Deal. Some of the NRIs were also offended when the US government refused visa to Narendra Modi in 2005 because the US government apparently did not want to hurt the sentiments of Muslims -- it was not clear Muslims from which country -- because of the 2002 Gujarat where about an estimated thousand (official figure) and about five thousand (according to civil society groups).
The NRIs felt proud that Modi came to the US in his own right after a tremendous electoral victory in India and the US government had no option but to roll the red carpet for him. The crowd which paid its way into the Madison Square event was actually doing a victory jig at one level. There is also the other aspect, an important one. The NRIs in general were ashamed and angry about the stories of corruption during the UPA2 regime from 2009 to 2014. They were jubilant when the Congress-led coalition was thrown out of office.
The NRIs in India do not form a homogenous group. There is as much diversity in terms of language and region and sect and religion among the NRIs as there is in India. The NRIs reflect the diversity of India. So when a general statement is made about the political beliefs of the NRIs, it goes without saying that it does not describe all of the NRIs.
But it is possible to spot a trend in the NRI situation. Many of the Indians who migrated to the US after Indian independence were mostly from educated middle class families. The numbers were small in the 1950s and 1960s, but it increased in the 1970s and swelled during the 1980s and 1990s.Quite a few of them who went to the US during these decades but they returned and occupied important positions in business and industry, in the medical and engineering professions as well as in the academics. When the P.V.Narasimha Rao-Manmnohan Singh duo launched the economic reforms in 1991,there was a growing awareness in India as well as among the NRIs in the US that the migration was not wasted, that the NRIs had much to offer to India by way of expertise as well as through investments. The actual figures might not be as big or as critical as they may appear to be. The real benefits that Indian policy-makers expected as did many other Indians was the arrival of iconic American corporations in India and changing the business atmosphere. This meant the arrival of the MacDonalds, the Kentucky Fried Chicken as well General Electric. When Enron came into India in 1992-96, its shady and fraudulent history was still in the future.
This is the positive story that every wants to retell -- the success of the NRIs and how they made the mother country proud. But there is a history of the NRIs which is implicated in certain kind of politics.
Many of the people who left India for the US were from middle classes and mostly from upper castes and the upper-crust Muslims. Most people who left India did so because they felt they had no future in the country, and that in the highly politicised atmosphere with its rhetoric of socialism, there is no room for merit. This is partly rhetorical because there were enough mediocre people among them. But the political competition was intense and there was no economic growth which would have provided opportunity for all. A friend from Chennai/Madras, who belongs to the Brahmin community, argue bitterly that Brahmin houses are deserted and there is no one to look after the aged parents because the younger people had to migrate to the US because they were literally hounded out as they could not get jobs in a case of reverse economic discrimination. But the story is more complex than that. People from all castes, including from the Dalits,migrated once they became middle class and they got educated.
The NRIs worked hard, sent money home and settled in America. They remained apolitical whatever their strong political opinions which remained pride. The NRIs kept away from American politics through these decades, and they were really critical of socialism of the kind practised by Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Interestingly, Indira gandhi, and later Rajiv Gandhi, had turned to some of the talented NRIs to bring about changes in the Indian economy. So, the NRIs remained in a strange situations -- aliens in American politics and aliens in Indian politics. It is only in the last 15 years that some of NRI returned and joined some of the major political parties and they even got elected. This is also the period, when the NRIs became Indian-Americans and joined the American political mainstream.
Indians who went to England, and even to America before independence, came back suffused with the political ideas of liberty, equality, rule of law, constituionalism, democracy. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, B.R.Ambedkar are shining examples of what the Indian leaders learned from their time in England and America. Surprisingly, the NRIs do not show much enthusiasm for American democracy, the ideals spelled out in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln's enactment of the abolition of slavery, the Progressive era presidents at the turn of the 20th century -- Theodore Roosevelt, Wlliam Taft and Woodrow Wilson, who took up cudgels against big corporations and brought in legislation to regulate them, the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to fight the Great Depression of the 1930s. The NRIs did not bother to understand the meaning of US Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren's decision ending segregation in schools and colleges and asking the government to ensure that black students can go to universities which were until them reserved for the whites. They did not bother about Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights legislation which opened up further opportunities for the blacks and also his war against poverty in his presidential term from 1964 to 1968.
It will be a matter of great interest to know whether NRIs, young and the not-so-young have any views on the politics of the Republicans and the Democrats. Possibly, many of the NRIs must have liked Ronald Reagan's view that the state should be thrown off the backs of the people though it will not be clear as to what their stand view would be on health care and health insurance in America. Did the NRIs of the 1960s and 1970s take any interest in the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr and the racial riots in the wake of King's assassination? Did the NRIs sympathise with Rosa Parks protest in the 1950s when she just refused to vacate her seat on a bus which was meant for the whites? What indeed are the views of the NRIs towards blacks, towards Hispanics and towards the other ethnic groups like the Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles et al? We cannot blame the NRIs for not taking part and for not having a view on the burning issues of American politics. They did not have the luxury to participate in the political arena. Today, they are quite willing to be part of the American political process. The question is whether they want to adapt the ideals of American democracy to Indian politics. They can be of the libertarian, Republican variety or the Democrats' affirmative action variety. Or something very different from these two. So, do the NRIs want to make Indian democracy better qualitatively? Or do they naively believe that what is to be adapted is the American economic success and not America's political agonies? The success of American capitalism is entirely a product of American democracy. So, do the NRIs feel that Indian economic development would be meaningless without the values of democracy?
The NRIs should have contributed their thoughts on Indian politics based on what they thought about the American democratic experience. And if they think that American democracy has nothing to offer to Indian democracy because the cultural values are different, then they must be arguing and debating their point of view. They should argue why they agree with Modi politics and why their disagree with Manmohan Singh's economics and Sonia Gandhi-led Congress politics.
The sad story seems to be that they missed out on the politics in both America and in India. A case of double alienation.It is not easy to be an emigrant/immigrant. Away from the place you belong and not able to belong where you are. Tragic. But America is the land of hope. It allows NRIs to be part of America or remain Indians.

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