While it is difficult to stereotype a people on the basis of their collective characteristics or beliefs, it might be logically proposed that an expatriate population that is broadly similar to that in the country that it originated from, would look at issues similarly to the general perception in the mother country. NRI perceptions of Mr Narendra Modi, the head of the BJP’s effort to retake the Government of India from the coalition led by the incumbent Congress Party, broadly parallel those of Indians living in India. Some within this community vocally cheer Modi on and hope that he will win. A smaller, less vocal minority shakes its head, and worries about a sweeping victory, choosing, perhaps, to support the maverick AAP. An even smaller minority supports the Congress – there was a time hardly four or five years ago when this group would take out full page advertisements in the New York Times singing Sonia Gandhi’s praises. That doesn’t happen anymore. And the “Indian” media in North America (mostly free mailers, but extremely popular and feisty weeklies) demonstrates this same split that is visible in the general NRI population.
The reason behind the NRI’s support or disapproval of Narendra Modi, however, are very different from his counterparts in India. During periods of relative prosperity in India while the rest of the world suffered from a crippling global recession, NRIs invested heavily in the mother country. Tens of thousands of them, mainly NRIs who did not have mainly US citizenship or permanent residency, returned to India on a permanent basis, bringing back everything that they had earned while overseas, to invest it in India. While some of the reasons behind this “brain gain” as it would be called in India were personal (NRIS wanted to return to be close to their families, mainly parents who might have aged and who were not interested in moving overseas) it would be difficult to ignore a patriotic pull that either made them move back, or persuaded them to invest heavily in India. This honeymoon came to an abrupt end with policy changes and scandals blowing up, quite suddenly, in the midst of what appeared to be a new golden Indian era. Many US and Canadian citizens of Indian origin consider the change in the Overseas Citizen of India status (a process originated by an earlier BJP led coalition) to what the current Congress led coalition calls “Overseas [sic] Indian cardholder,” a betrayal. This change brings back memories of past Congress governments especially in Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s time in power, when the North American NRI was considered a traitor. As a consequence, there is a belief that the election of a party that claims to oppose everything that the Congress and its allies stand for (and which gave the NRI a status of sorts in India to begin with) would be better.
India’s increased visibility in the US media also means that the horrific corruption scandals, the widely disliked move to bring in retroactive taxation, the sad situation faced by women even in the Indian national capital and more, get highlighted in the biggest US newspapers and on television. Where Indians were once widely regarded as hard-working if somewhat orthodox people with strange religious views, scandals involving prominent NRIs side by side with scandals in India, make the average NRI cringe. There is a fear that the hard work and consequent respectability that ethnic Indians have gained in the US and Canada, would somehow be tarnished with the barrage of bad news mainly from India, but partly also from a focus upon crooked NRIs involved in large scandals. In a struggle to make sense of all of this, there is an urge to look for a savior, and to have that savior decimate the vague scapegoat of a corrupt Indian “government” and those in charge of it. Enter Narendra Modi – the very visible movement of some large projects like Tata’s low cost Nano car (a failure in the market, but a remarkable success in its design and production) to Gujarat, the fact that the world’s largest oil refinery is located there, and that some very successful industrial groups there have tied up with US based NRI educators to evaluate and help with syllabus and facility upgradation in schools – and you have a personification of someone who promises to arrest the decline in India as the NRI perceives it. There is also the hope that investments in Indian property and shares, under severe stress at the moment, would recover if an alternative, less corrupt government ruled from New Delhi.
The shadow of Godhra does worry many NRIs though, and that is why the emergence of the AAP received so much attention from overseas. Many who would not support Modi or the Congress (whoever leads it after the elections) believed that a new party led by an alumnus of one of India’s top technical schools, was a welcome alternative to the traditional parties. The events in New Delhi, revelations that a Law Minister in the AAP was a spammer and cyber-pornographer, and scandal after scandal following the AAP’s brief rule in the Delhi state legislature, have made NRIs wary. A community that has large numbers of software professionals is naturally shocked by a Law Minister, no less, who was both a spammer and a pornographer. And, many of AAP chief Mr Arvind Kejriwal’s utterances seem, to many NRIs, to be no different from the traditional Congress Party distrust of the community. The consequent gainer of admiration and support, by default, therefore, is Mr Modi.
An exchange from Bertholt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo,” illustrates the NRI’s dilemma over Mr Modi. When Andrea remarks, “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes,” Galileo corrects him, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Whatever the merits or demerits of the personalities leading the three most visible national political parties in India in what will be the world’s largest elections, a magnificent exercise that fills the NRI’s collective heart with as much pride as it does the resident Indian’s, the support for one or another of the candidates aspiring to lead the world’s largest democracy is based upon circumstances that clearly come out of a combination of anger, disillusionment, and unhappiness. Most NRIs cannot vote, and their support or lack of it might be immaterial to the electoral process in India. That said, the support for Narendra Modi is clearly based on emotional reasons, and it is to be seen whether a BJP coalition victory would really change the mood of gloom within a tiny, wealthy community that is looking for a knight in shining armor to rescue it from its current state of enervation.