Overseas donations playing critical role in Indian general elections

By Swaran Singh Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-9 22:53:01

India's 16th general elections, which started Monday, involve 814 million voters and 9.3 million polling stations.

But what is new about India's 16th general elections is that these will also be the world's most expensive; crossing even the price tag for US presidential elections.

Even the tenor of India's high-tech electioneering increasingly resembles the US campaign style of televised choreographed roadshows. Greater availability of information through websites, social media and increased reporting seems to make it almost a global event.

Overseas Indians are the most excited new stakeholders. Those in the US are trying to not just influence, but even determine the outcome.

This is in spite of the fact that just a fraction of the 3 million people of Indian descent in the US have right to vote in India.

Yet, they are campaigning to ensure privileges in consular services, increased H-1 visas, and even investments. They want online voting for 10 million overseas Indians holding Indian passports and two seats in India's parliament to represent overseas Indians.

Indian Americans are equally active in domestic elections. About a dozen of them are contesting this year for various US positions.

Their meetings in the US from 1989 had resulted in the setting up of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin in 1989, the US-India Friendship Council in 1990, and the US India Political Action Committee in 2002. The last one is already holding weekly video conferences with noted India experts.

Their debates are gathering momentum. India-US relations have lately moved from merely lukewarm to actually rocky, and opinion polls indicate the pro-reform and pro-business opposition prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, heading the next government.

The US-India Business Council has released a 40-page wish list with a promise to take bilateral trade to whopping $500 billion.

Each major political party has chapters in the US. The new Aam Aadmi ("common man") Party, benefits greatly from its US win.

Financial contributions from Indian Americans were the largest single chunk of their funding during their debut in India's provincial elections in November.

On the very first day of launching their website in the US on March 17, they claim having received donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the other extreme, overseas supporters of the Congress party have been downbeat and funding relatively low, which is in tune with wider expectations and opinion polls predicting their worst defeat ever.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems set to course to a win. BJP's win in three of the four provincial elections in November has set the tone for their likely win at national level.

In terms of its impact on US investment, a Bank of America-Merrill Lynch analysis dated March 6 shows that foreign institutional investors invested $6 billion in the Indian equity in the quarter ending December 2013 compared to $700 million for previous quarter. The gathering strength of the rupee signals similar expectation.

It was the BJP government during early 2000s that prioritized engaging overseas Indians through a biannual jamboree called Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Overseas Indians' Day) that celebrates the success of overseas Indians.

The US-based Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) played pioneering role in making Indian Americans interested in politics back home.

Overseas Indians were a strong lobby in India-US nuclear negotiations. Other than their financial contributions, hundreds of OFBJP members are expected to travel to India to join the BJP campaign.

Modelled on the popular Chai pe Charcha (discussion over tea) of their leader, the OFBJP has organized  "Chai Parties" in Tokyo, Frankfurt and Washington. This unfolding new reality heralds a completely new chapter for India's democracy.

The author is a professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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