The Times of India – The immigrant swansong: New Delhi must tactfully seek to expand freedom of movement for trade and commerce

Chidanand Rajghatta

Op/Ed, 19 June 2017. There’s an old joke about the scene that greeted Neil Armstrong and co when they stepped on the moon: They saw an auto garage shop manned by an Indian Sikh; they drank chai at a tea stall run by a Keralite Malayali; and finally they checked into a motel managed by a Gujarati Patel.

Advancing the script, the first person to travel to Mars in the near future, who may well be of Indian origin, would apocryphally meet a ‘sardar’ managing the Martian branch of Tesla, a ‘Mallu’ (or Goan) running Mars’s first Michelin-star restaurant, and a ‘Gujju’ managing a five-star hotel.

Ethnic stereotyping aside, the legend of the Indian diaspora is immense. There are more than 30 million people of Indian origin across the globe, a population almost the size of Canada’s. There is no country where they are not present, including remote island states such as Nauru in the Pacific and isolated outposts such as Barrow, Alaska.
Their expansive emigration has allowed India to build bridges with countries and communities across the globe, giving New Delhi economic openings, a stake in the political stability and prosperity of resident countries, and geopolitical heft.

Such is the allure of its diaspora for India, in no small measure because of the nearly $70 billion they remit annually, that New Delhi has now developed a template for community outreach whenever the prime minister travels abroad.

Over the years, such community events have become bigger, brighter and more boisterous, as the Indian immigrants have found their voice on the strength of sweat and toil, smarts and savvy, embracing success like few other ethnicities have managed.

Slogans and cries of Bharat Mata ki jai now rend the air in arenas across the globe, from New York’s Madison Square Garden to Sydney’s Super Dome to Dubai’s cricket stadium. (Even in as politically restrictive a country as Saudi Arabia, temporary home to an estimated three million Indian workers, the Indian prime minister recently reached out to the country’s toiling expats.)

Nowhere has the Indian diaspora grown and thrived as much as in America, home to nearly four million People of Indian Origin and Non-Resident Indians, now chronicled extensively as the wealthiest and best-educated community not just in the US, but arguably anywhere in the world.

From architects to astronauts, from yoga instructors to zoo keepers, from law and politics to acting and entertainment, there is not a sphere of activity they haven’t broken into.

With a median family household income of over $1,00,000 and 70% of its adult population holding at least a master’s degree (both way above the US average), this ‘model minority’ is the envy of other nations and, till recently at least, pride of the host country in showcasing its diversity and openness.

Indeed, no country on earth has taken in as many Indians as its citizens as the United States.

There is a growing sense, and a few small indicators, that the historical mandate for openness and acceptance in what is fundamentally an immigrant society is being altered, if not subverted.

Next week, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in the US capital, he will meet the Indian community at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner in neighbouring Virginia, in a modest ballroom of 14,000 square feet that can accommodate some 1,500 people.

This is a far cry from the 15,000 plus people who stampeded into New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 2014 and Silicon Valley’s SAP Center in 2015, two events that set the tempo and provided the template for similar prime ministerial outreach across the world.

Of course, it is possible that availability and security issues may have resulted in a distant venue, but scuttlebutt suggests there is more to this.

Mind you, the capital area’s Indian-origin population is large enough to have merited the Walter E Washington Convention Center (which offers the city’s largest ballroom at 52,000 square feet), or at least the Washington Marriott Wardman Park or Omni Shoreham, venues where Modi’s predecessors Manmohan Singh and AB Vajpayee respectively addressed the community.

But this is not the time, nor the dispensation, with which you share or showcase the strength of the diaspora.

In as much as previous administration officials and US lawmakers were awed by the Madison Square Garden spectacle (and said so publicly), and saw it as a celebration of the country’s diversity, this regime is more likely to see it as a threat.

Already, the signs are not propitious, not just in the US but in many immigrant destinations abroad, including the UK and Australia.

From proposing ideological tests for potential immigrants to shutting down guest worker visas (which have led to US citizenship for many Indians) on the pretext of misuse, nativist boffins have begun to curtail immigration, initiating steps that have also put a hex on Indian students who venture abroad to study, on tourists, and indeed on businesses.

Of course, no country can afford to have open borders and every country needs to regulate inflow of immigrants; New Delhi shouldn’t mind that.

But what India should aim for is to secure and expand the facility of its people to freely travel for education and entertainment, trade and commerce, India’s great strengths, while hoping both for its and America’s sake that the nativist mood against globalisation is a temporary aberration.

Immigration is not the issue; trade and commerce are.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ruminations/the-immigrant-swansong-new-delhi-must-tactfully-seek-to-expand-freedom-of-movement-for-trade-and-commerce/

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