Wherever you look, it’s the disembodied voice of the diaspora, speaking in a multitude of accents, that seems to set the tone. After reading hectoring emails holding forth on the duties of patriotism, the obligations of being a Hindu and the virtues of Narendra Modi – all pet themes with expatriate Indians in Vancouver or Nebraska – I begin to feel that one must shake the dust of the motherland off one’s feet and migrate to some rich but distant land to be able to speak with authority on things Indian.
This muscle-flexing, whether cultural or emotional, is more common among people of Indian descent — I hesitate to say origin because PIO (people of Indian origin) is a legal definition in some way different from the non-resident Indian or NRI — in North America than anywhere else in a 30-million strong diaspora. Presumably, Indian Americans must compensate for hamburgers and the inevitable nasal twang, and convince themselves they are still Indian. Indian migrants in Malaysia, who live almost as if still in Tamil Nadu, or in Britain, whose lifestyle is not too far removed from that of Westernised Indians in any Indian city, are not under the same compulsion to flaunt their identity on their sleeves.
Money being the ultimate currency of power, I recall one of Manmohan Singh’s early visits to Singapore where I happened to be indulging in these seditious thoughts. He was P V Narasimha Rao’s finance minister back then and had just called India a poor country at a meeting of the World Economic Forum. The Swiss journalist sitting next to me jumped up to say there were lots of Indians in Switzerland, and they were all rich. “We don’t think of Indians as poor!” The future prime minister gave his indulgent smile and explained gently that he knew there was a lot of Indian money about. “I am trying to get some of it for India.”
That might be happening, thanks to the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) that he and Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, signed in 2005. I am told that if Singapore is the largest or second-largest investor in India – $15.67 billion between April 2000 and last November, or 10 per cent of the total – it’s not because the world is rushing to take advantage of the benefit CECA accords to foreign firms with a registered office here. Indians worldwide have found a way of laundering and repatriating their money.
Actually, it’s not a new trend. When British-owned tea gardens in Assam and north Bengal chose to sell out rather than dilute their equity holding to 43 per cent, it was whispered that the buyers might appear to be staid Calcutta traders, but their money was global. Indian money is everywhere. I learnt some years ago that Indians comprised the largest group of pupils at one of Singapore’s most expensive international schools, and that their fees are paid from all over the world. The talking point now is the purchase by Shael Oswal, an Indian mine owner, of a weekend – only weekend, mind you – bungalow in Sentosa Cove for the equivalent of Rs 172 crore at today’s exchange rate. He bought it from Citibank’s Deepak Sharma and his wife, Susan Lim, a successful surgeon.
Like that Swiss journalist long ago, a Singaporean businessman asked me the other day why West Bengal was bankrupt when it had Prasoon Mukherjee. The Bengal Unitech Universal founder with links in Indonesia, Singapore and possibly other Southeast Asian countries had startled him with the casual disclosure that he had invested Rs 29,000 crore in the state.
So, long live the diaspora, I say, despite those irritating North American expatriates who are too aggressively patriotic and assertively Hindu – at least when projecting themselves to the homeland they have abandoned for greener pastures – to sound real. But long life to them all the same – and not only for their money, which we know from past experience is snatched back as soon as things look shaky in India. It’s their worldwide lobbying we prize.
To take a random fictional example, Lata Mangeshkar would probably emerge as the most popular singer in any international opinion poll. That’s not because the Chinese or Nigerians have succumbed to her haunting melodies but because there are enough Indian activists in the Caribbean, East Africa and West Asia to determine the outcome of any survey. Globally, there are more Chinese than Indians but Indians speak the loudest. The diaspora gives us a voice if nothing else.