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17 May, 2024 11:36

Flight club: Why Indians overseas are so desperate to travel home to vote

Non-Resident Indians, citizens worldwide who have been mobilized by the prime minister in foreign visits during his tenure, are flying back home to make a difference in closely fought elections
Flight club: Why Indians overseas are so desperate to travel home to vote

Non-Resident Indian Mahesh Murthy has lived in Hong Kong, the US, the Netherlands, and the UAE for over 15 years. But his Indianness hasn’t faded. Sitting 2,540km away in Dubai, he follows all political developments, government policy announcements, and the decisions that impact 1.44 billion Indians, every day.

What he’s seen and heard over mainstream news and social media, and in conversations with friends and relatives, has helped shape his opinion about events in his motherland. Now, it’s showtime. 

Murthy is one of the many Indian citizens living abroad, commonly referred to as NRIs (Non-Resident Indians), who have flown into India from around the world to exercise their right to vote.

The 2024 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) election is the first time that over 118,000 overseas Indians have registered to vote. A majority are from the five southern states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. This marks a 65% surge from the 2019 election. Thousands have arrived or will arrive shortly. Women account for 11%.

“I believe that the government’s role is solely to create the conditions and environment for its citizens to live up to their fullest potential,” Murthy told RT. “Healthcare, food, education, infrastructure, technology, and regulations that allow ease of doing business should be among the top priorities.” 

RT

This will be the fourth election Murthy has voted in. He traveled from overseas to vote in two of them, and was here for the May 13 vote in his hometown, Hyderabad, in Telangana. “Voting to me is exercising my right to help select my representative in the country,” says Murthy, who runs an ad agency and is an investor in many companies, including one in Hyderabad that builds satellites and space tech solutions.

Murthy grew up in a family whose members served in India’s armed forces. “Back then, religion, caste and language made little difference to us. Today’s India is very different,” says Murthy. 

Global Indians 

Data analysis by the Election Commission of India shows that 74.9% of NRIs who newly registered to vote this time are from Kerala. Andhra Pradesh is next with 6.4%, Maharashtra with 4.7%, and Tamil Nadu and Telangana with 2.9% each. 

According to Ministry of External Affairs data, more than 30 million Indians are settled across the globe. Of these, nearly 13.5 million are NRIs, while the remaining are Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) – people who are not citizens of India but have Indian ancestry.

India has the biggest diaspora in the world, followed by Mexico, Russia, and China.

In the 2014 election, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, over 11,800 NRIs registered to vote, but less than 1% actually turned up. Similarly, in 2019, as many as 99,807 NRIs registered to vote, of which only 25,000 ended up doing so. 

Until 2010, NRIs were not eligible to vote. That year, the government amended a law allowing NRIs who had lived abroad for over six months to vote. Now, an NRI settled in a foreign land can get onto the electoral rolls in India. 

New Delhi’s outreach to the NRIs has changed, too. Modi interacts with the diaspora wherever he travels. In May 2023, the prime minister was welcomed to Sydney stadium by 20,000 cheering fans. Modi shared the stage with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. “The last time I saw someone on the stage here was Bruce Springsteen and he didn’t get the welcome that Prime Minister Modi has got,” Albanese told the audience.

In June 2023, Modi addressed the Indian diaspora at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Centre in Washington DC. The mega event began with award-winning singer Mary Millben performing India’s National Anthem.

Similarly, in February this year, Modi addressed thousands of Indians in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where he inaugurated the grand Swaminarayan temple. The enthusiasm of the Indian diaspora was overwhelming, the Times of India reported, with the organizers having to close registration for the event when the numbers surpassed 65,000.

RT

Making a difference

Overseas voter Maruthi Prasad Surapaneni is excited to cast his vote. He is one of 1,500 NRIs who returned to Andhra Pradesh in the past month to do so. For them, it is an opportunity to vote in the state assembly election as well as the national parliamentary election at the same time, on May 13. 

“No one can match Modi, India needs him,” Prasad declared. He owns a restaurant and is involved in real estate in Melbourne, Australia, where he moved more than two decades ago.

“I have analyzed the performance of both center and state governments and I am here to do my bit in selecting good and capable leaders,” says Prasad. “Obviously, I want my state and country to grow in all spheres, especially investments, job opportunities and better infrastructure.”

NRI Gangadhar Gutta, 50, who has been based in Delaware in the US for the past 17 years, returned to Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh two weeks ago. “Like many Andhraites, I have come here to save democracy,” the IT professional says.

Soon after arriving, he went around town to speak with a cross-section of people to get a first-hand idea of how things are under the current government: “From what I saw and heard, there was nothing to be happy or feel good about. My vote will be my answer to all of that.”

RT

Foreign policy

Political analyst Rajalakshmi Joshi says the Indian diaspora is keenly looking at the elections primarily due to the ruling party’s foreign policy, which has an impact on Indians around the globe, particularly considering the migration policies where they live.

“These elections will determine India’s role in addressing regional and global challenges and the diaspora recognizes this,” she says.

Joshi says the prime minister also recognized early on the concerns of the diaspora, and his consistent outreach to it has been a feature of his foreign policy.

“Addressing tens of thousands of people of Indian origin in Australia, the US, the UAE, Japan and elsewhere, Modi has effectively created a novel tool of foreign policy, backed by enthusiastic supporters abroad,” she says.

India has deepened trade relations with Russia, while also continuing to improve ties with the US. “With high-octane, visible state visits and vital defense agreements, India’s relations with several countries today are closer than ever,” she adds.

“Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too has been on visits to universities and much publicized talks, with a lesser number of attendees in comparison, but both major parties have realized that their connection to the NRIs is vital to their support, monetarily and otherwise,” Joshi says.

To judge the impact overseas voters might have on the election, Joshi points to the winning margin in Kerala in 2019. Only five constituencies had winning margins of less than 50,000 votes, with two of less than 12,000. “But in a tightly-fought election, as might be the case in Kerala, with the United Democratic Front (led by the Congress) and the Left Democratic Front (led by the Communist Party of India – Marxist) in a bitter duel, every vote counts,” she says.

In other states, NRI votes could impact seats with a close margin, she predicts.

RT

Joshi says Modi’s target of 400+ seats has mobilized BJP workers across the globe to come to India to campaign and support the BJP. “There have been numerous rallies, marathons and walks in support of Modi in various cities of the US, the UK, Germany, the Philippines, the UAE, etc with the goal to see him as PM for the third consecutive time.”

While the BJP has hailed the 2024 Lok Sabha election as one “for the progress of the country with a vision for 2047,” the Opposition has given a call to “save democracy and protect the constitution.” “NRIs from both sides of the divide are hence queuing up,” the political analyst says.

That the number of overseas voters has increased tenfold in ten years is an indicator that the diaspora has woken up to the power of its vote. 

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