In less than a year’s time, India will go to the polls at its next parliamentary elections. Understandably, the scramble for power, support and funding has begun. The young turks of the Congress Party, Sachin Pilot and Milind Deora were recently in Sydney to rejuvenate their ties with the Indian diaspora in Australia. The visit of the two leaders was on the invitation of Indian Overseas Congress – a body that seeks to act as a bridge between the Indian National Congress and the diaspora. Both leaders also visited Melbourne and Auckland as part of their ‘reaching out tour’.
The stakes are really high for Congress these elections, which was reduced to a mere 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha (lower house) elections. The challenges the party faces include the need to regain people’s confidence, galvanizing its workers down to the booth level, and nurturing a social base among the farmers, the poor, the Dalits, the minorities and other marginalised sections. Rahul Gandhi, who took over as party chief from his mother Sonia Gandhi in December 2017, has to recast the party’s identity and improve its image, credibility and acceptance, and find funds to take on the cash-rich Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Congress party presently is in power in only three of the 29 states (Punjab, Mizoram and Puducherry), and shares power with the JD-S in Karnataka, as the BJP has all but displaced it as the dominant pole in Indian politics. Presently, alliance politics seems the only option left for the Congress to take on the BJP as it draws hope from the success of the SP-BSP combine in the 2017 bypolls or the RJD-JD(U) mahagathbandhan in Bihar in 2015.
So perhaps the obvious question to ask the two young leaders, was, what should the Congress change within itself.
Sachin Pilot seemed to be of the opinion that its essential strengths in terms of values will continue to see it through. “The Congress’ core beliefs reflect the values it has embodied since the freedom struggle – in particular inclusive growth, social justice, abolition of poverty and the protection of the marginalised. The Congress is the political expression of India’s pluralism and a strong, committed voice for the preservation of secularism.”
Milind Deora however accepted that the Congress has to learn from the BJP, the art of political communication. “We could emulate their skill in the art of storytelling,” he said. It’s definitely something his party is struggling with.
Another salient question, from Abbas Raza Alvi of the Indian Muslim Association of Australia, was about the sectarian issues that are raising their ugly head in India.
Both leaders agreed that these developments were counterproductive to progress.
“Unfortunately our discussions get circled around mandir, masjid, ghar vapasi today,” Sachin Pilot observed. “The focus should be on investment, jobs creation, skill building, agricultural economy, issues that matter to people should be of priority.”
Milind Deora added, “Politics is increasingly becoming about persona and personalities and less about issues. Religion, caste and personalities are non-issues aimed at distracting voters from the core issues”
The discussion with the former ministers ranged on issues from mob lynching, challenges to the social fabric, environment threat and the upcoming Rajasthan elections. Yet, there was nothing that could clearly reflect a strong strategy or vision that Congress has to offer in 2019. Whether the party has really gone through a process of metamorphosis since its loss in 2014, is a question difficult to answer.
India is an aspirational country, with a huge youth population. The political and policy narrative on development and growth has changed over years. Is the Congress ready to acknowledge this, and can it really define its position on economic orientation, social safety net and nationalism? Can Rahul Gandhi really overshadow 24X7 politicians like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah?
So the question remains, Rahul can hug, but can he deliver?
As a newly arrived migrant, and one who has been working at the forefront of policy issues as an analyst within India’s parliament, my maiden socio-political event in Sydney was an interesting one.
I offer some observations here.
Events such as these are a reminder that the Indian diaspora wishes to be heard and counted. To an extent they want to be in Parliament too, if given an NRI quota (an interesting point brought to the notice of Pilot and Deora at the event).
Why are NRIs still passionate about the politics back home? The first possible explanation for this large investment of time and money is altruistic patriotism – the desire to see the home nation prosper. Also many Indians living overseas today plan to return home in the future, or at least to spend a large part of their time in India. The second generation of Indians is taking an interest not just because they’re a part of India, but because they want to go back and see there what they see overseas. The diaspora’s understanding of the local economy, government schemes to encourage investment and the economy’s relatively strong growth rate, also mean that many overseas Indians have invested a large amount of their savings in India. Whether that money is in real estate, the stock market, or simply in fixed deposits, the diaspora has a vested interest in India’s economic growth. Politically as well, they have been a strong influence, evident from their role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and the state elections of Punjab and Delhi.
The diasporans I encountered at the INOC event seemed to be deeply invested emotionally in affairs back home, perhaps turning even more patriotic than when they were in India. For all the money they remit to India, they wish to be valued.
Yet with their concerns around dual citizenship, voting rights and parliament quotas, the flavour of elitism was all-pervasive in this event. The desire to have the best of both worlds was only too evident.
The astute Sachin was quick to catch on to this.
“Successive governments have ignored diaspora issues,” he said. “Voting rights for residents abroad will be part of our manifesto. Dual citizenship needs to be discussed too.”
It’s a matter of time before New Delhi creates some system for NRIs to vote remotely. But until then, India’s committed diaspora will continue supporting political campaigns back home practically and financially.