Polls Apart: Feeling the heat of homeland elections

By Indira Laisram
Global Indian diaspora celebrates unity in diversity of democracy

The ongoing Indian elections are a hot topic even among Indians living in Australia.

Surprisingly, it’s more than just talk; friendships have suffered. Some people, speaking anonymously, confess that their friendships have been strained because they don’t see eye-to-eye politically.

Beyond personal anecdotes, the prominence of these discussions reflects the deep impact of Indian politics on the identity and shared awareness of the diaspora as well as the enduring connection many feel to their homeland’s socio-political landscape.

Christina Teronpi, an HR professional in Melbourne originally from the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, shares, “We are following the news even though it is not going to affect us much.”

In a similar vein, Chris Mallika Bhadra, a Bengali born and raised in New Delhi and currently a podcaster in Melbourne, adds, “Like any other Indian citizen living abroad, to me, the election is a pathway to evolving the community, democracy, everything. So, I am interested to see how the events unfold this time, see how the young India reciprocates to the process of electing their government.”

Media and theatre personality Saba Zaidi Abdi, originally from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and based in Sydney, expresses, “I am very much interested in what is happening in India and am keenly watching the elections,” adding, “I observe reports from people on the ground, the voices of dissent. The way social media has been used and abused is quite shocking.”

Saba Zaidi Abdi

Mohan Dhall, an Indian-German academic, currently doing his doctoral studies, perceives the elections in India as very important not only to India but also to the region and globally. He states, “India is the world’s largest democracy situated right beside the world’s largest autocracy. Distinguishing itself through openness, freedom, and upholding human rights is critical.”

These sentiments echo an interest and engagement among members of the diaspora community, regardless of the direct impact on their current lives.

However, Pradeep Taneja, Deputy Associate Dean, International (India) in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne and a Senior Lecturer in Asian Politics, believes that while some individuals may be avidly watching TV debates, most of the Indian diaspora is primarily focused on their own lives, with only moderate interest in the Indian elections.

“Parents of Indian migrants may follow the polls more closely, but those who have settled abroad are generally more invested in Australian politics. However, everyone remains curious about the outcome of the Indian elections,” he says.

Pradeep Taneja

Although interest levels among the Indian diaspora in Indian elections vary, there is a common understanding of the intricate nature of India’s electoral processes.

Mohan Yellishetty, Associate Professor in Resources Engineering at Monash University, reflects on his deep appreciation for these intricacies. “Those residing, particularly in Western democracies, may struggle to comprehend the sheer scale of these electoral events. I see the contrasts firsthand, such as in my home state of Telangana where the Congress government faces accusations from opposition parties like the Bharata Rashtra Samithi (BRS) and BJP of infringing upon people’s rights – a narrative mirrored at the national level.

“Despite the imperfections inherent in any electoral system, I have great respect for India’s election process. No election can claim perfection, there exists a constant drive for improvement. Given the challenges and circumstances we navigate, I believe India’s electoral process is reasonably fair and commendable,” he says.

Teronpi is intrigued by a striking difference in Indian politics: the frequent public attacks and the decline of dignity in political discussions. She notes a significant deviation from the decorum commonly observed in Australia, where constructive debates are accompanied by mutual respect. While acknowledging the significance of raising valid arguments, she believes there is the need to maintain civility and respect.

Christina Teronpi

With the diverse perspectives offered above, the question naturally arises: does the diaspora wield influence on Indian politics?

“The diaspora may not directly influence voting outcomes, but in today’s era of social media, their attitudes towards political parties in India can have a significant ripple effect. When the diaspora projects a positive image of a political party, whether it’s the BJP or Congress, it resonates with voters in India almost instantly,” says Taneja.

“For instance, one of the BJP’s claims has been that India’s global standing has risen since it came to power a decade ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has referred to the diaspora as the brand ambassadors of India. Thus, if the diaspora expresses elation about a particular political party or the government’s performance, it can translate into support for that government back home.

“However, beyond such indirect influence, the diaspora typically lacks direct sway over Indian politics. Large democracies like the US or India tend to focus primarily on internal issues during elections, with foreign policy rarely taking centre stage. In India, foreign policy is seldom a major electoral issue; even the current foreign minister does not contest elections. However, the diaspora’s celebration of the Modi government’s victories, as seen in previous elections, can contribute to shaping perceptions about India’s global standing under his leadership,” says Taneja.

Chris Mallika Bhadra

Both Bhadra and Teronpi also acknowledge that the diaspora’s influence is primarily indirect, affecting their family and friends back home.

Building upon the above observations, the diversity within the Indian diaspora in Australia emerges as a crucial aspect to consider. Dhall notes that this community encompasses individuals with varied political leanings, with some aligning themselves with the BJP while others feel marginalised.

“The conduct of elections in India holds significant implications for expatriates, particularly those belonging to Indian minorities such as Indian Muslims. The manner in which elections unfold can evoke feelings of exclusion or concern among these expats, especially regarding the well-being of their families back in India,” says Dhall.

Taneja adds another dimension to this discussion, pointing out the diaspora’s desire for full dual citizenship. He notes, “One issue that hasn’t been widely expressed among the diaspora is the common wish for full dual citizenship. While the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card facilitates travel to India, it does not grant political participation. This stands in contrast to most of India’s neighbours like Pakistan or Sri Lanka, which allow dual citizenship.”

Mohan Dhall

The 2024 Indian general elections are in full swing, marking one of the largest democratic endeavours globally. With two phases completed out of seven, voter engagement has surged, with a staggering 969 million registered voters participating, reports say.

However, the voting process for the Indian diaspora remains constrained. Non-resident Indians, who retain their citizenship, are eligible to vote but must return to India to do so, as provisions for absentee or postal voting are not available. This significantly restricts the number of diaspora members who can exercise their franchise, requiring their physical presence in their registered constituencies on election day.

The spotlight will be on June 4, when Indian election results will come out.

Yellishetty, who has played a pivotal role in forging a robust partnership between India and Australia and established the Australia India Critical Minerals Research Hub, believes whatever the outcome, a change of government will not hamper the initiatives undertaken.

“What I am saying is how the image of India has grown since I arrived in this country in 2007. I don’t see a change of government hampering these initiatives; I see India on a forward trajectory. That means we must continue. Policies, irrespective of the governments, are made by bureaucrats and think tanks, and I believe they will persist. The only thing is, perhaps priorities might change, but all in all, I am quite positive that they won’t interfere in key areas.”

Mohan Yellishetty

Abdi expresses apprehension about the outcomes. “If the current BJP government retains power, their agenda threatens to further erode the secular fabric of India. Already, there has been significant damage to the country’s constitutional principles, with a shift away from secularism towards majoritarianism and a devaluation of democratic norms. However, if the BJP does not secure victory, as some reports suggest is less likely, there may be some safeguarding of democratic values,” she says.

Of course, not everyone shares the same sentiments. The community naturally lacks a unified viewpoint.

As Taneja sums up, “The diaspora is as diverse as the population in India. The members of the diaspora whether in Australia, UK or the US, they have divergent political views, and those views keep changing just as in India the voters keep changing their support for a particular political party in any elections. The good thing about elections in India is that nothing is guaranteed.”

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