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Originally published Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 5:12 PM

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Guest: What India’s election means to Indians around the globe

The Indian election for prime minister is pulling in overseas Indians from the rest of the world.


Special to The Times

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FEW moments in time make the expatriate Indian feel so distant from home as a wedding in the family, a disaster, or, then, a great Indian election. This time around, as the world’s largest democracy makes history with the world’s largest and most expensive polls, which end Monday, the issues are pulling in the 27 million-strong Indian diaspora along with the domiciled.

It’s not just the unprecedented, social-media-facilitated access to a digital dalliance with the pluralist democracy of the motherland. The stakes, as expatriate Indians living in 190 countries across the world know, haven’t been this high in recent memory — no matter which end of the political spectrum or which corner of the world you stand on.

Nonresident Indians are reported to have flown to India to cast their votes. Some have quit lucrative overseas jobs to join political parties in the homeland. Several have joined the political campaigning across the world.

One nonresident Indian lobby is championing India’s very own candidate of hope and change for prime minister, newcomer Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, or the Common Man’s Party, whose party’s campaign is powered by small donations and a big push, especially from Indians in Silicon Valley.

IT professionals have developed an online donation platform, a phone-a-thon for raising campaign funds and they are live-streaming news conferences and Google Hangouts to support Kejriwal.

His chances of upsetting the juggernaut Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or Rahul Gandhi, the favored scion of the currently ruling Indian National Congress, are reported to be slim at best.

Still, another major group of Indians abroad is praying to the election gods for Kejriwal’s victory: progressive Indians such as academics abroad who warn of a regressive India under Modi. A specter of massacre follows Modi — many believe he failed to stop Hindu mobs from murdering hundreds of Muslims in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

Influential globalist Indians disdain Modi’s election platform vow of a “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalist pride) rule for the nation. Writer Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, sculptor Anish Kapoor (knighted in the U.K.) and Harvard University Professor Homi Bhabha wrote a joint statement against Modi’s candidacy, referring to his ethics as “incompatible with India’s secular constitution.”

For countless Indian expatriates, despair mixes with embarrassment each time international news headlines tell of religious fundamentalism and the related deep-rooted patriarchal misogyny leading to a rise in the reports of rape in India.

A rising India is growing from promise to possibility to finally being a player of some regard in the international economic arena. Indians abroad would like to nudge it over the hump. Bad news, they believe, drags it right back from the wings of the world stage.

Not all see progress as being merely on the social front, though. Millions of Indians overseas invest in portfolios in Indian assets, own real estate and have bank accounts back home. According to the World Bank, India receives the largest remittance in the world from its expatriates: $55 billion in 2010. Modi, a free-trade enthusiast and champion of India’s corporatization, has emerged as a favorite for this group.

The emotional connection runs strong among the geographically disconnected. So does a healthy sense of humor. British-American television humorist John Oliver’s segment on April 27 about the messiness of the Indian elections went viral and Oliver became an instant social-media favorite with Indians across the world.

The Indian election lends itself easily to satire. And, like the global Indian, it travels well.

Sonora Jha is associate professor of journalism at Seattle University and is the author of “Foreign,” a novel about Indian farmers’ suicides.



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