PM Modi reaches out to Indian diaspora at biennial conference

Indians make up one of the world's largest diaspora with more than 25 million of them living in different parts of the world, including in Singapore, Malaysia, United States and Canada.
Indians make up one of the world's largest diaspora with more than 25 million of them living in different parts of the world, including in Singapore, Malaysia, United States and Canada.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - The Modi government has rolled out the red carpet at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD), a biennial gathering for the Indian diaspora, which has taken on added significance this year amid an attempt to widen voting rights for Non Resident Indians (NRIs) ahead of the general election this year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is working towards giving wider voting rights to NRIs, on Tuesday (Jan 22) inaugurated the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention 2019 by hailing members of the diaspora as "brand ambassadors" for the South Asian country.

In what was almost a campaign speech, he listed the achievements of his government, which included curbing corruption and disbursing cash benefits to the poor.

"In the last four years, India has made huge progress and left its mark in the world. Earlier they said India can't change, we have reversed the situation,' said Mr Modi.

He also said the government was working towards making it easier to obtain visas and passports, including introducing chip-based passports.

This year's PBD is taking place in Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu cities which also happens to be Mr Modi's constituency. Some 4,000 NRIs and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) are participating in the PBD whose theme this year is the "Role of Indian Diaspora in Building New India". In conjunction with the event, the government is arranging home stays and planning to take participants to view the Kumbh Mela in Prayagaraj, in Uttar Pradesh, and watch the Republic Day parade in the capital on Jan 26.

Indians make up one of the world's largest diaspora with more than 25 million of them living in different parts of the world, including in Singapore, Malaysia, United States and Canada.

Last year, a special PBD was held in Singapore to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the dialogue partnership between India and Asean.

The Modi government has been trying to give NRIs who retain Indian passports greater voting rights. The Lower House of Parliament, where Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in the majority, in August last year passed a Bill giving an NRI registered to vote the power to delegate his vote to a representative in India. The representative will have to change for every state or general election.

The Bill is currently pending in the Upper House where the opposition Congress party has asked for more debate amid concerns over voter fraud.

Political analysts said that if the Bill passes it would open up a sizeable chunk of the vote, particularly for the Modi government.

But many believe it might not go into effect for the forthcoming general election, which is due to take place in n three months. There are over 10 million NRIs with Indian passports spread across the world. Currently, only a fraction - 24,348 - are registered to vote and most are from the southern state of Kerala.

"If that becomes part of law, they would be of significant influence. But I don't think the government is going to be in a position to put everything in place before these elections," said foreign policy analyst Lalit Mansingh.

"But NRIs now feature prominently in our foreign policy and in domestic policy. Mr Modi has given an even greater emphasis whenever he has gone abroad and addressed NRIs as part of foreign policy initiative."

More than any other prime minister, Mr Modi has made reaching out to the diaspora a priority since he came to power. He has met them in special events in almost every country he has visited.  In 2014, he addressed a nearly 20,000-strong crowd of Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden. A year later, in 2015, a crowd of 18,000 greeted him at the Expo in Singapore.