From guaranteed economic and social well-being to the best of creature comforts, the Non-Resident Indians seemingly have everything – except the basic right that ensures political participation. For, without being able to exercise the fundamental right to vote, they don’t have the opportunity to say “I chose my leader”.
No matter how much longing that one may feel, an NRI in the US will not have the luck of seeing the ink mark on the index finger on an election day. The immigrants’ life is largely dictated by H1B visa, a GPS that never seems to show the route back home. Taking a vacation during election time is not an option for those H1B visa holders, who have to worry about stamping formalities to ensure their return. This weighs on the mind much more than casting the democratic right.
Getting the Green Card makes visits to India easier. But in the normal course, one cannot dream of getting it earlier than 10 -15 years, that too only in the event of not being taken on a rough ride called changing employment. Even after that, the transition to a citizenship takes yet another five years of wait, before which one cannot vote in the host country. As a result, one may seem to possess all the comforts of life, but not the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process.
As irony would have it, these are the ones with strong opinions and suggestions for the political and social developments, be it concerning India or the US. They play a substantial role in influencing the decision-makers. The social media postings are a testimony to this fact. A small incident in a remote village in India would result in a gush of postings from NRIs, condemning or commenting vociferously on the issue.
It is generally believed that the educated elite in India are indifferent to cast their vote. And mostly, it is this set of people who become NRIs in the US. So not many expect them to care for the Indian elections. That perhaps is a broad generalisation.
“I cast my first vote when I was 21 – I consider myself lucky to have had the election card in place. Just eight months after moving to the US, I wanted to visit India to cast my vote and had made elaborate arrangements after taking permission for extended leave from work. Much to my dismay, I found my vote was already cast,” exclaims 45-year-old Subramanian Santhanam, a resident of New Jersey.
“Even after getting my Green Card 25 years ago, I was not emotionally ready to renounce my Indian citizenship. I was thus unable to vote in India or in the US. All my seventy years of life, I have never participated in any democratic process,” rues New York-based Ranganathan Swami.
“It is just so hard to stop the palpitating heartbeat when India goes to polls. We watch, feel, empathise and feel proud about the process. We cannot be indifferent to this happening in the world’s biggest democracy,” notes Priya Ramachandran, an IT specialist in her early thirties. She missed her chances to vote in her early twenties when she was a resident of India. The real challenge now is to be able to keep the voting status alive.
The emotional connect with the political milieu back home never seems to diminish. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the streets of New York, one cannot miss the rows of people who queue up to show their support. These are the ones who line up for demonstrations and raise funds to support victims of every calamity. When the counting of election votes begins in India, these NRIs spend sleepless nights tracking the progress and gather at common places to cheer and celebrate the democratic process.
In parties, lunch meetings or other social events, the topic veers around political developments, be it in India or here in the US. They discuss and debate so much about these issues that their concerns seem to display no boundaries. This is not a popular trait among immigrants from other nations. India’s media blitzkrieg is so popular in the US that the access to news and views originating from there is never ending.
The NRIs get involved in the American elections with equal intensity. With the upcoming 2020 elections, many NRI families are glued to the TV sets on days of primary debates. Observing the political rhetoric in detail and commenting on social media are a favourite pastime, even while being fully aware that they have no voting rights in the US as well.
When India sneezes, these people behave like having caught the cold. Unfortunately, they don’t have any prescription drugs to help cure this ailment of deficiency. Funnily, no one seems to realise the need to acknowledge this truth. Could dual citizenship be the magic wand?
— The writer is a journalist based in New York