Wednesday, January 16, 2008

And India goes to . . . Obama; and the United States goes to . . . Sonia

I've been helping here in Delhi to put on America’s first online global primary in which Democrats abroad will vote in a block, like their own state (Americans will be able to vote online in the primary if they register by the end of the month – see – or be able to vote at a polling booth the Dems will have in Ploof in Lodhi Market in Delhi).

This new U.S. primary system has gotten me thinking a lot about representation issues of citizens living abroad. I wrote an op-ed last month for the International Herald Tribune (see that briefly outlines some of the reasons why I see this new global primary as part of a broader globalization of the electoral process in the U.S. (and why this is a good thing). If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see who Americans abroad will vote for: India goes to Obama, Argentina to Clinton, China to Kucinich. . . .

A good friend was commenting to me that Americans abroad should not just get their own convention delegates for the Democratic primary, but also be able to elect their own representatives and get two Senators. After all, in the last ten years I have voted in 4 states (and will soon globally) – just because a population is rather transient doesn't mean it shouldn't get representation. And those of us living abroad (whether American or Indian) are often united more by this fact than what specific state we come from in our respective country.

You might see where I am going with this now. India, of course, has a very large NRI and PIO population. The PIOs get a lot of benefits (on visas, buying land, etc.) but can't vote. The NRI's can, and although I haven't seen the numbers I suspect that their participation is very very low.

So, should this NRI community or NRI/PIO community get their own representation in Indian Parliament? What purpose would that serve? I actually think India should think about adopting this model and it's not just that I often tend to want to rewrite what we consider our default bounded political communities.

There are the more obvious reasons about why this should happen – Indians abroad are a valuable part of the Indian nation-state (sending home remittances, building up skills and intellectual capital that will return if they do, providing a network for Indian business globally, etc.) and they have special concerns that need to be represented and might not be adequately so under the current system (taxation on remittances, labor abuse in UAE, etc.).

There's another potential benefit though to this that might be controversial and I'm not willing to stand by, but I think is worth throwing out for conversation's sake. That is that having special representatives for Indians abroad might inspire young educated Indians abroad to engage in the political process, which could eventually have very positive cascading political effects back in India.

While in India, I've been struck by the cynicism towards mainstream political engagement of students at top Indian law schools and by young dedicated lawyers in general. While in the US many students at any given top law school are taking off this year to campaign for presidential candidates, in my experience it is a very rare student who would take time off from NALSAR or NLS to go campaign if Parliamentary elections are held this year. I most often hear the reason for this is that the whole political process is corrupt so why bother. There is also a deeper group shunning of all political engagement amongst the professional class in India than I have found in other countries (a smart highly accomplished Indian friend recently told me he thought he would lose half his friends the next day if he said he was going to run for office) – there seems to be an after-effect of Gandhi in this to me, but I could be wrong.

In other countries (even with corruption) idealistic candidates run that engage young educated people. They almost always lose, but in the process they change the course of debate and act as a way for young people to become part of the political process. They inspire and a new political space is created.

My guess is that if Indians abroad got their own elected representatives in Parliament this would provide a better platform for more idealistic candidates to run. I don't know if he or she would win (I suspect they wouldn't – most Indians abroad aren't college students), but I do think they might draw more young people into politics (the internet biases towards this group and would be a natural organizing platform for Indians abroad) – this would help develop a group of young Indians engaged in their country's political process (even if from afar) which could pay large dividends when/if they return. It might even spur a new regional (albeit global) party that could later get bite on the national stage.

Of course, all this would require a change to the Constitution (and there might be a far-fetched BSD question about maintaining the integrity of India's borders), but given the comparative constitutional barriers in the U.S. and India it is more likely India would be first to change its representative model beyond the boundaries of its territorial control. Something perhaps worth considering.
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