Shalini Gupta became so disgusted with news of gang rapes and corruption scandals in India that she left her job as a management trainer in Chicago and returned to her homeland after three decades of living overseas.
“The sad state of affairs is what convinced me to come back,” said Gupta, 55, a non-resident Indian, or NRI, who is volunteering for the anti-graft Aam Aadmi Party. “There’s been a complete breakdown of law and order here, with scams every other day, crimes against women, criminals in parliament. It’s really shocked NRIs and made us want to get involved.”
Graft scandals, the slowest economic growth in a decade and protests triggered by the fatal gang-rape of a student have motivated NRIs to play a bigger role in the world’s biggest democracy. The 10 million-member group can vote for the first time in national elections ending May 16, and their power will grow if they win the right to vote from abroad.
Because NRIs must now be physically present in India to cast ballots, the numbers have been limited. About 12,000 have registered to vote in the election, with more than half from Kerala, a southern state that accounts for 20 seats among the 543 up for grabs, Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma said.
“They are also Indian,” Brahma said of NRIs. “It’s just that they have decided to pursue livelihood elsewhere. They should not be prevented from participating.”
Most polls show Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party winning the most seats in the election while falling short of a majority, an outcome that will probably end the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party. The 18-month-old Aam Aadmi and smaller regional parties are projected to hold the balance of power.
Turnout has averaged 66 percent through six of nine rounds of voting in elections ending May 16, up from 58 percent in 2009, according to the Election Commission of India. That would surpass the previous record of 64 percent in the 1984 elections following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which led to a surge in support for her Congress party.
The push for change among overseas Indians is boosting support for parties other than Congress, according to Satish Misra, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
“The BJP has been working on wooing NRIs for a very long time and has had active members for several years,” Misra said by phone from New Delhi. “The AAP has made some dents into the BJP’s NRI constituency with its anti-corruption narrative.”
India’s government says the diaspora -- biggest after China -- includes about 10 million passport-holding NRIs such as ArcelorMittal Chairman Lakshmi Mittal and another 12 million who qualify as a Person of Indian Origin, or PIOs, who can’t vote but get certain privileges for travel and buying land.
“It’s very easy to say: it’s not my problem, I don’t live there,” said Smita Barooah, a Singapore-based addictions counselor who moved to New Delhi in February to volunteer full-time for the BJP campaign. “I decided I had to come here and do what I can, because I felt so angry about what this country has been reduced to. It’s embarrassing and it’s heartbreaking.”
Modi has invited NRIs to events in Gujarat, the state he’s run since 2001, such as a kite festival and a biennial investor summit. The groups Overseas Friends of BJP and Overseas Friends of Narendra Modi have held contribution drives from Canada to Australia and organized discussions over tea to get familiar with the policies of Modi, who once ran a tea kiosk.
Modi’s international image suffered in the wake of 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, which prompted the U.S. and European countries to deny him a visa. He has denied wrongdoing.
Aam Aadmi says about 31 percent of the 304 million rupees ($5 million) it has raised since Dec. 12 has come from overseas, mostly from the U.S. The party is the only one to publish its donations online.
Congress has recruited NRIs such as Shashi Tharoor, a former under secretary-general at the United Nations, to help make policy. Raghuram Rajan, who taught at the University of Chicago, became a finance ministry adviser in 2012 and last September became governor of India’s central bank.
“Involving NRIs is very important,” said Vikash Dhanuka, 40, founder and chief executive of a trading company in Singapore, who will head back to India to vote. “We’re an influential community, and we’re very keen to do what we can.”
India’s Supreme Court this month said that NRIs wouldn’t be permitted to use postal ballots or online voting in this election after a complaint that a requirement to be physically present in India to vote is discriminatory and violates fundamental rights, the Times of India reported. Postal voting will be considered in the future, it said.
“There has been greater awareness and activism among NRIs in recent years,” said Sanjay Kumar, New Delhi-based director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which conducts opinion polls. “Giving NRIs the right to vote from abroad is only a matter of time.”
Gupta, who spent five months in India last year before leaving her job, plans to stay involved in the country after the election even though she’ll move back to Chicago.
“This is a more pressing need, a more important job,” she said. “I see myself staying the course and helping this organization and the country.”
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