On matters relating to the Diaspora, the Centre needs to call the shots, suggests Ambassador T P S Sreenivasan.
IMAGE: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan addresses the Loka Kerala Sabha, January 2, 2020. Photograph: Kind courtesy Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan/Twitter
The wheel set off by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi by inviting the states to be involved in formulating and implementing foreign policy has come full circle when a major congregation of overseas Indians was held in Kerala without the participation of the central government, whose responsibility it is to take care of the Diaspora.
What is more, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan called it a ‘gigantic hoax’.
Opposition parties in Kerala boycotted the conference on the plea that it was a waste of money when the state was under financial constraints.
A couple of years ago, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had staged a kind of mild coup by getting several Indian prisoners released by direct intervention with the ruler of Sharjah.
There was thunderous silence in New Delhi, but no one protested.
Subsequently, Kerala was not permitted to receive a cash grant from the UAE at the time of the floods in 2018 because of the Chief minister’s premature announcement.
Further, Kerala was not given permission to send its ministers on a mission to several countries to seek relief funds.
The chief minister was allowed to visit the UAE, but there are no details available of the funds received.
And now, by a conspiracy of circumstances, Kerala held a major Diaspora conference without the participation of the Government of India.
Though the external affairs minister and the minister of state for external affairs were invited, there were no prior consultations with the nodal ministry.
A major negative fallout of the Loka Kerala Sabha 2020 was that the unanimity among the political parties on the importance of the welfare of overseas Indians has been eroded.
Successive governments have vied with each other to provide facilities to them like the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Pravasi Samman and various welfare measures, particularly in the Gulf.
State governments too had set up institutions and chipped in with their own schemes.
All these will turn into partisan political exercises in the future.
Another setback is the confusion it may have created in the host countries about the respective responsibilities of the Centre and the states for overseas Indians.
Apart from their dire need for Indian workers, there is also a political element in these countries taking such a large number of Indians and the improving relations of India with the Gulf countries has been a helpful factor for the Indian communities in these countries.
They will hesitate to deal with the state governments because they have no role in the overall political and economic relationship.
If Kerala or any other state decides to set up parallel bodies for the welfare of Indians abroad, they will have to open offices in these countries, because the embassies will not involve themselves in programmes not endorsed by the ministry of external affairs.
At the time of the UPA government, the ministry of overseas Indian affairs had found it difficult to get cooperation from our missions abroad because they were functioning under the ministry of external affairs.
This was one of the reasons why the MOIA was merged with the MEA.
The states will find it more difficult to implement their decisions without the active support of the missions.
In other words, the noble objective of the Loka Kerala Sabha 2020 to address the concerns of overseas Indians by ‘providing for a more inclusive democratic space’ will not be met.
The composition of the Loka Kerala Sabha itself is in question as the criteria for selection of members are arbitrary and opaque.
It has been laid down that ‘LKS shall be constituted taking into account the diversities of gender, age and occupational status; it shall also include eminent non-resident Keralites who have contributed immensely in their respective fields of engagement to achieve public acclaim.’
An eternal problem of the Diaspora is the lack of a unified leadership at any level.
The proliferation of associations in the name of region, religion, community and cast has made it difficult to deal with their representatives.
In other overseas communities, there is greater cohesion and accountability of leaders.
What the Loka Kerala Sabha has done is to add another layer of ‘leaders’ acknowledged by the state government, who will claim special privileges and amenities.
The Loka Kerala Sabha has further divided the community rather than unite it.
In the best of circumstances, the outcome of these conferences is forgotten soon after its conclusion and the same issues will be raised again.
But the turbulence that was raging at the time of the conference made it all the more difficult to have any purposeful discussions.
At one stage, the chief minister remonstrated the participants for trying to push their private agendas, instead of formulating general policies.
It is well known that neither the Centre nor the states have an accurate figure of overseas Indians.
They do not report to the missions except when they are in some kind of trouble.
Repeated attempts were made to compile a register.
It was reported that the state will prepare a comprehensive register of expatriates with the help of the Centre for Development Studies, a think-tank in Thiruvananthapuram.
This is totally unrealistic when this could not be done with the resources of the Centre, which has a large network of missions.
The cost also will be enormous to undertake such a register.
Surprisingly, none objected to registers in the present climate, but it is certain that such a register will never be complete.
The Loka Kerala Sabha took place at a time when there was a virtual confrontation between the entire legislature and the Kerala governor on citizenship issues.
The Loka Kerala Sabha seemed unreal in that atmosphere.
But the governor actually inaugurated the Loka Kerala Sabha before opposition to it had crystallised.
A letter from Rahul Gandhi congratulating the chief minister on the Loka Kerala Sabha, obviously written before the Congress declared war against it added to the chaos and provided some comic relief.
But the state appears relieved that the play of Hamlet is over even without the prince of Denmark.
After all, the Bard had said: ‘The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.’
The Loka Kerala Sabha session this year highlighted the need to rethink the division between the Centre and the states on Diaspora issues.
Though India has a federal structure, its spirit is one of a unitary state and on matters relating to foreign affairs, including the Diaspora, the Centre need to call the shots.
T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA is the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.