What do NRIs talk about when they meet?
Cricket and politics, of course!
I was in the United States on the day of the Jamshedpur One-Day International, and England's victory, which we could follow courtesy of the Internet, was top of the mind for everyone. (Was the temperature at Keenan Stadium truly 45 degrees Celsius?)
I have long held that the fortunes of the Indian Cricket XI and the Congress mirror each other in some peculiar manner. If the Indians in Jamshedpur suffered the penalty of being led by a stand-in captain and that too one who seems to have lost his touch, well, you could say much the same of the Indian Cabinet.
Although the current Union Cabinet offers a closer resemblance to the last days of the Saurav Ganguly regime, when factional conflict was the name of the game and everyone appeared to concentrate more on media leaks than on batting, bowling, or fielding. (Arjun Singh's pre-emptive strike on reservations -- flying in the face of a Group of Ministers recommendation to discuss the issue at length -- is a perfect example of a man playing for himself rather than for the team.)
It would be, however, a great shame if the conflicts that are polarising politics in India were to be deliberately replicated abroad. Sadly, that seems to be the confirmed policy of the current set-up -- or so I gleaned from talking to various Indians in the United States.
I don't know if anyone realises just how successful Indians have been in various professions in the United States. From investment bankers on Wall Street to diamond merchants in downtown New York, from running hotels and motels across the American Midwest to being the rising stars of law firms in California, from nursing to software engineering, there is always an Indian in the background.
Or, increasingly so, in the foreground. Indians must be right up there with Jews in American society, both in terms of educational qualifications and income.
For reasons best known to themselves, few Indian administrations have ever bothered to tap this source of influence in America. (Take a look at how brilliantly Israel -- and China more recently -- marshals citizens of its own ethnicity to form potent lobbies, and you will see how India has squandered a valuable resource.)
In my earliest visits to the United States, I found that the Indian embassy in Washington thought that IFS officers could do everything necessary to influence opinion-makers. Slowly, the necessity of hiring professional lobbyists was borne in on the bureaucracy. But the 21st century would dawn before the importance of forming NRIs into a lobby became evident.
Now, however, the adage that 'domestic politics stops at the frontier' is being ignored. The Indian community is being divided into 'NDA' Indians and 'UPA' Indians. The issue is the nuclear treaty that the Bush administration signed with the Manmohan Singh ministry.
As everyone knows, the agreement is facing flak from a legion of voices, both within and outside the United States. Some Americans feel that Indian negotiators walked away with too much, some Indians feel that we have placed unnecessary clamps on our own scientific establishment.
I am really not well placed to offer an opinion. I have not had the opportunity of studying the treaty in any detail, and I lack the technical training to reach a conclusion without extensive reading and consulting. But what I do know is the officials in the Washington embassy have deliberately reached out only to those individuals and groups that are perceived as being sympathetic to the UPA regime.
That is a remarkably silly position to adopt. I know that several senior members of the NDA have expressed their misgivings about the Indo-American nuclear agreement. But that does not mean that the Indian community in the United States would not be willing to support an Indian government on this. (Or, for that matter, any other issue.)
So, why then is the foreign policy establishment deliberately ignoring a large section of American citizens of Indian origin, occasionally even repudiating offers to help?
For what it is worth -- and I am willing to admit that my perception could be wrong -- there seem to be more pro-NDA NRIs than those of the pro-UPA persuasion. This, if true, renders the move even more incomprehensible.
But, regardless of which group has weight of numbers, isn't it just plain silly to create such divisions at a time when India needs all the support it can get to win approval for the treaty in the United States Senate? (Under the American constitution, no international agreement can have force of law unless specifically approved by the Senate; in 1919, that proved enough for the United States to stay out of its own creation, the League of Nations.)
A team riven by faction was defeated by Pakistan in one-day Internationals when Inzamam Ul-Haq's men visited India. United under a captain who leads from the front, the Indian XI stamped on the old tag of 'chokers' to set a world record in chasing totals. It would be a shame if the unity of the Indian community in the United States, a commodity to be nurtured, were broken for petty domestic interests.
But is Dr Manmohan Singh truly the man who can stamp his authority on his team, and captain it as the times demand?