Truth to power: Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Delhi in early April. Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty
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Taxman with the common touch: Arvind Kejriwal of India’s Aam Aadmi Party

The AAP’s leader looks like a cross between Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin and has an unwavering, energetic commitment to his cause.

From 7 April to 12 May, as many as 814 million people will vote in India’s general election. In the run-up to the poll, the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, translates as “common man’s party”) has risen in prominence. Since its foundation a year and a half ago, it has attracted the attention of Indians disaffected with corruption and disappointing economic growth, and unlike India’s two main parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – it has expanded on a shoestring budget.

Its success rests on its charismatic leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant. Kejriwal will be pitting himself against the BJP leader, Narendra Modi, who is widely expected to become India’s next prime minister. Modi, who has been chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, is a charismatic but deeply polarising figure because of his alleged complicity in the Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in the state in 2002.

Kejriwal worked for India’s revenue service until 2006, when he quit his job to work on Parivartan, a charity he founded that operates in deprived areas of Delhi. Diminutive in stature, he looks like a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin: his moustache is Chaplinesque and his glasses are reminiscent of Gandhi. His white cap is his own.

When I met him last year, he was on hunger strike, protesting against the rise in electricity prices in Delhi. He had stationed himself in the brightly coloured one-room house of a Dalit (the caste formerly known as India’s “untouchables”) woman in an impoverished area of the city. Kejriwal was surrounded by his family members, whose support for his cause has been indefatigable.

Although he is diabetic, he had not eaten for two days. I asked, “How are you?” He replied, with a sanguine smile, “Perfectly fit.” It is this unwavering, energetic commitment that has endeared him to many.

Since India’s economic liberalisation programme started in 1991, young urban Indians have been told that their country will inexorably get better. The prospects for many middle-class Indians improved until the 2011 slowdown intervened. For the country’s poorest, the story is very different. India has failed to tackle indigence where it has been most
severe: 8 per cent of the world’s poor live in Uttar Pradesh. This state also happens to be the place from which both Kejriwal and Modi are contesting the elections.

Kejriwal’s promise to deliver more honest government and his party’s investigations into crony capitalism have played well to a populace jaded by a wave of high-level corruption scandals. When AAP performed surprisingly well in the Delhi state elections last year and formed the state government, the party’s rise seemed assured. Yet after 49 days in office, it relinquished power when its efforts to form an anti-corruption ombudsman were thwarted, a move that disillusioned many supporters.

In the long term, this act of “sacrifice” may have increased its mass following. The problem is that reaching out to the masses involves campaigning, which is costly. One AAP leader told me that the party’s campaign budget is $2.6m – a tiny amount in a country of 1.2 billion people.

Indians have historically been fearful of standing up to power but Kejriwal has challenged this view with his bold statements criticising some of the country’s most entrenched elites. AAP is unlikely to become the new party of government, but if Kejriwal can embolden Indians to keep up their demands for greater government transparency and accountability, it could still transform India’s politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.