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Why India Should Allow Dual Citizenship

If foreign citizens of Indian descent return home to be in politics or government, they are more likely to do so in order to fix many of the developmental challenges that forced their migration, rather than to serve any ‘grand designs’ of foreign sabotage in India.

Earlier this week, Opposition MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a bill in Parliament to amend the Indian Constitution and allow dual citizenship for Indians. The bill arises from a long-standing demand from various sections of India’s large global diaspora for citizenship rights in their native country.

In 2006, in order to meet calls for dual citizenship, India introduced the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card for foreign nationals of Indian descent – a scheme that Prime Minister Modi further expanded and streamlined in his first term. The OCI card allows foreign citizens of Indian origin to visit, live and work in India as citizens would. But there were many key restrictions: OCI card holders could not vote or participate in Indian politics, occupy any positions in public service or government, or invest in agricultural land holdings.

Introducing dual citizenship means that foreign citizens would be allowed to hold Indian passports and exercise all rights of an Indian citizen – including participating in politics, policy and governance: the most sensitive of the OCI restrictions. Any opposition to dual citizenship will largely arise on these grounds. Let India’s diaspora bring home their money, critics would argue, but keep them out of government.

Yet, government and policymaking are precisely where India’s vastly influential and highly skilled diaspora can be most useful. Indeed, India’s diaspora is more politically active around the world than most: As Tharoor points out in his statement of objectives, people of Indian origin have risen to high offices, including as presidents and prime ministers of various countries. At one point in 2014, America had over half a dozen Indian-origin politicians in office – two of them as Governors.

If India permitted dual citizenship, it would open the floodgates for a diversely skilled group of professionals to come back home, infusing India’s somewhat insular and protectionist policymaking apparatus with much-needed international expertise. Dual citizens will bring Indian policymaking the benefits of global perspectives and lessons from global best practices.

Perhaps more importantly, having India’s diaspora active in domestic politics and policy will make Indians far more globally aware and outward-looking. For years, Indian foreign policy discourse has suffered from introversion and fence-sitting on matters of international politics and security. A large part of the domestic debate on foreign policy is restricted to the immediate neighbourhood – and often just one country out of them all: Pakistan.

All this is due to the dearth of meaningful and enlightened political discourse on international affairs. Foreign policy has often been a non-issue in electoral campaigning – save for some emotional but ill-informed chest-thumping over national security.

The return of a diaspora with wide-ranging international experiences will go a long way in changing that; if dual citizens were to return to the government, they will help inform domestic political discourse on the consequences that Indian businesses, students and professionals face abroad – and, by extension, those that their families face back home. Dual citizens will further spread public awareness on international events.

They will also be more invested in steering Indian foreign policy discourse towards discussion on increasing India’s global influence, rather than on less meaningful populist chest-thumping: After all, many of them changed their passports in large part because of the consequences of India’s underwhelming global influence (the Indian passport is currently ranked 86 out of 109 positions on travel freedom – below Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone).

Critics of the reform will still talk of the threat of having foreign citizens in positions of policymaking and power. How can Indians trust folks who owe allegiance to a foreign power, they will ask. The problem with that argument is that it misunderstands the Indian diaspora spectacularly. Unlike several foreign citizens of, say, Chinese or Russian descent, Indian-origin citizens in the West did not flee from their home country out of spite or suppression.

Many Indians abroad change their passports for very practical reasons – seeking access to a higher quality of life, high-paying jobs in multilateral organisations where Indian citizens are over-represented, or merely for mobility and travel freedom.

That is why, despite their change in citizenship, India’s diaspora has remained strongly committed to Indian interests overseas and the spread of India’s global influence worldwide. The landmark India-US nuclear deal, for instance, was aided in Washington by strong political lobbying from the Indian-American community. In 2011, Indians in Australia helped convince the then Australian government to lift a ban on uranium exports to India.

Dual citizenship will more fully leverage the political influence of Indians abroad by giving them a more direct stake in India’s development – and more meaningful roles by which to contribute to it. If Indian dual citizens return home to be in politics or government, they are more likely to do so in order to fix many of the developmental challenges that forced their migration, rather than to serve any ‘grand designs’ of foreign sabotage in India.

The introduction of dual citizenship is a great opportunity for India to expand its global influence and attract the world’s talent to aid its domestic growth. More importantly, it will reinstate India’s legacy as a civilisation that is open rather than insular, global rather than protectionist, and confident rather than insecure. For India’s aspirations to be a global power, there are few attributes more pertinent than those.

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Mohamed Zeeshan is a Founding Partner and the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette. He is the author of Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership (Penguin 2021). He is currently a foreign affairs columnist for The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Haaretz, and writes 'The Z Factor' - a monthly Sunday column in the Deccan Herald. He has previously worked at the United Nations in New York and with the global consulting firm Kearney in Dubai. He is a graduate of International Affairs from Columbia University.