IT'S India's answer to the American green card—a bold attempt, swathed in emotional terms, aimed at tapping the limitless resources and talent of an as-yet-vaguely-defined 'Indian' genepool. But leave the nitty gritty aside. The sugarcoating is such that, non-resident Indians (NRIs)—the intended target—have by and large applauded the government's decision to issue the Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card, and to consider dual citizenship.
Essentially, in one fell stroke, potential cardholders have been granted all the rights in India that Indians have. The advantages, like visa-free visits to the estranged 'homeland', are clear but some ticklish issues remain: nobody is quite certain who will get the cards, or when this new seamless highway will help them get down to serious business.
"The card will mean selective dual nationality," says London-based immigration advisor Jayesh Patel. But most NRIs, elated at the possibility of erasing the 'guilt' factor, feel that the Indian government's move is a logical extension of the old expat adage: "You can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take India out of an Indian."
Not everybody's cheering, though. Says Dr Mira Kamdar, a senior fellow with the World Policy Institute and a second-generation Indian-American, "India needs to offer tangible investment opportunities. This, more than the PIO card, will go further towards helping India capture the talent and capital of its non-resident population."
M.T. Antony, an import-export specialist and a political commentator in New York, is more blunt: "If you want to play the nationalism card, how long will that dog hunt? Not for long, I am afraid. We need a stable government with stable policies, which will result in a long-term view that, in turn, results in steady, continued economic progress. If so, spending some money or time to secure a visa to go to India will not be a big headache."
Counters Dr Mukund Mody, founder president of the US-based Overseas Friends of the BJP, "Emotional and physical bonding—not just cultural—with India is very important. This PIO card and eventual dual citizenship will help solidify relations between the US and India because there will now be a serious reason for the second generation of Indian-Americans to root for India."
Agrees Dr Thomas Abraham, president of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin: "If India is to be a global economic and political power in the 21st century, there is no other way than involving 20 million PIOs living outside India." The logic behind the move—that the NRI is a guilt-edged commodity, and that homesickness can be harnessed to useful purposes—seems to have struck home.
But that could have a potentially unpleasant fallout on the Indian corporate sector. So far, NRI holdings in Indian companies have been capped at low levels. But with PIOs to be given the freedom to buy in, some analysts see the possibility of takeovers through buying only a small fraction of the shares.
"There's bound to be an increase in investment," says Shantoo Ruparell, a London-based financial solicitor in NRI affairs. "It's common for Indians to control companies with a 20 per cent stake. Now an NRI can buy 25 per cent of the shares and take over a company overnight."
The Indian exchequer could also take a hit. Though the PIO card is expected to be offered for a fee, officials expect a significant loss in revenue from visa charges. But while visa fees have been controversial and been raised and lowered several times, the greater difficulty is expected in the selection of people who can be granted PIO cards. "As a small office, we do not have the means to carry out a police check on every applicant," says an official at the Indian High Commission in London. "Selection is in danger of becoming haphazard or even corrupt."
There are other potential fault-lines as well. Officials say that any tendency to show suspicion of any particular community can only provoke resentment, "which is the opposite of what we want to do as a diplomatic mission". A new hierarchy of Indianness is due to go on offer soon; and not everyone thinks it's a great idea.