A passport is perhaps the most important identification document that a citizen of a country can possess. It not only ensures the protection of the bearer while traveling – it also embodies the reputation of the country that issues it and often gives the bearer respite from bureaucratic hurdles. But neither is this statement true in its fullest sense, nor is it true for all nation-states.
Long gone are the days when you could just walk across the border of a foreign state. In fact, the World War I laid the foundations for increasing stringency in allowing foreigners into a particular country. Despite this, people in the member states of the European Union do have the right to exercise the freedom of movement. Therefore, they can take up residence in any other member state in a relatively short time. But this luxury does not extend to all nationalities.
It is often said that the ‘power’ of a passport is a reflection of the reputation of the country that issues it. There are many consultancies like Passport Index, that measure ‘passport power’ – the relative ease with which citizens can enter foreign countries. Visa-free access and visa-on-arrival facilities afforded to nationals often determine the power of a passport. However, the most important criteria that nations have to meet while gaining access to the ‘passport power club’ is the reputation of the country in the eyes of the host nation.
Reputation may, in turn, be measured by the economic performance, political stability, international friendliness of the issuing nation and its citizens’ adherence to immigration laws. The Indian passport was ranked 74 in the world, below countries like Haiti and Rwanda. Why is it that one of the world’s fastest-growing economies issues a passport which ranks so low in a group of nearly 200 countries? The answer to this question is the mere fact that India’s reputation is yet to be assessed by the higher levels.
The Singaporeans enjoy the highest liberty in terms of international travel. According to the Passport Index, Singapore has a visa-free score of 159, while India has a score of 51. The reasons for this may be myriad and varied. Each nation imposing a visa requirement on India may give different reasons. Bhutan and Nepal are among the only countries that offer a consistent visa-free policy to Indians. However, the Nepalese food and energy blockade in 2015 may undermine this privilege as well.
Although this ranking may seem like a very well-researched trivia, it may provide substantial insights on foreign policy and its reputation at the global stage, if one chooses to look closer. The government has consistently maintained that India’s reputation has improved ever since the Prime Minister (PM) embarked on a mission to bring India closer to the world. However, an average Indian travelling on an Indian passport meets bureaucratic red tape that their counterparts in lesser-developed countries do not face. Even Chinese nationals have better mobility than Indians, although there are a few states in the world that still do not recognise People’s Republic Of China as a legitimate state.
Even in terms of reciprocity of entry requirements, the Indian passport fares poorly. The government launched an e-visa programme that reduced the processing time for Indian visa applications, which were otherwise known to be notoriously slow. However, in my opinion, this move is yet to produce a tangible output for Indian citizens, in terms of their freedom of travel.
It is perhaps time to rethink our foreign policy so that it not only ensures our sovereignty and interests but also produces real benefits for us citizens. Overseas travel is perhaps the closest ‘foreign affairs’ decision that an average Indian national may take during their lifetime. With increasing globalisation and global suspicion, foreign travel has become a gamble.
One of the goals of our foreign policy, even though it may sound trivial, should be to ensure that Indians do not have to fret about visa requirements and the bureaucracy before they undertake a week-long trip overseas.