India’s Liberal Expats Are Modi’s Biggest Fans
Decades of work have left the BJP firmly in command of diaspora voters.
On the evening of April 13, dozens of people gathered outside an Indian sweet shop in Jersey City for a nightlong phone rally, calling up voters back home to vote for the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and help get Narendra Modi another term as prime minister.
In other parts of the United States, flash mobs, car rallies, and photo ops at iconic American landmarks such as Times Square and the Golden Gate Bridge have ensured that the Indian media remains fixed on images of saffron-clad volunteers endorsing Modi from foreign shores. A spurt of new enthusiasm has led to an invigorated response within the diaspora toward Indian politics and India’s image abroad, mostly thanks to Modi’s efforts.
As the marathon general elections play out in seven phases across the country, many of the 4 million nonresident Indians (NRIs) in the United States are setting aside work and family to campaign for their favorite candidates. Some are even flying back. Gururaj R., a New Jersey-based techie, spent $2,000 to book tickets and return to his hometown of Bangalore because he “could not imagine a scenario where the BJP candidate would lose by one vote and it could be my one vote.”
In 2014, a few months after Modi was elected prime minister by an overwhelming number of votes, more than 22,000 supporters gathered in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate his victory. “You have played an important role in creating a positive image of India not just in America but globally as well,” Modi told the rapturous crowd. The extravaganza—which involved Bollywood stars, singers, dancers, and TV show hosts—cost an estimated $1.5 million to show Modi’s popularity abroad.
With the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in the United States, how it votes at home matters. The 4 million Indian Americans are the wealthiest and most educated ethnic group in America—with a median income almost double that of an average American household.
The community pumped well over $10 million into U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. These past midterms, they helped catapult a record number of Indian Americans into Congress and funded the campaigns of politicians such as Tulsi Gabbard, who has no Indian ancestry but is a practicing Hindu, who they believe forward India’s interests in Congress.
In U.S. politics, people of Indian origin skew Democratic—77 percent of the community voted for Clinton in the 2016 race. In a dichotomy that has left many scholars puzzled, a large number of them are supporters of right-wing politics in India.
“Modi has become a part of the winning narrative of the Hindu diaspora in particular,” said Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University, Sweden, who has worked on diaspora communities. “By siding with Modi, they see themselves as siding with the anti-Islam narrative, which is the mainstream political ideology in many parts of Europe and USA now.”
According to Sangay Mishra, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University and author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, the traditional voter base of the BJP merges well with the current demographic makeup of the Indian diaspora. “People likely to vote for BJP are middle-class and upper-caste Hindus,” he said, adding that they are also the majority of emigrants. “The BJP has always been a strident nationalist position, and within that you see a particular variant of Hindu nationalism, which has a peculiar kind of appeal for this section of the diaspora.”
According to Swain, it is only natural that the diaspora would align with a right-wing nationalist ideology back home owing to their “professional backgrounds in information technology and the computer sciences, with almost no training in the humanities.”
The BJP has been pushing hard to open up more channels for the diaspora to exercise their influence in Indian politics. It has streamlined applications for both “overseas citizen of India” and “person of Indian origin” cards while boosting the e-visa process for foreigners and NRIs. But the most significant political space promised to the diaspora is a proxy voting bill spearheaded by the BJP, which was passed in the lower house of the Indian Parliament but is currently stuck in the upper house, where the party does not have a majority. One of Modi’s key election promises is to secure the passage of this bill, if re-elected to power. Another bill that allows foreign funding to flow into India’s political parties without interception and scrutiny was passed under the BJP government without debate in March 2018.
The ruling BJP has been far more successful than the opposition Indian National Congress at mobilizing NRI voters and wielding political influence abroad. That extends not just to campaigning but to protesting. Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) held demonstrations in multiple U.S. states demanding international isolation of Pakistan after the Pulwama attacks in February. “People here are very excited about those kinds of actions,” said Krishna Reddy Anugula, the U.S. president of the OFBJP, referring to India’s airstrikes. “They believe only [Prime Minister] Modi could have taken such strong steps.”
For this election, the BJP set up the portal NRI4NaMo.org a one-stop shop for NRIs to pledge support toward and volunteer for Narendra Modi’s re-election. The portal has received 6,000-plus applications for volunteering from members of the Indian diaspora, according to the OFBJP. The BJP has always been more tech-savvy than the Congress party, which is trying organically to broaden its support base, especially in the Gulf-based diaspora, but is far behind its competition. Around 600 NRIs will go to India from the United States to campaign for their favorite candidates and cast their votes, estimates the OFBJP.
A central team of five members, headed by BJP official Vijay Chauthaiwale, manages the diaspora activity over a vast WhatsApp network—India’s favorite instant messenger service. Statewide liaisons ensure there is one linchpin that coordinates all NRI activity among members belonging to the Indian state. U.S. state coordinators within the diaspora, and chapter heads belonging to different states in India, keep the international campaign machinery well-oiled. The Indian BJP offices coordinate voter info with diaspora organizers.
Recently, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed NRIs from around the world, promising them a right to remote voting, a desperate concern for and key demand of the diaspora. The OFBJP was established as a nonprofit in 1991, months before the BJP’s image as a sectarian and communal collective was solidified during the demolition of the Babri Mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. “At that time, the BJP was portrayed as a fundamentalist party, and India was increasingly shown to not be safe for minorities,” Anugula said. “We realized we needed to have a voice in the Western world.” Today, the organization is active in 46 countries and boasts of 2,000 registered members and 5,000 supporters across the United States.
One reason the BJP has better organization abroad is its history as an opposition party. Even though the BJP’s direct association with the Indian diaspora is relatively new, its sister militant nationalist organizations, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been seeping into the diaspora since the 1970s.
When then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975 and sent key opposition leaders to jail during what was called “the Emergency,” a spurt of activism spread across members of Hindu nationalist organizations in the United States. Key members of the Indian RSS, including current BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, escaped India to seek shelter and rally the larger diaspora and members of the U.S. Congress to speak against the Emergency.
In 2003, the BJP under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or the Indian diaspora conclave, to celebrate the successes of Indians abroad. This January, some 5,000 people of Indian origin from around the world traveled to Varanasi, Modi’s electoral constituency, to attend a gala ceremony headlined by Modi that gave awards to exceptional members of the diaspora.
The Congress party, the BJP’s main opponent, has been relegated to minimal influence among the diaspora, except for the Gulf countries, where it has a far wider influence due to the presence of the vast Muslim and Christian populations from the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in these regions.
“OFBJP is flushed with finds, and we are not. That’s a fact,” said Rajender Dichpally, the general secretary of the Indian National Overseas Congress (INOC). The INOC has also sent back many NRIs to campaign for the Congress party this election season but far fewer in numbers.
The post-independence Congress government under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru followed a conscious policy of “active disassociation” with the Indian diaspora, based on the dangers of nurturing and advocating for the diaspora at the cost of their host countries’ sovereignty. The idea was to keep the diaspora disengaged from Indian affairs owing to the challenges spawned by a diaspora community’s entrenchment in home politics, pushing it to merge with local culture instead. As India was trying to make its presence felt as a nonaligned power during the Cold War, noninterference became denser, until the Rajiv Gandhi era of globalization and privatization in the 1990s, which saw larger intervention from the Indian state in diaspora. Even then, the Congress party was hesitant to consider the diaspora a site of political performance or mobilization.
“In the ’70s, ’80s, the framework that was used in India against the diaspora was of brain drain—talented and highly educated people leaving the homeland for greener pastures,” said Mishra, the Drew University professor. Recent social media debates about citizenship and nationalism revolve around questioning the patriotism of those who have left India in pursuit of a cushy life abroad.
According to Sudhir Parikh, a powerful media mogul and Indian American doctor who played a key role in bringing the India-U.S. nuclear deal to fruition and in establishing the India caucus in the U.S. Congress: “The truth is, the majority of NRIs are pro-BJP and their development agenda.”
Parikh recently sponsored a yagna, a sacred Hindu fire ceremony, in New Jersey to propitiate the victory of Modi and bring good luck to the BJP. It saw the participation of more than 400 NRIs from around the East Coast.
“The Congress failed to put their point of view across [in the diaspora]. It is ultimately a question of who does better campaigning,” Parikh said.
Anya Lumba teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the Philadelphia South Asian Collective. At a recent anti-Modi and pro-democracy demonstration held by more than 12 progressive social groups outside the Indian Consulate in New York City, she said, “There is no match between how the right wing is organized here and how we are.”
But Swain, the political scientist, believes that the Hindu diaspora’s support of Modi has led other members of the India diaspora—Kashmiris, Sikhs, Dalits, Christians, and Muslims—to become more active in response to ferment a different kind of political voice abroad. This mirrors the fear of marginalization from resources and the popular discourse that Indian minorities have felt back home as resurgent Hindu nationalism establishes deeper roots under Modi.
According to Swain, the Sikh diaspora is becoming polarized between the pro-Khalistan (an independent Sikh homeland) and anti-Khalistan factions, and the Kashmiri diaspora is coming together strongly against Modi’s strong-arm approach in Kashmir. “The Christian and Dalit diaspora, which is supported by the missionaries and churches here, is retaliating too,” he said. These rifts emerged in a recent controversy where right-wing Hindu groups in the United States lobbied against the replacement of the word “India” with “South Asia” in middle school history textbooks in California. That was protested by South Asian academics and activists belonging to India’s minority groups.
If remote voting is actually made possible in the near future, it would facilitate the diaspora’s direct participation in Indian democracy—strengthening its power at home but also deepening community rifts abroad. Local parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi are already targeting the diaspora in anticipation. A stronger role for Indians overseas could leave expat politics just as contentious and vibrant as at home.