Reportage

Foreign Returns

By VANYA MEHTA | 1 April 2014
courtesy vijay pallod
OFBJP-USA members cheer for Narendra Modi at the organisation’s 2013 convention in Tampa, Florida.

LATE LAST DECEMBER, about 150 supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party gathered in an auditorium at the Edison, New Jersey, headquarters of TV Asia, a pro-BJP network that targets the South Asian community. The non-resident Indian and Indian-origin attendees were members of the US chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the official international arm of the party. On the stage was a life-size poster of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and a garlanded shrine to Swami Vivekananda, the late-nineteenth-century Hindu revivalist. The mood was jubilant—just two weeks earlier, the BJP had won assembly elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. OFBJP-USA leaders gave enthusiastic speeches about the “Modi effect” that had swept through those states, and which they hoped would carry the party to victory in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The excitement was tinged with apprehension about the fight ahead—not against the Congress or its foreign counterpart, the Indian National Overseas Congress, but against a new threat: the upstart Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP’s unforeseen success in the Delhi assembly elections, and the importance of its international supporters in achieving that victory, dominated several speeches. Arun Ayyagari, the manager of a local information technology company and one of the OFBJP-USA’s younger members, gave a twenty-five-minute presentation on the importance of emulating the AAP’s tactics, particularly its online activism, to help the BJP in the coming polls.

Balaguru T, a national council member of the OFBJP-USA and the CEO of a New Jersey IT consulting company, took up the thread in his speech. “There is a new phenomenon we need to talk about—the new kid on the block,” he said, before speaking about the AAP’s anti-corruption stance. At one point, Balaguru turned to the front row to acknowledge Swami Jyotirmayananda, a Miami-based spiritual leader whose patronage extends to an ashram near Delhi that is affiliated with the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati (a social service organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh). Balaguru pointed out that corruption was an important issue for the OFBJP too. “One of the messages I got from Swamiji about four years ago was that BJP needs to clean up its act together in India and the US,” he said. Then he turned to the audience and asked, “Aap log kya chaahte hain BJP se?” (What do you want from the BJP?) People called out: “Unity!”—“No corruption!”—“Respect!”—“Good governance!”

Swamiji, aap kya chaahte hain?” (What do you want, Swamiji?) Balaguru then asked.

Jyotirmayananda promptly responded, “Narendra Modi.”

The audience clapped enthusiastically. After the speeches, people chatted while enjoying samosas and chai, occasionally wandering over to drop a contribution into one of the donation boxes near the exit.

GALVANISED BY THE AAP’S SUCCESS and with the grail of Narendra Modi as prime minister in sight, the OFBJP has been unprecedentedly active in the buildup to this election. Its thirteen US sub-chapters have asked its roughly 3,500 registered members (about half of whom are Gujarati) to canvas voters in India over the phone, email and in person. They have also organised social media campaigns and hosted community events in support of Modi at Indian restaurants and other venues. This has inspired the creation of more international OFBJP chapters, taking the tally of countries where the organisation has a presence to thirty-one.

Meanwhile, the Indian National Overseas Congress, called the INOC (I), has struggled to keep up. Between the INOC (I)’s nine US chapters, and between the thirty-odd other groups that the Congress party’s foreign affairs office claims to administer around the world, there is little evidence of coordinated activity. The INOC (I) doesn’t have an estimate of the size of its membership, but a comparison of its Facebook page and that of the OFBJP offers a telling indicator of the differences between the two groups: the OFBJP-USA page has over 12,700 likes and posts regularly, while the INOC (I) has about fifty likes and hasn’t posted an update since last August. The OFBJP’s success can at least partly be explained by the appeal of Modi, whose campaign has combined promises of development with avowals of a deep attachment to tradition. This is an especially potent draw for many financially successful and culturally conservative expatriate Indians.

As America’s third-largest immigrant group and its wealthiest demographic, NRIs and Indian-origin citizens can have a crucial influence on the US government’s attitude towards the platforms and candidates of Indian parties, and in building relationships between the two countries’ leaders. Both the OFBJP-USA and the INOC (I) have tried to harness the political potential of the diaspora in service of their parent parties, but the former organisation has, undeniably, played the more effective supporting role in this year’s election drama.

Besides the softer contributions of media campaigns and get-togethers, the OFBJP has also been holding fundraising drives for the BJP, while the INOC (I) claims not to be holding fundraisers because of their potential for violating Indian law. Foreign financial involvement in Indian politics is banned by the 2010 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and a contentious topic that regularly crops up before elections. Even as the OFBJP members in Edison envied the success of the AAP’s international supporters, the new party faced scrutiny in Delhi after an October 2013 petition named it as a recipient of foreign funds. The petition, filed at the Delhi High Court by the notorious advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, is only one of several recent efforts to enforce the ban. A previous petition at the same court, registered in January 2013 by a Delhi NGO, the Association for Democratic Reforms, accused the Congress and the BJP of receiving funds from subsidiaries of the London-based conglomerate Vedanta. Yet enforcing the Foreign Contribution Act’s ban is a difficult task, as an argument from the defence in the Vedanta case illustrated: its lawyers claimed that since the ban on foreign donations does not extend to non-resident Indians, and since the company is majority Indian-owned, it did not count as a foreign source. On March 28, the court ruled that Vedanta’s subsidiaries constituted a foreign source, and directed the Election Commission to take action against the parties, hinting at increased stringency in the future. While these cases have led to greater caution among Indian parties this election (some require attestation of citizenship from online donors, and publicly list donors’ names), many avenues of contribution (remittances and donations to politically-affiliated charities in India, for example) remain largely unregulated.

The question of politically affiliated charities has been a provocative one for sections of the diaspora, with occasional allegations of foreign money going towards funding affiliates of the RSS in India. The most high-profile of these investigations was the 2002 “Stop Funding Hate” campaign, which cited research by the NGO Human Rights Watch to demonstrate that money from the US-based non-profit India Development and Relief Fund had gone to RSS groups in India. The OFBJP itself claims to be registered in the US as a taxable nonprofit entity, and therefore excused from sharing documentation of its financial activities. It also nominally distances itself from the social and religious work of the Sangh Parivar outfits that predated it in the US—the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS’s international corollary). But though the OFBJP-USA and the VHPA do share overlapping membership and administrative oversight from India, their members are reluctant to expand on the relationship. The OFBJP-USA has, since its inception just before the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, positioned itself as an explicitly political organisation. It claims that its fundraising activities for the BJP are above board, and that its focus is on influencing Indo-American relations and India’s domestic political landscape.

MAHESH MEHTA, the OFBJP’s national coordinator, met MS Golwalkar in Ahmedabad, in 1947. Mehta was ten years old at the time; his father was involved with the RSS, and the encounter with the group’s second chief left a strong impression. “His eyes looked through me, as if penetrating me,” Mehta recalled, when we met at his semi-detached house in suburban Massachusetts in late February. “I was instantly glued to him.” Meeting Golwalkar set Mehta on a lifelong path of service to the Sangh Parivar—first in India, and then abroad as the founder of the VHPA.

At the age of twenty-two, Mehta left home to spend a year as an RSS worker in “villages and tribal areas” in Gujarat. In 1969, after earning a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Baroda, he moved to the United States, where he eventually came to work in the field of membrane technology. Mehta had intended to return to India, but soon became heavily involved with the overseas activities of the VHP, which was then about five years old. Noting Mehta’s success in organising Hindu youth camps in Massachusetts, the VHP’s co-founder and general secretary SS Apte insisted that Mehta stay in America, telling him, “Don’t go back to India, you will be required here,” Mehta said. By 1970, Mehta had founded the first international chapter of the VHP.

For a few years, the Sangh’s engagement with the US diaspora remained, at least superficially, solely cultural. Mehta said that during his time with the VHPA, “I was not working in politics. My goal was to awaken the soul of India.” But the declaration of the Emergency in 1975 changed things, for him and for other NRI community leaders. “I got dragged into politics,” Mehta said, describing how he hosted future leaders of the BJP who had “gone underground” at the time, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kidar Nath Sahani and Makarand Desai. With a group of people that included the irascible politician Subramanian Swamy, Mehta began publishing a monthly anti-Emergency magazine, Satyavani, which was smuggled into India. He proudly showed me some old issues, as well as his collection of literature on Hinduism and on Narendra Modi. He also showed me a copy of The Majority Report, a book alleging exploitation of Hindus by the Indian government, released by Swamy in Delhi last year.

In the mid 1970s, Mehta was also involved with another group, the Friends of India Society International, which emerged out of a 1975 protest against the Emergency, held outside the Indian Consulate in New York. The Society’s secretary-general was Mukund Mody, the man who eventually founded the OFBJP. (He died last year.) In a 2004 interview in India at the Crossroads, a collection of conversations with prominent Indian Americans by the writer Prem N Chopra, Mody talked about joining forces with like-minded NRIs to oppose Indira Gandhi from abroad, and then later to advocate for shifts in Indian foreign policy, such as allowing dual citizenship.

Between 1960 and 2000, the Indian population in the US grew rapidly, more than doubling every decade; simultaneously, the community’s political concerns and social needs grew as well. Mehta said that by 1984, the year he organised the tenth World Hindu Conference in New York, “ten thousand children had gone through Hindu youth camps.” Leaders of the Indian opposition at the time began paying more attention to the political potential of the diaspora. After Satyavani,“every BJP leader became my friend,” Mehta said. Over the years, he, Mody and an expanding group of successful Indians forged close ties with the emerging BJP leadership in India.

These relationships crystallised into a more formal arrangement just before the 1991 Lok Sabha election. In 1990, Mody met top BJP officials in India. In India at the Crossroads, he said that leaders including LK Advani “decided to open cells of BJP in foreign countries to remove misconceptions and educate people about the policies of the BJP before the national elections.” Some members of the FISI, and other BJP supporters, rallied to form the OFBJP. Mody was the founding president; other founding members included Bhishma K Agnihotri, who would later become India’s first, controversial ambassador-at-large for NRIs and PIOs, and was one of the founders of the India Development Relief Foundation. Advani launched the group in New York City in April 1991.

In its first decade, the OFBJP-USA had its share of growing pains—most notably a tussle for top positions in the early 2000s. Around the time of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP headquarters exercised its control over the OFBJP’s hierarchy. In the reshuffle of positions, Mody became national coordinator, Mehta was appointed to the national executive council and, perhaps relatedly, Agnihotri resigned as global ambassador-at-large. In spite of these issues, the OFBJP expanded quickly, spreading beyond its base on the US East Coast. Today, the current president, Chandrakant Patel, claims that besides the OFBJP-USA’s active members, who pay initial registration fees ranging from $1 to $100, the organisation also has a network of over a thousand unofficial volunteers.

As the OFBJP has grown, it has continued to push the Indian government to allow dual citizenship and absentee voting for NRIs. It has also taken up new causes. One major current project is to reverse the US State Department’s refusal to grant a visa to Narendra Modi, which has been in effect since 2005 (when Modi applied for a visa to attend an event, sponsored in part by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, where he was to interact with former Florida governor Jeb Bush). Modi himself has regularly reached out to the OFBJP; for example, soon after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, he recorded a YouTube message for the group, thanking those overseas Indians who could not vote or otherwise participate in elections for nevertheless extending their support. In 2010, the OBFJP began publishing a news magazine called Pravasi Kamal, which has often featured articles in support of Modi. The magazine’s September 2013 cover story, titled ‘Narendra Modi—Hope for a Seething Nation,’ warned readers about the apathy of a “couch thinker class” of non-voting BJP supporters in India, arguing that the “BJP must make these ‘apolitical’ people aware of participating in politics by casting their vote. After all, it is the politics that makes a system and affects the governance which eventually affects us.”

ON 28 DECEMBER 2013, the day that AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was sworn in as the chief minister of Delhi, I called Patel, whose excitement was tangible over the phone. He called the ceremony a historic event. “There is a new politics arising,” Patel said. Then, reflecting on the BJP’s performance at the Delhi polls, he said, “We didn’t have any tactics. The Aam Aadmi Party’s election tactics, we also want to do those things—the OFBJP is saying this. Calling people, social media—their tactics were what we also need.”

The OFBJP-USA has been involved in previous Lok Sabha elections, through what may best be described as supporter-funded publicity campaigns for its parent party. Dinesh Agrawal, a former OFBJP-USA president, played up its role in a press release, issued just before polling began for the 2004 elections: “Since the announcement of the elections OFBJP has been projecting the achievements of BJP led coalition government to the western world through emails, press statements, public meetings, advertisements in the ethnic media, etc. In the last 2-3 weeks various chapters of OFBJP-USA have celebrated India Shining and the successful completion of 5 years of Vajpayee government. This has created tremendous goodwill for BJP.”

Besides spreading the BJP message in the West, twenty OFBJP-USA members, including Patel, also travelled to India to campaign and network before the 2004 vote. In 2009, the OFBJP coordinated trips to India, held teleconferences, and hosted public receptions in the US for BJP leaders. Members placed ads in newspapers and were encouraged to get family in India to vote. Speaking to the BBC at the time, just five months after the fifty-sixth US presidential election, Agrawal said, “We were very enthusiastic about Barack Obama because we have a vote here. But in India, even though we cannot vote, we have a much stronger emotional involvement.”

This year, the level of emotional engagement has been intensified by an almost cultish campaign for Modi—one that is stylistically reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 run in its profusion of branded paraphernalia such as T-shirts, mugs and smartphone covers. The group has ramped up its fundraising efforts, encouraging online contributions via its Facebook page and requesting donation cheques made out to the OFBJP. As the AAP did before the last Delhi elections, the OFBJP has also made public the names of some donors and the amounts they have donated to project an image of transparency. In early March, Patel sent members a request for donations that stated a commitment to raising $250,000 for the BJP’s “NaMo for PM” campaign. That amount was to be broken down into $20,000 for T-shirts, bumper stickers, postcards and banners; $50,000 for “media advertising” in the US and India; $25,000 for organising election events; $5,000 for social media advertising; and $100,000 for “India campaign help.” Patel’s email said the funding would go partly towards “placing recurring advertisements in major ethnic newspapers of US and India, and also in TV media.”

Despite these significant promises, Vijay Jolly, the global OFBJP convener, told me when we met in Delhi last month that “to get money from overseas is not our priority.” “I am very candid in admitting, we don’t consider [OFBJP members] as golden hens, or golden goose,” he said. Instead, Jolly focussed on the public-relations value of the OFBJP’s recent initiatives, which include organising workshops about the BJP272+ campaign, “Chai Pe Charcha,” “Run for Unity”, “Yoga for Unity” and “NaMo Tea Party” events. “Modi’s charisma is not only contained by India’s boundaries but it is all over the globe,” Jolly said. He also mentioned the OFBJP’s calling-card initiative—similar to an AAP tactic—which enabled participants to call family in India to encourage them to vote for the BJP. Patel told me that each member was asked to make two hundred calls.

Besides its community events, the OFBJP-USA has, in the past year, facilitated visits to the US by BJP leaders such as Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, and also organised a handful of Google Hangouts, promoted on Facebook and Twitter, between its members and politicians such as BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi. After the BJP’s victory in the Gujarat assembly election last March, the OFBJP-USA arranged for Modi to address Indian Americans via video. That event was also broadcast on TV Asia. In an almost hour-long speech, Modi first celebrated Mahashivratri with a discourse on Shiva, then spoke, among other things, about global warming, secularism, the lost opportunity of “branding and marketing” the Maha Kumbh mela, and the need to promote India tourism in US hotels and motels. In June, Patel and Agrawal met Modi in Gandhinagar to discuss NRI involvement in the upcoming elections, and last September, a little over a week after being declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi addressed an audience of about 1,500 at the OFBJP’s national convention in Tampa, Florida, via a live satellite feed. In a forty-minute speech, he urged NRIs to contribute online, to ask friends and family in India to vote, and to register as voters themselves. “Aap ka yeh prayaas Hindustan ke andar ek nayi hawa paida karega” (Your effort will give India a new wind), he said.

While members of the OFBJP-USA still hold out hope of welcoming Modi to America as India’s prime minister, last March Jolly and the Chicago-based OFBJP member Shalabh Kumar joined forces to bring a delegation of US Congresspersons to meet Modi in India for the first time. Kumar, an influential businessman who runs a think tank called the National Indian American Public Policy Institute, partnered with Jolly’s NGO, the Delhi Study Circle, to pay for three Republicans—Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Cynthia Lummis and Aaron Schock—to travel to Gandhinagar to discuss economic development with Modi. (The trip was financed by American businessmen who paid $16,000 each to come along and explore business opportunities, and the event caused some controversy when news reports surfaced suggesting it had not been sanctioned by the US government. Those allegations were not substantiated, and the Congresspersons and Kumar insisted that the trip had been green-lighted.)

The visit included a roundtable meeting, with former Republican leader Newt Gingrich, who participated over Skype from the US. Gingrich promised to do all he could to expedite a reversal of Modi’s visa ban, and to send him his own writing, “some of which could apply to India as you go through modernity, [as you] bring to the rest of the country the kind of modernising things you’ve done in your state.” After Gingrich thanked Kumar, Modi said that the businessman was “the best friend for me personally also.”

Reflecting on the event, Kumar told me Gujarat had important lessons for America about “minimum government and maximum governance.” “Modi is the Ronald Reagan of India,” he said. “The US could learn a lot from Modi.”

HISTORICALLY, THE BJP HAS BEEN more involved than the Congress with the Indian diaspora in the US. In its 1996 election manifesto, the BJP addressed non-resident Indians, the “millions of children of Mother India settled abroad,” as “an asset to the country” whose “emotional attachment to the motherland is still deep.” It promised that “schemes will be drawn up to attract substantial investments by non resident Indians,” and that “the BJP will examine afresh the issue of dual citizenship.” By contrast, the Congress party has been slower to respond to the interests of its supporters in the US, and the relationship between it and the Indian National Overseas Congress appears less efficient and more opaque.

Over several phone conversations from New York, George Abraham, the INOC (I)’s current chairman, described how the group came together partly as a response to the “growing challenge” of the OFBJP. Abraham, who was a technology officer at the United Nations’ pension fund for nearly forty years before retiring, formed an initial group, the Friends of Indian National Congress, with several fellow Malayali expats in 1998. The same year, he arranged for Oommen Chandy, then the chief minister for Kerala, to inaugurate FINC during a visit to New York. After this, Abraham began to consider the possibility of a more formal relationship with the Congress.

In 2000, Abraham and another FINC member travelled to New Delhi to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi and discuss forming an Indian National Overseas Congress. “She really gave us a very good hearing,” Abraham said, “and then we invited her to the US.” Later that year, Gandhi sent Murli Deora, India’s minister of corporate affairs at the time, to meet Abraham and other senior members of the FINC. Their new avatar, the INOC, was formally launched by Sonia Gandhi—then leader of the opposition—during her visit to the US in 2001.

With Congress’s backing, Abraham worked to extend the group beyond the Malayali community in the New York area. Expansion has been relatively slow, but the INOC (I) now has members across the US, organised into eight chapters—Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi—by their Indian state of origin. It also has a Washington DC chapter. Possibly as a reflection of this diffuse, fragmented arrangement, the majority of the INOC (I)’s activities are individual initiatives; for example, a member might ask others for donations for a medical camp being organised in India.

As a group, the INOC has spoken out against communal violence and the various visa hurdles faced by Indian and American citizens. It was especially active in the mid 2000s, during the negotiations for the Indo-American civilian nuclear agreement, when INOC members wrote to their congressional representatives and released statements to the press to promote the perception of India as a responsible nuclear power. In October 2007, two months after the terms of the deal were revealed, and on the eve of her speech at the UN headquarters to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, Sonia Gandhi addressed the INOC in New York. She called the Indian community in America “a bridge between our two democracies.” “There was a time when people used to complain of a ‘brain drain,’” she said, “but Rajiv-ji’s belief that Indians living and working abroad were actually a ‘brain bank’ has been proved correct.”

Over time, the Congress party’s relationship with the INOC has required some tweaking. Abraham said that in recent years the All India Congress Committee, the party’s central executive body, has taken a firmer hand with the INOC, among other things appointing its executive committee. In 2012, after the INOC’s sitting president refused to relinquish his position, Karan Singh, the Congress’s chairman of foreign affairs, stepped in to withdraw the party’s recognition of the INOC and form the INOC (I) instead, with Abraham as its president. Narendra Pawar, office secretary to the Congress leader Karan Singh, mentioned that things had been a bit “unstable” until 2012, and that 2014 would see more changes to the INOC (I), including a new website merged into that of the AICC, but only after elections were over.

The INOC (I)’s actual involvement in elections has been patchy so far. In 2012, Shudh Parkash Singh, who is now the INOC (I) president, led a “Chalo Punjab” initiative for NRIs to campaign during the Punjab Assembly elections. The launch of the initiative was attended by the New York state comptroller and a New York state assemblywoman, and featured a video message from Congress stalwarts Amarinder Singh and Karan Singh. A New York publication, the South Asian Times,reported that Shudh Parkash Singh spoke about asking Congress for five assembly seats for NRIs. “Except two already given, no fresh seats have been given to NRI community … No new member of the NRI community applied for it,” he said. In March, the INOC (I) launched a “Chalo India” campaign in anticipation of the Lok Sabha elections. In an advertising supplement about the campaign’s kickoff conference last June, INOC (I)’s DC chapter president Lavika Bhagat Singh wrote that a delegation would travel to India to “observe and support” the elections, but also that “the initiative has become multifaceted.”

At times, the INOC (I) seems more a launchpad for individuals with political ambitions than an organisation serving the interests of the Congress. Take, for instance, the case of INOC (I) Madhya Pradesh chapter president Juned Qazi, an energetic forty-four-year-old who grew up in Bhopal and moved to the US in 1994. Qazi is the founder of a construction company in New York, and has lived in New Jersey for almost twenty years, but he never became a US citizen. “What I learned from the great country of the US was that I could give back to my mother country,” he told me. “That’s why I never gave my citizenship up. I was planning to contest elections for a long time. This was the right time for me, and I took the chance.”

Last December, Qazi traveled to Aligarh, where much of his family is based, and from where he hoped to contest the Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket. Before his departure, he told me over the phone that he was determined to go back. “My wife thinks I am crazy. I say yes, I am crazy ... India gave me a name, and my identity. I have to give something back to the country.” Qazi spent the next four months campaigning, meeting party workers and residents in Aligarh, and travelling to Delhi to meet with Congress leaders. However, when the time came to dole out tickets, Qazi wasn’t chosen for the seat that he claimed was originally promised to him. He said the AICC offered him alternative tickets, but he refused them as he was unfamiliar with those constituencies. He was at an airport, returning to New York, when I last called him. “There is always next election,” Qazi said, sounding relatively cheerful. “I don’t regret it at all. I tried my best, and I learned real politics, I learned the dirtiness of politics—I met good people, bad people—a good lesson for me. I will never give up and I will continue and try.”

Abraham, on the other hand, was incensed when I asked him about Qazi’s predicament. “I am very disappointed,” he said. “Despite all the lobbying done by many of us with the top leadership, [our efforts] did not come to fruition, so we are very, very upset about it. They say you NRIs are important, they give you all these nice accolades. And then they can’t give one out of 542 tickets to an NRI. I think that takes a lot of incentive and enthusiasm out of people.”

WHEN LK ADVANI AND MUKESH MODY were setting up the OFBJP in the early 1990s, Mehta wasn’t convinced of the need for such a group. He told me he thought it was unfortunate that “in India, everything becomes political,” and that he had advised Advani against the idea of extending political divisions into the diaspora. “Outside of India we are Indians, we don’t belong to a party,” he told me, and then shared a favourite Sangh story. “In Mahabharat,” he explained, “the Kauravas were one hundred and the Pandavas were five. But when a threat comes from outside, we are 105. If it is in interest of India, we are not five, we are not one hundred, we are one hundred and five—Vayam Panchadhikam Shatam.” Advani himself has used that phrase on occasion, but in his promotion of the OFBJP, it seems, the potential advantages of having a BJP presence beyond India’s borders had outweighed such sentiments.

Advani’s foresight may pay off in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Modi’s campaign, by prioritising the ideas of economic development and strong executive leadership, has rallied many overseas Indians behind the BJP. Their participation in the OFBJP has in turn helped raise Modi’s stature in India. NRIs and Indian Americans involved in the AAP, Congress or BJP abroad share a common interest in “cleaning up” Indian politics. But the OFBJP has had by far the greatest success in marketing its leader to US supporters—and in convincing them to pass a positive image of the party and its leadership back to their families and friends in India, with the added shine of global approval.

Patel sets great stock in the value of NRI opinion, and believes voters in India do too. “NRIs living in the USA, they are very powerful, in an economic way, and an academic way,” he told me. He travelled to his birthplace in Koriya, Chhattisgarh, to campaign in 2004 and 2009, and again last November, before the state assembly elections. Patel told me that his father had been politically active with the Jan Sangh, and that he himself had been a karyakarta in childhood, and had the BJP’s ideology in his blood. Before moving to the US in 1989 and becoming an entrepreneur, he had practiced law and been a BJP district general secretary and city president in Chhattisgarh.

During his last trip, Patel visited Koriya and Raipur districts to distribute blankets, campaign for a friend, and deliver “motivational speeches” to BJP workers. Despite his familiarity with the area, Patel told me, it was usually difficult at first to convince voters of his sincerity. “Their mindset is, where has he come from the outside, interfering?” he said. “I needed to meet them and eat with them, speak to them nicely, and then slowly they understand why I am there, and believe that I am here to help. Slowly they become better.”  

 

This report was partly supported by the first Caravan–Scroll Journalism fellowship.

Vanya Mehta is an independent journalist from Boston, and a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, USA. She is now based in Delhi, and is on Twitter as @vanyamehta.

LATE LAST DECEMBER, about 150 supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party gathered in an auditorium at the Edison, New Jersey, headquarters of TV Asia, a pro-BJP network that targets the South Asian community. The non-resident Indian and Indian-origin attendees were members of the US chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the official international arm of the party. On the stage was a life-size poster of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and a garlanded shrine to Swami Vivekananda, the late-nineteenth-century Hindu revivalist. The mood was jubilant—just two weeks earlier, the BJP had won assembly elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. OFBJP-USA leaders gave enthusiastic speeches about the “Modi effect” that had swept through those states, and which they hoped would carry the party to victory in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The excitement was tinged with apprehension about the fight ahead—not against the Congress or its foreign counterpart, the Indian National Overseas Congress, but against a new threat: the upstart Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP’s unforeseen success in the Delhi assembly elections, and the importance of its international supporters in achieving that victory, dominated several speeches. Arun Ayyagari, the manager of a local information technology company and one of the OFBJP-USA’s younger members, gave a twenty-five-minute presentation on the importance of emulating the AAP’s tactics, particularly its online activism, to help the BJP in the coming polls.

Balaguru T, a national council member of the OFBJP-USA and the CEO of a New Jersey IT consulting company, took up the thread in his speech. “There is a new phenomenon we need to talk about—the new kid on the block,” he said, before speaking about the AAP’s anti-corruption stance. At one point, Balaguru turned to the front row to acknowledge Swami Jyotirmayananda, a Miami-based spiritual leader whose patronage extends to an ashram near Delhi that is affiliated with the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati (a social service organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh). Balaguru pointed out that corruption was an important issue for the OFBJP too. “One of the messages I got from Swamiji about four years ago was that BJP needs to clean up its act together in India and the US,” he said. Then he turned to the audience and asked, “Aap log kya chaahte hain BJP se?” (What do you want from the BJP?) People called out: “Unity!”—“No corruption!”—“Respect!”—“Good governance!”

Swamiji, aap kya chaahte hain?” (What do you want, Swamiji?) Balaguru then asked.

Jyotirmayananda promptly responded, “Narendra Modi.”

The audience clapped enthusiastically. After the speeches, people chatted while enjoying samosas and chai, occasionally wandering over to drop a contribution into one of the donation boxes near the exit.

GALVANISED BY THE AAP’S SUCCESS and with the grail of Narendra Modi as prime minister in sight, the OFBJP has been unprecedentedly active in the buildup to this election. Its thirteen US sub-chapters have asked its roughly 3,500 registered members (about half of whom are Gujarati) to canvas voters in India over the phone, email and in person. They have also organised social media campaigns and hosted community events in support of Modi at Indian restaurants and other venues. This has inspired the creation of more international OFBJP chapters, taking the tally of countries where the organisation has a presence to thirty-one.

Meanwhile, the Indian National Overseas Congress, called the INOC (I), has struggled to keep up. Between the INOC (I)’s nine US chapters, and between the thirty-odd other groups that the Congress party’s foreign affairs office claims to administer around the world, there is little evidence of coordinated activity. The INOC (I) doesn’t have an estimate of the size of its membership, but a comparison of its Facebook page and that of the OFBJP offers a telling indicator of the differences between the two groups: the OFBJP-USA page has over 12,700 likes and posts regularly, while the INOC (I) has about fifty likes and hasn’t posted an update since last August. The OFBJP’s success can at least partly be explained by the appeal of Modi, whose campaign has combined promises of development with avowals of a deep attachment to tradition. This is an especially potent draw for many financially successful and culturally conservative expatriate Indians.

As America’s third-largest immigrant group and its wealthiest demographic, NRIs and Indian-origin citizens can have a crucial influence on the US government’s attitude towards the platforms and candidates of Indian parties, and in building relationships between the two countries’ leaders. Both the OFBJP-USA and the INOC (I) have tried to harness the political potential of the diaspora in service of their parent parties, but the former organisation has, undeniably, played the more effective supporting role in this year’s election drama.

Besides the softer contributions of media campaigns and get-togethers, the OFBJP has also been holding fundraising drives for the BJP, while the INOC (I) claims not to be holding fundraisers because of their potential for violating Indian law. Foreign financial involvement in Indian politics is banned by the 2010 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and a contentious topic that regularly crops up before elections. Even as the OFBJP members in Edison envied the success of the AAP’s international supporters, the new party faced scrutiny in Delhi after an October 2013 petition named it as a recipient of foreign funds. The petition, filed at the Delhi High Court by the notorious advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, is only one of several recent efforts to enforce the ban. A previous petition at the same court, registered in January 2013 by a Delhi NGO, the Association for Democratic Reforms, accused the Congress and the BJP of receiving funds from subsidiaries of the London-based conglomerate Vedanta. Yet enforcing the Foreign Contribution Act’s ban is a difficult task, as an argument from the defence in the Vedanta case illustrated: its lawyers claimed that since the ban on foreign donations does not extend to non-resident Indians, and since the company is majority Indian-owned, it did not count as a foreign source. On March 28, the court ruled that Vedanta’s subsidiaries constituted a foreign source, and directed the Election Commission to take action against the parties, hinting at increased stringency in the future. While these cases have led to greater caution among Indian parties this election (some require attestation of citizenship from online donors, and publicly list donors’ names), many avenues of contribution (remittances and donations to politically-affiliated charities in India, for example) remain largely unregulated.

The question of politically affiliated charities has been a provocative one for sections of the diaspora, with occasional allegations of foreign money going towards funding affiliates of the RSS in India. The most high-profile of these investigations was the 2002 “Stop Funding Hate” campaign, which cited research by the NGO Human Rights Watch to demonstrate that money from the US-based non-profit India Development and Relief Fund had gone to RSS groups in India. The OFBJP itself claims to be registered in the US as a taxable nonprofit entity, and therefore excused from sharing documentation of its financial activities. It also nominally distances itself from the social and religious work of the Sangh Parivar outfits that predated it in the US—the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS’s international corollary). But though the OFBJP-USA and the VHPA do share overlapping membership and administrative oversight from India, their members are reluctant to expand on the relationship. The OFBJP-USA has, since its inception just before the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, positioned itself as an explicitly political organisation. It claims that its fundraising activities for the BJP are above board, and that its focus is on influencing Indo-American relations and India’s domestic political landscape.

MAHESH MEHTA, the OFBJP’s national coordinator, met MS Golwalkar in Ahmedabad, in 1947. Mehta was ten years old at the time; his father was involved with the RSS, and the encounter with the group’s second chief left a strong impression. “His eyes looked through me, as if penetrating me,” Mehta recalled, when we met at his semi-detached house in suburban Massachusetts in late February. “I was instantly glued to him.” Meeting Golwalkar set Mehta on a lifelong path of service to the Sangh Parivar—first in India, and then abroad as the founder of the VHPA.

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