New Jersey, USA – Indian-American supporters of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist politician, are vigorously campaigning to propel the former tea vendor to a leading position in the race to head the world’s largest democracy.
Momentum in the US among fans of Narendra Modi – the candidate of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) and one of the most controversial figures of his generation – offers key insights into the religious nationalist’s campaign.
Analysts believe impetus generated by the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) for Modi – who has been denied entry to the US for a decade – eclipses that of campaigns backing the ruling Congress Party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose anti-corruption platform gained it a surprise victory in the New Delhi assembly elections last December.
“OFBJP’s local efforts are helping to create an echo chamber of inevitability towards Modi,” said Milan Vaishnav, South Asia researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.
“There is definitely an ‘enthusiasm gap’ between the OFBJP’s level of enthusiasm and spirit and that of other political parties.”
OFBJP support for Modi in the US obeys a broader strategy to redefine Gujarat chief minister from religious hardliner linked to one of his country’s worst episodes of Hindu–Muslim carnage, into economic miracle worker.
Modi was accused of being a conspirator in the 2002 anti–Muslim pogrom during which 1,500 people died in India’s most industrialised state under his watch, an accusation Modi has denied.
In March, 500 Indian-Americans gathered at the start of the Hindu New Year to campaign for Modi in a posh township in New Jersey where the OFBJP had organised one its largest fundraisers.
Popularly known as “chai pe charcha” – or “discussion over tea” – the campaign highlights the politician’s trajectory from humble railway tea vendor to political frontrunner as about 800 million Indian voters go to the polls.
“He will take India to the level of Vishwa Guru [world leader],” said OFBJP President Chandrakant Patel, one of Modi’s foremost backers in the US.
Patel – a long-standing activist in right–wing Hindu groups and active within the OFBJP for 15 years – is convinced a “Modi Tsunami” will generate an electoral landslide certain to install him as prime minister.
“Modi’s strength lies in putting the nation first,” he added.
Modi’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the BJP reflects a radical shift in the politics of India whereby voters seem prepared to overlook his potential to polarise in exchange for the prospect of steering the country into the first world.
Economic issues have overtaken ideological differences for many people, providing space for religious ideologues to campaign on a platform of putting the economy – and Hinduism – first.
Jayesh Patel, a former OFBJP president, was confident Modi would introduce voting rights for non-resident Indians, improve consular services and boost India’s investment climate.
“Modi will even help India secure a permanent seat in the United Nations – wait and watch,” he added.
“Narendra Modi is a visionary,” said Narain Kataria, president of the Indian American Intellectuals Forum, who added that the BJP figurehead will enshrine “Hindu values” if he comes to power.
“Hindus are secular by nature and since Modi is a proud Hindu, he is secular too.”
Secularism is a highly politicised theme in India which many Muslim Indians fear could lead to an imposition of majoritarian Hindu ideals on the country that disregard minority rights.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is among those who have expressed unease at Modi’s understanding of secularism, saying he would not like a prime minister who generates concern and fear among minorities.
Stoking such fears are the links between some BJP activists in India and abroad with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu right–wing paramilitary organisation associated with anti-Muslim violence.
Siddharth Varadarajan, a journalist and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi, said: “When Hindutva-oriented politicians or activists make claims like ‘Hindus are secular by nature’ or that ‘India is secular because the majority of its people are Hindu’, what they are really saying is that people of other religions are not secular by nature and that if the people of other religions became the majority, India would cease to be secular.
“Both of these claims, paradoxically, show the communal thinking of those arguing along these lines. Such people have no concept of civic values, or of citizenship in which the identity of citizens – their religious beliefs, linguistic, caste, ethnic affiliations, gender or sexual preference – have no bearing on their rights and responsibilities.”
Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the funds raised overseas have been channeled towards the BJP and the AAP, although the latter’s campaign has recently lost steam.
“But it’s highly unlikely that overseas funding constitutes a large proportion of campaign funds for an established national party such as the BJP,” he said.
It's highly unlikely that overseas funding constitutes a large proportion of campaign funds for an established national party such as the BJP
The 18 OFBJP chapters comprising more than 5,000 members across various US cities have organised over 200 tea parties like the New Jersey event but, while there is vocal support for Modi, support for Congress and other rival parties has appeared tame.
Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment explains the “enthusiasm gap” that he detects in favour of Modi on the basis of the emails he has been receiving about OFBJP’s activities.
By contrast, he has heard little from the Indian National Overseas Congress INOC (I) about their activism – suggesting a lack of engagement.
The INOC (I) website has scant evidence of up-to-date or coordinated activity, its Facebook page has barely 200 likes, and there has been no Twitter activity. Its US members join chapters that accord with their Indian state of origin, and sporadic updates suggest this division has made their activities and lobbying initiatives more individual.
The Congress Party campaigners working in the US refused to comment on the record about their efforts.
AAP’s outreach coordinator, Pran Kurup, said the organisation adheres strictly to India’s foreign contribution regulations.
“We want to help change the politics of India, it’s not about the business of getting seats and procuring a majority,” he said.
Kurup said that AAP volunteers overseas have switched to a digital platform where they are fervently organising online discussions on youth employment, corruption, rising prices and administrative grievances, an effort he compares to a startup.
“It’s a bit chaotic and unstructured, but there is a common objective without a top-down approach,” he said.
These rival parties are clearly finding it hard to trump the religious symbolism and nationalistic imagery of the BJP that was much in evidence in New Jersey, where the occasional patriotic song was interrupted by a priest invoking the gods.
The enthusiasm this generates was clearly in evidence among participants such as Arvind Patel, owner of Jersey City based Rajbhog Foods.
“I am the sole provider of snacks and tea for such gatherings and all the money comes out my own pocket,” he said.
Patel has distributed about a million packets of Indian snacks, aptly named “Modi Magic”, and had customised Styrofoam teacups with campaign stickers for the event.
As the grand finale by traditional “kathak” dancers graced the stage at the Sheraton Hotel, the crowd chanted in unison: “Let us help make an India that we would wish to go back to.”
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