Modi and the NRI: How BJP has tapped the diaspora for electoral gains
Various PMs in the past have used the diaspora to project India’s soft power; Modi has, however, used it as a force-multiplier — as a campaign tool back home
The BJP-RSS combine has stepped up its overseas activities to energise the Indian diaspora as part of its overall preparations for facing the 2024 parliamentary elections.
The Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) is playing a pivotal role, as the organisation has registered itself in various countries, adhering to local rules and regulations. The forum, in its declaration in overseas nations, has made full disclosures that its activities are political in nature and aimed at promoting its parent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Vijay and Vinay combine
Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, who is in charge of the BJP’s department of foreign affairs, is playing a key role in propagating the BJP’s outreach programme overseas. He coordinates between the Prime Minister, party bigwigs and the government. Also, he is in regular touch with Foreign Minister S Jai Shankar. As a member of the party’s National Executive, he gets regular feedback.
Chauthaiwale is constantly travelling and connecting between various units of the “saffron parivar” and various affiliates that promote Hindu culture and religion overseas. He also gets substantial help from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), headed by Vinay Saharasbhude, who is a hardcore RSS member. The idea is to integrate Indian diaspora with ‘Indian culture’.
Chauthaiwale is also in constant touch with foreign embassies. He interacts with diplomats and delegates on issues of mutual interests. Once a month, he organises a meeting of foreign diplomats in India with party chief JP Nadda in attendance.
The OFBJP has chapters in more than 40 nations. The forum gets a boost whenever Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits these countries and addresses various programmes organised by it. Chauthaiwale and Saharasbhude helm and coordinate various reception committees that host Modi during his foreign sojourns.
The OFBJP has managed to create a cadre of supporters in 25-30 politically significant countries where there is a strong presence of the Indian diaspora. Called the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), they are the volunteer army of the BJP overseas, with some of them having deep roots in the RSS. According to insiders, the idea of combining various members of the saffron family into one cogent unit was Modi’s idea and the ultimate objective was to effectively use them during Lok Sabha elections.
The diaspora in the past has been used by various prime ministers to project India’s soft power. The first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru used it to project India’s image as a non-aligned nation trying to make a mark in geo-politics. His daughter and then PM Indira Gandhi used it to organise ‘India Festival’ abroad with the help of ‘cultural czarina’ Pupul Jaykar. The ‘festivals’ held abroad sought to propagate India’s cultural might. After her, Rajiv Gandhi, as Prime Minister, aided by Sam Pitroda, used it to improve India’s image abroad as an IT and technology destination.
Image building exercise
Modi has, however, used the diaspora to a different effect. He not only projected India’s image as a growing power abroad and instilled a sense of pride among the Indian community and its culture, but also held politically laced programmes to build his constituency back home. Described by party insiders as “force-multiplier”, Modi and his partymen have used the diaspora as a campaign tool back home.
For instance, during the 2019 elections, several members of the diaspora would call back home to explain to their family and friends the place of pride India enjoys in the eyes of the foreigners since the arrival of Modi as their leader in India. Since in India anyone who is either living abroad or had a foreign visit is looked up with reverence by many, the tactics worked.
Besides, the overseas unit of the BJP ensured that they organised various fund collection initiatives. This not only shored up finances for the party, but also accorded a sense of participation to those living abroad, who otherwise had no vote in India.
Besides diplomatic and political objectives, Modi’s trips abroad and his interaction with various Hindu groups also ensured promotion of the religion and his emergence as ‘Hindu Hridya Samrat’. One fallout was its possible influence in local politics of those nations as well.
As continuation of this initiative, Modi will be visiting Melbourne and Canberra in February 2023 to participate in the Quad meet — comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India. Besides the official meet, he is slated to address a large gathering of the Indian diaspora. The preparations have already begun and the diaspora is excited.
During my current Australia visit, I have been witness to the preparations. I have had a ringside view of the activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) outreach programme called ‘Hindu Dharma Education’ in various cities spread over 80 schools. It is estimated that 40,000 children are benefited by the programme run by 350 teachers, many of them volunteers.
Scaling up by Modi
While psephologists crunch numbers collected by enumerators, what they miss is the unquantifiable benefits that the party receives from such initiatives. The BJP thinks that these initiatives would give the party a leg up in the 2024 elections, too. The idea of taking the help of the diaspora for campaigning back home struck Modi during one of his overseas trips.
During erstwhile Congress regimes, presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers interacted with sections of the diaspora in limited fora. Only select invitees were called into closely held meetings which were hardly publicised.
Modi opened it up and began to hold mass programmes in conference halls and sports stadiums. These large-scale interactions, organised by OFBJP, gave a new heft to Indians living abroad. They could instantly connect with ‘their’ Prime Minister who was interested in their well-being even though he was only on a short visit. It also helped to establish Modi as a global leader of Hindus.
In the last few years, Rahul Gandhi has also travelled to various countries and held his personal vipasana, but initiated no political meetings. Regional parties such as the DMK, TMC, TRS and YSR Congress also have their admirers abroad. They too regularly organise meetings but those are no match to the BJP’s meets in scale and size.
For instance, during Modi’s 2015 visit to Australia, more than 50,000 entry passes were issued to members of the diaspora from five prominent states of that country.
Modi’s magic on diaspora
In the six months since Anthony Albanese assumed office as Prime Minister of Australia, eight Indian Union Ministers — including Piyush Goyal, S Jaishanker, Nitin Gadkari, Dharmendra Pradhan, RK Singh and Gajendra Shekhawat — have visited the nation. Many wellknown playback singers from India lined up with Illiaraja for a mass performance. Sydney has a large Indian diaspora, second only to New Jersey.
More than a lakh Haryanvis, Gujaratis, Tamilians, Telugus and Bangla speaking overseas Indians form the diaspora in Australia.
The Indian diaspora went into a tizzy when they met Modi in Japan in 2021. He visited Germany earlier this year. Earlier, before the COVID pandemic, Modi had addressed several meetings in the US, the UK and the UAE among others. Many of these meetings had a common theme of elections and Modi could convincingly send this message through his oration.
All this, the party thinks, will help shore up an additional two to three percentage votes for the party. With the well-oiled party machinery working overtime having a singular aim of winning elections — with Modi as its face and Home Minister Amit Shah as its strategist — it is no surprise that the party is hopeful of another decisive victory in 2024.