How People In LA Are Helping Elect A Prime Minister In India

Members of the Overseas Friends of the BJP held a 'Chai Pe Charcha" event for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Irvine in April 2019. (Courtesy OFBJP-LA)

Right now an election to choose India's next prime minister is underway.

Will India's current prime minister, Narendra Modi, win reelection? Or will his main challenger, Rahul Gandhi, defeat him?

It's a major moment for the country — one so big that Modi supporters all around the world are getting involved, including here in Los Angeles County.

Modi's ability to rally support from thousands of miles away is partly due to the highly organized the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), which boasts an L.A. chapter.

The party is an unusual fit for L.A. County, where half of all registered voters are Democrats. The BJP is a right-wing, Hindu nationalist political party known for being hostile, at times, to religious minorities in the majority Hindu country.

But Modi's "India First" economic reforms and promises to clean up corruption and the environment have made him popular with many Indian Americans in Southern California.

Although more than 60% of Indian Americans vote for Democrats in U.S. elections, India's far-right BJP has much more organized and vocal support here than its secular rival, the Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi.

Tens of thousands of Modi supporters have mobilized at local Hindu temples in Norwalk and Anaheim. They've also organized via Whatsapp groups, urging their friends and family members in India to vote for Modi in the election, which began April 11 and ends May 19.

During that time, voters cast ballots for representatives in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's Parliament, which has 543 elected seats. Whichever party or coalition of parties receives a 272-seat majority gets to select the prime minister. Final results will be tallied and announced May 23.

WHAT ARE MODI'S L.A. SUPPORTERS UP TO?

Most Modi supporters in the Southern California diaspora aren't Indian citizens, so they can't actually vote in the upcoming election, but they are part of the BJP's well-oiled PR machine. They call friends and family back home, send out pro-Modi social media blasts, write op-eds in local papers, donate funds and host campaign events.

In recent months, BJP supporters in Los Angeles held several "Chai Pe Charcha," ("chat over tea") events, where they sent pro-Modi social media messages to their contacts in India. The events were organized by the Los Angeles chapter of The Overseas Friends of the BJP, the outreach arm of India's ruling party in Western countries.

In the U.S., the organization has about 4,000 members and about 300,000 supporters who attend events and back BJP causes across the country.

Dr. Rangaesh Gadasalli, a former vice president of the Overseas Friends of BJP's Los Angeles chapter, speaks at a 'Chai Pe Charcha" event for Modi in Irvine in April 2019. (COURTESY: Overseas Friends of BJP-LA)

"We tell them, please vote Modi, because it's going help both of our countries a lot," said Rangaesh Gadasalli, a former vice president in the Overseas Friends of BJP's Los Angeles chapter. "He's beneficial for India, and he's beneficial for the U.S. That's all we can say."

It's a compelling case, according to Krishna Reddy Anugula, Overseas Friends of BJP's U.S. president, who is based in New Jersey.

"When NRIs [non-resident Indians] call from other countries, because most NRIs are successful people, they listen to us at least," he said. "Especially students and certain professional groups. They want to hear what we have to say."

Reddy said the messaging service Whatsapp, with more than 200 million active users in India, is crucial to the BJP's campaign.

"You're reaching out to every corner of India without going through the mainstream media," Reddy said. "The way that we're doing it is the NRIs are directly connecting to the people."

Earlier this year, the BJP's L.A. representatives gathered in Anaheim for a traditional Hindu yagyna ritual, lighting the sacred fire and offering prayers for Modi's reelection.

After last month's terrorist attack in Kashmir, the group held vigils for slain paramilitary officers at local temples and demonstrated outside the Pakistani consulate in West L.A., calling for military action against India's majority Muslim neighbor.

Indian women supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wears a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally held by party president Amit Shah ahead of the national elections in Hyderabad on April 9, 2019. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

WHY MODI?

Many of Modi's local supporters credit him with projecting a positive, strong image of India to the world. He's promised to root out corruption in India's central government, clean up polluted rivers and jumpstart middle-class jobs.

Unlike some diaspora groups that are running away from their home countries, most Indians maintain a strong link to their motherland, sending back money for family members and forging a unique political identity.

"Indian Americans have long felt that they have been inconsequential in American politics and in Indian politics, and I think there's a sense of resentment about that," said UCLA history professor Vinay Lal.

The BJP harnessed that resentment to form its foreign support system in the 1990s, as the party in India was campaigning to take over the site of a Muslim mosque in India that it claimed was the Hindu deity Ram's Birthplace. The movement generated negative press attention in the U.S.

"The feeling was that India should have a lobby in the United States, and this is really the beginning of the Overseas Friends of the BJP," Lal said. "I remember the Indian American periodicals even put out ads in support of the Hindu nationalist movement."

Right-wing Hindu activists destroyed the mosque in December 1992. However, the Ayodhya dispute continues today, and the BJP's overseas ranks have grown to include branches in 40 countries.

The BJP is far more organized and vocal outside of India than its secular major party rival, Indian National Congress, which doesn't have much of a presence in Los Angeles.

Religious identity isn't the only factor motivating Modi's U.S. supporters. Most Indian Americans came to the U.S. after 1980, as high-skilled workers or international students.

"If you look at this demographic, the tendency is for them to vote BJP today," said Amit Ahuja, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara. "That is not because they're all Hindu nationalists, it's just that the BJP better captures the aspirations and interests of this particular group."

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (left) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attend a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on September 27, 2015. (SUSANA BATES/AFP/Getty Images)

WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ISSUES LOCAL MODI SUPPORTERS CARE ABOUT?

Many Indian Americans who actively support the BJP government are broadly concerned with economic development in India and see Modi as the way forward. But two other key issues loom large this election season: national security and religious freedom.

In the wake of a February suicide bombing in the disputed territory of Kashmir that claimed the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary police, local BJP supporters are calling on Modi, President Trump and other world leaders to punish Pakistan. India's northern neighbor has denied any connection to the attack, but the Islamist militant group that claimed responsibility is based there. The attack has been a rallying cry for the BJP and has set off the most serious military confrontation between India and Pakistan in decades.

Religious disputes in India, where 80% of the population is Hindu, have fueled Modi's support among Hindus, including those in the diaspora. Last year, India's Supreme Court issued a historic ruling giving all women the right to enter the popular Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Temple authorities had long prohibited women of menstruating age from entering because the shrine is dedicated to Ayyappa, a Hindu deity considered celibate. In January, when the state government put new rules in place and two women entered the shrine, right-wing Hindu groups launched violent street protests.

Sabarimala has become a wedge issue in the Indian election, pitting women's rights against the traditions of Hindu worshippers.

It's an issue that's getting attention in Southern California, too. Last month, a right-wing monk who led protests against the Sabarimala verdict in India visited the Sanata Dharma Temple in Norwalk and urged local Hindus to "unite together and create a Hindu vote bank" to defeat "anti-Hindu forces."

Swami Chinananda Puri, a Hindu leader from Kerala, India, lights the lamp at an event organized by the Organization of Hindu Malayalees in Norwalk. (AARON SCHRANK/LAist)

HOW DID MODI COME TO POWER? AND WHO OPPOSES HIM?

Modi is celebrated by some for his modest background as a chaiwala, a tea-seller, in addition to his speaking style and his administrative prowess. For thirteen years, he was chief minister of India's westernmost state Gujarat, championing the business-friendly policies he now points to as a model for the nation. He now has more than 46 million followers on Twitter. Modi is also a childless bachelor, which many BJP voters see as positive, in a country dogged by concerns over dynastic politics.

The rival Indian National Congress Party is led by Rahul Gandhi. No relation to Mahatma Gandhi, but Rahul is the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi, led India's movement for independence from Great Britain. Until recently, it had been India's dominant political party, leading a governing coalition based on principles of social democracy and religious inclusion outlined in India's constitution. But in 2014, dogged by corruption scandals, the party suffered its worst general election defeat since India's independence in 1947.

Indian National Overseas Congress President Sam Pitroda, based in Chicago, said the upcoming election is a decisive moment for the country.

"When India got independence, our founding fathers focused on inclusion," Pitroda said. "India for everybody. Your religion cannot be a prominent part of the politics. That's what the U.S. and Indian constitutions guarantee. Democracy and inclusion. And when that is being challenged by a group of people saying, 'We want to build a Hindu nation,' people are worried."

Modi's ties to communal violence made him a persona-non grata in the U.S. for years. The State Department canceled his visa for "severe violations of religious freedom" because of his alleged complicity in deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

Despite persistent human rights concerns in India, the U.S. reinstated Modi after his sweeping election victory in 2014. In 2016, President Barack Obama invited him to address a joint session of Congress. Since Trump's election, the U.S. has further strengthened ties with Modi and India.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. (AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)

WHAT IS THE BJP?

One of two major political parties in the world's largest democracy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sometimes referred to as the "Indian People's Party," is the conservative, pro-Hindu party of post-independence India. The BJP is rooted in a brand of Hindu nationalism known as hindutva —or Hindu-ness. That ideology is championed in India by the party's paramilitary parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, also known as the RSS. Modi, himself a lifelong RSS member, has helped meld religion and politics in a way not before seen in India's mainstream political landscape.

The BJP says it welcomes all Indians into the fold, but many — especially Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — find its Hindu nationalist ideology threatening.

The party has gained support across India, especially among upper-caste, Hindi-speaking voters in Northern India.

The BJP was officially created in 1980, and it won only two of 533 seats in the 1984 election. In 1996, it became the largest party in India, with 161 seats. The BJP headed the ruling coalition after the 1998 and 1999 elections, but has otherwise led the opposition. Then in 2014, the BJP won an outright majority — 282 seats, forming the first non-Congress, non-coalition government in India's history.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 26: Members of Sikhs for Justice hold a "Punjab Independence Rally" in front of the White House on June 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. The rally was held before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scheduled meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. (Mark Wilson/)

WHAT IS HINDU NATIONALISM?

The BJP is rooted in Hindu nationalism, a complex ideology that exists on a spectrum— but it's basically the idea that India is a country for Hindus. That ideology took root in the 19th century among Indians seeking a national identity, amid clashes with European colonizers and a history of Islamic rule on the subcontinent.

Inter-religious violence has increased 28% since Modi took power, according to Indian government data. Still, a recent Pew survey found only about a third of Indians see this as a big problem facing the country.

Religiously-motivated hate crimes have also spiked under Modi, according to data from IndiaSpend, which tracks reports of violence in the English-language media. This includes an upsurge in violent "cow protection" groups, and mob lynchings of Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Dalits.

Modi critics worry that having Modi, a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist, running India has emboldened a violent anti-Muslim minority of Hindus.

"I think the assumption is it's given the green signal to Hindu nationalists that you really have the license to do what you want and you won't be held accountable," Lal said.

DOES THE U.S. INDIAN DIASPORA HAVE MUCH IMPACT?

Indian Americans have the highest levels of education and income of any nationality in the United States, but it's difficult to measure their financial impact on Indian elections.

"I won't say that they matter that much in the Indian campaign finances," said Aparna Pande, a South Asia researcher at the conservative think tank the Hudson Institute. "There's a lot of money already in the Indian election, with no accounting, because we don't have campaign finance laws. While the money the Overseas Friends of BJP collects could make some difference in some constituencies, or raise their own profile, it's not enough to change the results of the Indian election."

India has 900 million registered voters. And there are only about 3.5 million people of Indian origin living in the U.S.

"It's a drop in the bucket," said Devesh Kapur, a South Asia Studies professor at Johns Hopkins University. "We should not mistake organization and vociferousness for actual influence on the ground in India. These are two very different things."

But political science professor Amit Ahuja at UCSB predicts more diaspora mobilization will happen in the years ahead.

"A lot of it will be financial," Ahuja said. "Because money, of course, given how wealthy the Indian diaspora is, can be mobilized from here."


Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.