Indian diaspora divided as Modi’s office lobbies US fans to influence vote | India Election 2024


Washington, DC – The WhatsApp message arrives with a colourful infographic highlighting numerous achievements from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decade-long rule. It includes a succinct comparison of statistics on the economy, education, healthcare, welfare schemes and infrastructure development between the period under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the previous government of the now-in-opposition Congress party.

On every metric, these infographics show India doing better under Modi. It is the sort of message political parties have bombarded Indians with over the past several months as the country holds the world’s largest election, with nearly a billion voters.

But the recipients of this particular message are not Indian voters: They are members of the vast Indian diaspora in the United States, and beyond, who are being encouraged to forward these messages to relatives and friends back in India to amplify Modi’s campaign claims.

At the centre of this diaspora outreach campaign is Non Resident Indians For Mission 2024 (NRIM), a Florida-based company registered in July 2023.

The extent of its work and connections with Modi and his party became public only after the company was registered as a foreign agent by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in April 2024. FARA is a law that requires individuals and entities acting on behalf of foreign governments, political parties or other foreign principals to disclose their relationships and activities.

The company’s foreign principal in the FARA filings is listed as Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The FARA regulations were invoked on NRIM after its owners, Gaurang Vaishnav and Girish Gandhi, were found to have been in contact with Nirav Shah, a research officer at the PMO, regarding election campaign materials, including infographics, according to the FARA filings. Both Vaishnav and Gandhi are also senior leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the US offshoot of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad group in India.

The persuasive infographics highlighting Modi’s achievements were intended for distribution among NRIM’s volunteers in 18 US states as well as 26 other countries. Al Jazeera contacted the DoJ to seek more details of the circumstances surrounding the group’s FARA registration, but the department declined to comment. Al Jazeera requested responses from the NRIM, and five of its leaders. They have not responded.

Apart from NRIM, the BJP’s US affiliate Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), another registered foreign agent, is also at the forefront of efforts to mobilise support for Modi’s re-election. The group is currently engaged in a campaign to make 2.5 million phone calls to voters in India, urging them to cast their ballots in favour of the BJP for an unprecedented third term.

Modi’s office and the BJP’s direct involvement in outreach to the Indian diaspora are emblematic of the government’s close eye on the community and its adept use of their influence for political mobilisation to shape electoral outcomes at home, say members of the community.

For many in the diaspora, this involvement is a source of pride and hope as they actively campaign for Modi’s re-election. For others, it is a cause of fear and apprehension.

‘I don’t feel safe in my own home’

At home, Modi’s decade-long rule has been marred by allegations of hate, violence and discrimination against the country’s 230 million Muslim and Christian minorities, along with a crackdown on journalists, political opponents and critics. Modi and the BJP deny the accusation that they discriminate on the basis of religion, and have accused critics and opponents under arrest of facing justice for corruption or other alleged crimes.

But outside India, a new fear has taken hold of sections of the diaspora critical of the Indian government’s policies. Last June, a Canadian Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was killed by individuals allegedly acting on behalf of Indian government agents, according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Nijjar advocated for Khalistan, a separate Sikh state in parts of India.

In November, a more elaborate plan to kill multiple Sikh leaders in North America was revealed after US authorities foiled what they said was an attempt to assassinate another Sikh activist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, in New York.

India has denied any role in Nijjar’s killing, while it has said it is investigating allegations made by US prosecutors that an Indian agent was involved in trying to orchestrate the Pannun’s killing.

But some in the Sikh community fear that a potential third term for Modi could leave them even more vulnerable.

Pawan Singh, a Sikh activist based in Washington, DC, is in his late 30s and has personally known Pannun for many years. He is increasingly worried about his safety. “I don’t feel safe in my own home. It’s just a matter of time before one assassination attempt succeeds. Nijjar’s was successful, Pannun’s wasn’t,” says Singh in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Singh fears that if Modi returns to power, extraterritorial attacks against Sikh leaders will become more sophisticated. “Modi 3.0 will be more emboldened. The Sikh community is fearful. Our social gatherings are now dominated by conversations around transnational repression. It’s a serious threat to American sovereignty and democracy,” he says.

Some Kashmiris living in the US echo these sentiments. A Kashmiri academic, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted, says that Kashmiris in India and abroad have been completely silenced. “If Modi comes to power again, it would completely end the Kashmiri people’s ability to express dissent and resist erasure,” the academic says.

‘Nightmare for Indian Muslims’

Sabiha Rahman, a community organiser from Austin, Texas, was born and raised in New Delhi. Her grandfather, Hifzur Rahman Seoharwi, was a prominent politician and freedom fighter who fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi for Indian independence from British rule, for which he was jailed for almost eight years. After independence, he served in the Indian parliament for two consecutive terms.

“Everything has changed in the last 10 years. There is so much hatred. No member of the minority community is safe today,” Rahman tells Al Jazeera. “A potential third term for the BJP will be extremely scary. It is like a nightmare for Indian Muslims. I am scared for my extended family, who still live in India. It’s not the kind of country any more for which my grandfather sacrificed his life.”

Devendra Makkar, 67, left India in December 1996, four years after the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in 1992, when a mob of Hindu nationalists razed the shrine to the ground with bare hands and primitive tools. A temple built over the mosque’s ruins was inaugurated by Modi this January.

“Nothing was the same in India after that criminal demolition. I had made up my mind that I would not stay in India,” Makkar recalls. Twenty-eight years later, Makkar, sitting at his home in Edison, New Jersey, sipping tea, believes he was right in his decision. “No one would want to grow old in a country where its leaders are making people hate each other and, in the process, murdering the constitution and democracy. Another five years of Modi’s rule will break India’s soul.”

However, many in the Indian diaspora do not share that view.

‘Modi has a vision’

Modi enjoys widespread popularity within a segment of the Indian-American diaspora. During the 2014 election campaign, his backers launched initiatives like “NaMo for PM” (Narendra Modi for Prime Minister) and “Global Indians For Bharat Vikas” to organise phone banks to persuade voters, while others travelled to India to participate in grassroots campaigning.

A decade later, his diasporic supporters remain loyal, motivated and more upbeat than ever. On April 28, about 300 Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) from the US, UK, Canada, Europe and Africa gathered at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They arrived in more than 100 cars adorned with their country flags, BJP election symbol stickers and pictures of Modi.

These cars then embarked on a 270km (168 mile) rally from Ahmedabad to Surat city, demonstrating their support for another term for Modi and his party.  Among them was Jagdish Sewhani, a founding member of OFBJP from New York and a lifelong BJP supporter.

In the third week of April, he took a break from work, packed his bags and flew to India to campaign for the BJP. “People told me that coming all the way from the US to campaign for BJP shows how much passion we have for India. It was an amazing experience. Modi is going to win big time,” says Sewhani.

“What he has done in the last 10 years has changed the face of India. Infrastructure, electricity, water, gas, houses for the poor, and free health insurance exist. Modi has a vision. He has taken India to the next level.”

Srujal Parikh, an IT administrator at the New York City Police Department who first met Modi in 2014, agrees with Sehwani and believes a third term for Modi would be good for India.

“The Indian diaspora has love, affection, and admiration for Modi. They want to see the country grow, be safe and in good hands, and that’s why they are involved in ensuring his victory. He has done a marvellous job,” Parikh tells Al Jazeera.

“India only needs a leader like him,” he adds after a pause.

Al Jazeera contacted Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the BJP’s Department of Foreign Affairs, to seek more details on the extent of diaspora supporters’ involvement in the ongoing elections, but he declined to comment.

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