By Kalyani Shankar
While there could be debate about the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five day visit to the US this week, there can be no doubt that he had conquered the 3 million strong Indian American community. The Madison square garden rock show on Sunday was a shining example to prove this. Although his meeting with the US President Obama was spent on substantive issues like the bilateral relations, economy and trade as well as military cooperation, Modi built up the right environment in a calculated move, armed himself with the overwhelming support of the Indian American community.
The growth of Indian Diaspora is a fascinating story. Over the decades, it is slowly emerging as a powerful lobby in the Congress, Capitol Hill and in the society. From the sixties the Hindu Swayam Sevak Sangh had been functioning in the US as the Sangh Parivar’s overseas outfit. The first generation immigrants from India were highly educated young Indians and others who migrated include those harassed during the emergency, those with ideological differences and the Brahmins from Tamil Nadu thrown out by the Dravidian movement. They became engineers, doctors, teachers, academicians and skilled labor force of America.
For decades now, the BJP and its sister organizations have worked actively among Indians in North America propagating Hindu culture, yoga and building temples. According to one estimate as of May 2014, there were 140 HSS shakhas in the US listed on the HSS website. Initially the Diaspora was not organized. Gradually it grew in size and in influence and also became more organized. The Indian embassy in Washington was struggling to organize these pressure groups in the early nineties but after the liberalization, they became informal lobby groups with the Capitol Hill. Within the US, they have campaigned to elect legislators sympathetic to Indian interests, and to have school curricula amended to protect their faith.
The high point was after the nuclear tests in 1998 and automatic imposition of sanctions by Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Diaspora played an important role in getting the sanctions lifted. The effort had all-round support among Indian Americans, but it was led by the Overseas Friends of the BJP, one of the better-organized ethnic organizations in the US. Within two years the atmosphere changed resulting in a highly successful Clinton’s visit to India in 2000 and Vajpayee’s visit to Washington. A grateful Vajpayee appointed Bhishma Agnihotri, as India’s ambassador-at-large with a global mandate. The Diaspora also helped during the Indo – US nuclear deal by lobbying with the Bush administration.
Modi must have learnt a lesson or two from the Chinese who are using the Chinese Diapsora in the US to their advantage or the Jewish lobby, which is most powerful in the US. Modi was keen to showcase the clout of Diaspora and had asked his long time friend Dr. Bharat Barai in Chicago to coordinate insisting that the reception should have the national character and not just an east coast function. Organizers of the Madison Square Garden event invited a broad social, ethnic and religious cross-section of 400 immigrant groups, ranging from Jains to Zoroastrians to Tamils to Bohras and Sikhs. Power minister Piyush Goyal coordinated between the Indian embassy in Washington, consulate in New York and the organizers.
Modi began wooing the Diaspora even as Gujarat chief minister. The Vibrant Gujarat shows are part of wooing the Diaspora. Overseas Friends of the BJP co-hosted a luncheon on Capitol Hill in early March 2002 with two other major Indian-American organizations, after the Godhra carnage. It was among the organizations that invited Modi as guest speaker in 2005. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it began drumming up NRI support for Modi at a dinner rally in Little India in New York. Ahead of the polls, they also organized ‘chai pe charcha’ at more than 100 places. Above all, several of them participated in the campaign and also contributed funds for the campaign. So Modi has continuous interaction with the Diaspora and all these have paid dividends.
Therefore it was a clever move of Modi to drum up support from the affluent Indian Diaspora in the US. Modi would need them to lobby for him in the Capitol Hill. Already India caucus has grown in size (42) most of which were present in the Madison Square garden.
There are two Indian origin American Governors and Obama has picked quite a few Indian Origin Americans for important positions in the US administration.. There will be an Indian origin US Ambassador soon to India.
Secondly, Modi has sent a message to President Obama by announcing visa liberalization for the NRIs and Americans, taking the first step in dealing with the US president. There are more demands from the Diaspora for granting voting rights to NRIs, opening more consulates, new direct flights to India from various US cities, easing the process to apply for visa or Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) card besides allowing OCI card holders to buy up to 20 acres of land, and security for the property owned by NRIs.
Thirdly, Modi has shown his keenness to bond with the Diaspora and invited the NRIs to invest in India and come as tourists. While the NRIs demand more facilities, they have so far been hesitant to invest in India or come back to ensure reverse brain drain. This visit was used to create confidence in them.
Fourthly, there are a lot of Indian origin people working in Pentagon and they too could help in improving the ties. The pentagon also outsources projects to IT companies where again Indians are in good number.
Modi has ensured his constituency among the Indian Americans, which is expected to grow provided all the promises he has made during the visit. For the time being, he can bask in the glory of his popularity and adulation. (IPA Service)