Indian elections play out on U.S. turf

Jackson Heights is a predominantly South Asian neighborhood in Queens, New York.
Jackson Heights is a predominantly South Asian neighborhood in Queens, New York.

– Even though Chandrakant Patel, an Indian-born businessman, has been in the United States since 1989, his homeland’s politics still matter to him. He is sure he can sway the way the vote will go, at least in his hometown.

“I was born and brought up in Korba (a city in Central India) and I have influence there. I have connections there,” he says as he waited for his India bound flight to be announced on April 8. “I’ll motivate people there to support the Bharatiya Janata Party.”

It is election time in India and the right wing Bharativa Janta Party and its leader, Narendera Modi, are ahead in the polls.  And many of the 1.9 million Indian immigrants living in the United States are paying close attention as the campaign unfolds.  They’re waiting for the final results with interest. Voting continues through May 12  all over the world’s largest democracy, as it has since April 7. The members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house in the parliament, will be elected from each state and depending on which party attains a majority, the new prime minister will be chosen on May 16.  For the first time, non resident Indians, with valid Indian passports, will be allowed to vote, though they will have to travel to India to cast it.

India is 8,431 miles away, but Indians in the United States, like Patel, who is president of the Overseas Friends of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, actively follow—and participate in— their homeland’s elections, even to the point of boarding airplanes for a more than 17-hour flight.

“Boundaries within countries are artificial today. You have interest in people even if you’re living a thousand miles away,” said Pran Kurup, who has been a member of the U.S. chapter of the center-left Aam Aadmi Party since it was established in late 2012. “India’s problems are more far-reaching. If you change something there, you affect one-sixth of the world’s population.”

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The right-wing candidate, Modi, is pitched against Rahul Gandhi, the young scion of the Gandhi family and the Congress candidate. A center-left party, the Congress-led alliance is currently in power but people are unhappy with the current government. Arwind Kejriwal, the candidate for the Aam Aadmi Party, a center-left party, had to be persuaded by party members to stand for elections.

Each of these parties has chapters and overseas branches in the United States.Despite the Indian diaspora’s widespread interest in what happens politically back home, most Indian-Americans in this country cannot vote in elections in their homeland because they are non-residents. In fact, they can’t chip in election donations either, as it’s illegal in India for people with non-Indian passports to contribute to any political party.

But party-supporters in the United States have found other ways to pitch in. The Aam Aadmi Party, for example, has been active online and on social media trying to gather support. The group has organized Google Hangouts to kickstart discussions and come up with issues which need to be addressed in India. Nearly 10 percent of the total campaign contribution for the party in 2014 came from Indians living in the United States, Indians with Indian passports, that is.

“You cannot collect checks here (and send them to India) so we have to do it online,” said Kurup, who also had to ensure that only Indian passport holders contributed.

The group also has a widespread calling program with close to 18,000 volunteers, says Kurup. Members and individuals who sign up for the program, carry out their duties at their own expense. “They start calling up people in India and ask them to vote for our candidate,” he says. The phone calls are often limited, though, to acquaintances and family members.

George Abraham, the president of the Indian National Overseas Congress, the United States branch of the Congress party, adds that they too have a volunteer-based calling program and also advertise on radio and television in the United States. Members and sponsors contribute the funds for all of the activities in the United States,

“We also have meetings with community members that result in a good discussion,” he said referring to a Saturday meet-up in Queens, where members discuss the current political scenario and pass resolutions, which might make their way into the party manifesto.

The India First Alliance, founded by Rajendra Prasad Singh, a Long Island resident, also supports the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate online and hosted an event last month where members invoked Lord Ganesha’s blessings for their party’s success. Ganesha, the Hindu lord of success, is the remover of all obstacles and praying to him ensures that all difficulties are removed from the path of the party’s candidates.

“We had a “mahayagya” (a ritual of pouring offerings to a fire accompanied by chants in Sanskrit). It was done so that we can achieve our goals,” he says. The event, organized at the one of the member’s residence, took place in Lindenhurst, New York on April 13. All the attendees were also asked to call up their friends and family members in India and ask them to canvas support for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The reason why Indian immigrants remain interested in politics back home, some experts say, is because they want Indian friendly overseas policies, to facilitate investment in infrastructure development and in various other sectors.

But some questions remain unanswered as to how much of an influence these groups will have on the outcome of the elections. R. Radhakrishnan, a political science researcher associated with the National Defense Academy in India, a training institute for the Indian Armed forces, thinks that the diaspora does play a significant role, even if their involvement is driven by their own self-interest. The researcher pointed out, for example, that the Bharatiya Janata Party even started a special annual event back home called the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas. The purpose: to honor notable immigrants.

Daniel DiSalvo, assistant political science professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, City College of New York says that the immigrant community exert the most influence at the state level because many Indian immigrants from a particular part of the country shape how their friends and relatives back home vote. But on the bigger scale, Indians in America may not have much of an effect nationally, said Professor DiSalvo.

“You have 814.5 million potential voters in India. The total number of Indians who live in the U.S compared to that is very, very small,” he said. Nearly 2 million Indians live in the United States.

Despite those numbers, businessman Chandrakant Patel still hopes his trip will make a difference. His 41-day trip to India won’t be much of a vacation. Besides attending political rallies, he’s going to spend most of his time campaigning for his party’s candidate.

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