Wednesday, Jul 06, 2022

Saffron Across The Seven Seas

The BJP's overseas units try to increase the party's acceptability

AS the BJP made an all-out bid for power this year, it was not just the Sangh parivar in India that did the ground work. Its international family came to the aid of the party too. In a well-orchestrated campaign, many in India received messages from friends and relatives abroad to exercise their franchise to instal Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister. Indeed, an organisation called the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), with its vast network of branches in most countries with a sizeable NRI population, ensured that the BJP emerged as the most well-represented Indian political party abroad.

So much so that on occasions BJP leaders managed to draw larger crowds than British politicians in England. As Keith Vaz, a member of the House of Commons, found to his surprise in 1995 at the thumping welcome L.K. Advani received in his constituency Leicester. Indeed, in all his years as MP, he had never managed to collect such a large crowd. In fact, the OFBJP was largely responsible for Advani being accorded the BBC Man of the Year title some years ago.

Support for the BJP is an outcome of the crystallisation of a Hindu identity in Britain and the US and the BJP nurses its non-voting constituency in these countries with some care. M.M. Joshi was a guest at a meeting on Kashmir organised by the National Hindu Students Forum in Britain, which has a 2,000-plus membership. Kedar Nath Sahni and Sikander Bakht later visited Britain to address meetings on Kashmir organised by BJP supporters, who work closely with the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the RSS’ overseas branch. And the crowning glory was a series of meetings addressed by RSS chief Rajinder Singh. Interestingly, Advani is a bigger crowd-puller than Vajpayee.

The OFBJP has an extensive network in Britain, with eight branches and a 17-member central committee. Dr Gautam Sen, lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics and the new spokesman for the BJP there, says their objective is primarily "to remove misconceptions about the BJP, that it is a communal or fascist party".

The BJP members in Britain have launched a programme of writing  to councillors and MPs and holding meetings to defend and explain the BJP in India. Sen has spoken actively for the BJP in several discussions on radio and TV and says: "We want our views here to get across so that reports on the BJP are not instantly hostile." A current campaign is on to collect "tens of thousands of signatures" to back Indian membership in the UN Security Council, for which Margaret Thatcher’s backing is being sought.

WHILE Sen is the formal and public face of the BJP in Britain, its real strength lies in the temples and HSS shakhas. About 60 shakhas are held regularly across Britain every week, the natural fallout of which is support for the BJP. When Kalyan Singh was dismissed recently, prayers were held for him at the shakhas and in scores of temples across Britain. And after the Coimbatore blasts, thanksgiving prayers were held in temples up and down Britain and also at two gurd-waras in Southall for the safety of Advani and to pray for those who died.

The OFBJP American branch is equally active in lobbying for support for the Sangh parivar. Says vice-president of the American OFBJP Shekhar Tiwari: "We began the organisation in 1991 to give the BJP an international reach. We work to build direct contact with policy-makers, administration officials, members of various think-tanks and the media. Among our jobs is to fight the leftist and liberal propaganda against the BJP. And this includes the anti-BJP propaganda that the Congress party carries on against us." Incidentally, Tiwari is also a member of the RSS.

In a PR stunt, the OFBJP staged a media event here to announce a "vote for the BJP" campaign. Jagdish Sewhani, treasurer, said: "We have urged all NRIs to call, write, send e-mail or faxes to their friends and relatives to vote BJP." But Tiwari and Sewhani acknowledged that such moves wouldn’t affect the outcome of votes in a large democracy such as India. "It’s more for emotional satisfaction by demonstrating our commitment to the Indian democracy and BJP," says Tiwari. "We overseas Indians can’t vote; so asking relatives and friends to vote is the next best thing we could think of."

Significantly, interviews with members of the American parivar, academics, US Administration officials, Congressional sources and diplomats clearly point to the growth of the Hindu lobby since the early nineties—that is, soon after the Ayodhya demolition. The BJP had then come under attack by the US media as well as the Indian officialdom in Washington, then led by Ambassador Sidhartha Shankar Ray. As Tiwari notes: "It was Ray who, in a way, fired up our juices. We had to do something to counter the insulting propaganda he was dishing out against the BJP. We have never looked back since then."

When general elections in India were announced recently, the OFBJP, which has chapters in New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, California and Washington DC, tried to crank up its efforts to shore up the BJP’s image in the US. They have two audiences to deal with: the Indian American community, which has overwhelmingly supported the BJP in the just concluded elections, and mainstream America, which doesn’t know too much about the BJP.

As for lobbying on Capitol Hill, even Indian diplomats admit to the organisational abilities of the so-called parivar in the US. "I can count only on the BJP and RSS types to deliver on the Hill when we need support concerning some of our issues; you know, issues like the (anti-India) Burton amendment or the Brown amendment. They back India’s cause with no questions or favours asked," says a senior Indian official. Indeed even the US establishment has been penetrated. Recently, an Indian official visiting an American lawmaker, who enjoys much support among the country’s Indian community, presented a grim analysis of the BJP. Only to be interrupted by the lawmaker’s assistant, whose very different view on the BJP then prevailed. The assistant, it turned out, was a former member of the Hindu Students Council, a part of the American parivar.

The OFBJP has partially succeeded in its mission to present a positive image in the American mainstream. As an administration official says privately: "These guys are not too sophisticated or suave. But they are persistent and don’t give up easily. So, they won over important allies on the Hill, in the administration and in a few think-tanks. They have even networked with other lobbying organisations to penetrate the higher echelons of power in Washington. We have to listen to them." And that’s no mean success.