National

Wealthy And Influential Non-Resident Indians Pull Out All Stops For A BJP Win

The famed Gujarati diaspora has become a pivotal site from where political ideals of the homeland are defined, reconfigured and eventually realised. They play a vital role in (re)building political and popular consciousness.

Wealthy And Influential Non-Resident Indians Pull Out All Stops For A BJP Win
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Unlike many other communities in India, Gujaratis are almost in every part of the world. They are known to be traders, trade unionists, business tycoons and entrepreneurs. They rank in the list of the wealthiest individuals in the world for a state with less than 5 per cent of India’s population. However, the Gujarati identity is made of many other elements and layers. Their contribution to other spheres—such as art, culture, science and literature—is immense.

And so is in the domain of politics. Gujaratis have financed the freedom struggles of two countries, India and South Africa. But so have they financed—and aggressively cheered—the rise of Narendra Modi.

In a globalised world, the diaspora has become a pivotal site from where political ideals of the homeland are defined, reconfigured and eventually realised. The overseas Gujaratis, commonly known as non-resident Gujaratis (NRGs), play a vital role in (re)building political and popular consciousness. NRGs keep a personal connection to their home state and often donate to construct schools, libraries and other development projects in their villages. In return, such philanthropy activity earns them respect and special recognition. Their words are taken more seriously when the stakes are high, like the upcoming assembly elections. They feel a strong affinity with Modi and deeply resonate with the pragmatic political culture that Gujarat is widely known for.

NRGs are likely to target villagers across Gujarat, as there is significant resentment against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in rural areas. Several leading business personalities from Los Angeles have made a strategy for the diaspora community to reach out to the local communities. It has set a target of persuading at least 100,000 voters across the state. Dr Vasudev Patel, national organisation secretary of the BJP in the United States, says they follow two campaign strategies. While some NRIs work on the ground and campaign in different villages, others who could not make it to India take to online campaigns, make phone calls to their relatives, villagers and the neighbours and tell them why they should vote for the BJP. “They also make online videos and share on social media platforms,” says Patel. In Anand, where the BJP lost to Congress by a considerable margin in 2017, over 2,000 NRGs are expected to actively campaign for the BJP on the ground.

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‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston Photo: Getty Images

As various parameters suggest, Patidar (Patel) votes will determine the election outcome. Members of the large Patel community, a sub-caste of Hindu traders located in the western side of Gujarat, have grown to dominate the American motel market during the last 30 years. The Asian American Hotel Owners Association—the largest body of hotel owners who contribute 1.7 per cent of the U.S. GDP—has some 70 per cent Gujaratis as their members, of which three-quarters are Patels. A large number of NRGs are likely to campaign in Morbi, a Patidar-dominated constituency, where the recent tragedy may give the BJP some trouble.

The convenor of Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), Los Angeles, confirm that more than 100,000 green card holder Gujaratis have arrived in Gujarat. Some diasporic communities from New Zealand, Australia and the UK have already landed in the state, while others from Fiji, Canada, the US and other countries are likely to follow suit.

The Gujarati diaspora also funds the BJP. Way back in 1970, the Gujarat government established a separate department to promote investments from NRGs. They may not elect local politicians, but they actively participate in adversarial public events. A leading Gujarati diaspora group, Vishwa Gujarati Samaj (VGS), based in Ahmedabad, has been felicitating prominent influential Gujarati personalities for the past 17 years. Last year, the ceremony was attended by Gujarat Governor Acharya Devvrat and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Parsh­o­ttam Rupala. VGS is currently reaching out to the ‘rural population’ to make ‘democracy stronger’.

The Convenor of Overseas Friends of BJP, Los Angeles, confirmed that more than 100,000 green card holder Gujaratis have arrived in Gujarat.

Several coalitions of Gujarati diaspora organisations have recently advertised for diasporic Gujaratis’ unequivocal support to the BJP in the coming assembly elections. The advertisements dominate various social media channels. With the help of Facebook and various communication channels, communities unable to travel to Gujarat from the UK, Canada and Australia are urging locals to defeat the so-called ‘Tukde Tukde Gang,’ pointing at the Congress and the AAP.

The Swaminarayan sect, followed initially by the Patels, has also played an extensive role in silently formulating and shaping Gujarat politics. The Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, being built in Ayodhya, showcases the unique characteristics of the Swaminarayan temple architecture. To retain the elements of Hindu culture for the diaspora, the sect has built grand temples worldwide. Unlike traditional temples, they actively engage with communities, mobilising funds and volunteers for social work.

The internationally famous sect has enabled Gujarati communities to proudly anchor their Hindu faith, locally and internationally. Whether it is the inauguration of important events and landmarks by a leader hailing from the sect or the incorporation of communities from lower castes over the years, they have enormously influenced Gujarati communities worldwide.

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With its seed firmly embedded in Gujarat soil, Hindutva politics is more than just a vehicle for the state’s upwardly mobile Hindu caste groups to secure political dominance. Through their constant endorsements, these caste groups, particularly Patels, are increasingly able to directly or indirectly benefit from Hindutva politics internationally with their direct opportunism base in the homeland.

Though cosmopolitan in outlook, the community has shown immense tolerance to violence, be it the riots in the 1980s or 2002, as the majority of the Gujarati diaspora has always supported the Hindutva project. By sharing WhatsApp forwards or by mobilising large groups to show solidarity with the Modi-led BJP government, NRGs have significantly normalised the religious divide on various
domestic and international platforms.  Regional mainstream media organisations have also played an active role in significantly giving NRGs voices prominence. In mid-October, a leading Gujarati news channel brought together more than 2,500 global Gujaratis on a single platform. It also felicitated various influential personalities in business and culture through its three-day gathering. The Adani Group, owned by a Gujarati billionaire who trots the globe with Narendra Modi, was one of the event’s sponsors. Appearing right before the elections, the event aptly captured the entrenched bond among the BJP, the Gujarati diaspora and the media.

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Some of the Gujarati diasporic groups identify themselves as Hindu Gujaratis rather than Gujaratis which has been an inclusive and accepting ethnic community historically. Such manufactured identities are then picked by communities in the homeland and are enabled by the contours of sectarian politics.

Whether it is the continuous projection of Gujarat’s neoliberal economic growth model or the institutional support from organisations like OFBJP or Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the diaspora’s influence over India’s economic boom and the BJP politics has consistently grown over the decades.  Gujarati’s long-distance nationalism highlights the fundamental contradictions in diaspora communities and raises crucial questions about Gujarat’s inclusive culture. Though diasporic aspirations of becoming internationally acclaimed result from India’s democratic success, their political goals for the homeland endanger Gujarat’s real Asmita.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The Band of Brothers")

(Views expressed are personal.)

Kalrav Joshi is a London-based journalist and writer

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