From US Suburbs, “Friends Of PM Modi” Dial India For Votes


On a chilly Sunday morning in this quiet American suburb, IT consultant Madhu Bellam scoured a spreadsheet with contact details for over 1,500 Indian voters. He punched numbers into his phone and rang his hometown, Hyderabad, 8,800 miles away.

Mr. Bellam emigrated to the United States around twenty years ago and then renounced his Indian passport to become an American in 2011. He now runs his own tech consultancy.

But the 47-year-old, convinced that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will accomplish India’s economic potential, is part of an army of activists seeking to propel Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a second term in next year’s general election, due to be held by May.

“I am requesting you to vote for BJP and spread the word in the constituency,” Mr. Bellam speaks in his phone calls to people in India whose numbers were given to him by the party. He then extols PM Modi’s policies, including his flagship “Make in India” plan.

Mr. Bellam and fellow BJP supporters also take their own networks in India, calling acquaintances, cousins and old schoolmates with the same message.

The US chapter of the “Overseas Friends of the BJP” has some 4,000 members, although its president Krishna Reddy estimates the broader network comprises up to 300,000 supporters. Many cannot travel home to vote, so ardent BJP backers are channeling their energy into phone campaigns and a blitz of social media messages to people in India.

To be sure, this kind of campaigning may only have a modest impact on the nearly 900 million voters in India, where hot-button matter center on a lack of jobs for young people and distress in heartland farming states because of low crop prices.

Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the BJP’s foreign affairs cell, said PM Modi’s supporters in 20 countries will be helping out in the campaign. Besides the United States, these include Britain, Canada, Australia and parts of Africa, where there are big Indian communities.

But Indian-Americans, who number around four million, has perhaps the most influence. As one of the most educated and prosperous minorities in the United States, the community is admired in India — an asset the BJP has seized on.

“They are shocked to be getting a call from the United States,” Mr. Bellam said of the people he phones. “We call some rural people too. They look at us as very successful people, so that’s the good thing for us to convince them. They think that we speak the truth.”

US-based BJP supporters said they back PM Modi because they believe he is ushering in policies that will turn India, already the world’s fastest-growing vast economy, into a powerhouse.

But identity politics also help explain BJP success overseas. US-based supporters often have roots in the RashtriyaSwayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP. Also helping PM Modi, who governed Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, is the big Gujarati community in the United States.

US supporters will likely make around 500,000 calls next year, according to Mr. Reddy, the president of the group. Members will target the biggest states and their own hometowns, given they can campaign in the local language and have a good grasp of community matter.

Devesh Kapur, a political scientist at John Hopkins University who has written two books on Indian-Americans, said calls from the United States are unlikely to change voters’ minds but they could help rally support.

“My impression is that their effect is at the margin, and more on turnout rather than changing voting preferences per se,” said Mr. Kapur.

Amid the buzz around the BJP abroad, the Congress is trying to drum up support from the diaspora, too.

During a tour of the United States last year, Congress president Rahul Gandhi praised emigres as the “backbone” of India.

For the 2019 election, members are asked to support Congress on social media and speak to friends and family back home – but not to call voters, said Sam Pitroda, the chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress Department.

“I am not going to force you. I am not going to tell you: ‘I’m great and successful, listen to me.’… How can I tell some poor little farmer that I am successful?” said MrPitroda, who was an adviser to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and now lives in Chicago.

“All you can tell them is: Do you believe in freedom? Do you believe in inclusion? Then the Congress party is the party you want to vote for.”

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