By Christophe Jaffrelot
The controversy that has been raging about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s US visa suggests that for the BJP, the United States is particularly important — and this is even truer for Gujarat.
This is largely due to the upgrading of political, educational (some 1,00,000 Indian students are enrolled in US universities) and economic bilateral relations over the last 10 years or so. But it also derives from the assertion of the Indian diaspora in the US. Not only has the number of Indian Americans doubled in less than two decades to cross the 3 million figure, but these NRIs also form the most wealthy community in the US as a result of their achievements as entrepreneurs (and CEOs), engineers and professionals (including doctors and lawyers). Their household income is almost twice the US national average.
The rise of Indian Americans has naturally impacted society, as is evident from today’s patterns of consumption, which are far from being in tune with the “swadeshi” motto. It has also affected politics, a field in which money matters more and more, if we go by the price for a Rajya Sabha seat recently made public by a Congress MP. Not only have NRI deposits in India more than doubled in the decade between 2002 and 2012, but Indian politicians nowdays raise money among the diaspora.
This is particularly true of Hindu nationalists. More than a decade ago, the Ayodhya movement had revealed the extent to which the Sangh Parivar relied on the support of NRIs when Ram Shilas (and huge donations intended to build the mandir) arrived from the West. Later, money reached the Parivar through other channels, mainly the India Development and Relief Fund, which is reported to have raised millions of dollars for affiliates of the Sangh, such as Sewa Bharti and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.
The American connection of the Sangh Parivar runs deep indeed, and the Parivar is now well established in the US. But it did not develop there like it did in India. In India, the RSS has been the organisational crucible of the “family”. In the US, the VHP came first, and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the functional equivalent to the RSS) took shape later. This atypical modus operandum enabled the Hindutva forces to cash in on the network of religious organisations that were sometimes very old. (After all, Swami Vivekananda had made an impact on the American mind as early as 1893, during the first Parliament of World Religions in Chicago). When VHP America (VHPA) saw the light of day in 1970, it could rely on some of the temples and followers of the (Gujarat-based) Swaminarayan Sampradaya, the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Divine Life Society and the Chinmaya Mission of Swami Chinmayananda (one of the founding fathers of the VHP in 1964, who spent as much time in the West as in India, like other transnational swamis). The VHP gradually became a massive organisation, evident from the programme it organised under the name Global Vision 2000 to celebrate the centenary of Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago. The VHP is especially successful in the US because it offers migrants a cultural milieu they’re missing. Not only does the VHPA celebrate Hindu festivals, but it also offers summer camps and classes teaching the basics of Hinduism to children of families eager to retain an organic link to their religious legacy.
Besides, the VHPA also defends Hinduism in the public sphere. The American Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition (AHADC) was founded in 1997 — modelled after the Anti-Defamation League initially founded to combat anti-Semitism — to monitor the iconography and vocabulary used in relation to Hinduism in advertisements and on TV in general. More importantly perhaps, in 2005, the VHPA sought to influence the rewriting of history textbooks in the state of California, giving rise to a debate among community representatives and India scholars opposed to the removal of the notion of the Aryan invasions in the name of historical accuracy.
Indeed, what the VHP promotes in the US is its definition of Hinduism, in a context that lends itself to such a strategy. It is easier to transcend regional and sectarian differences in the US than in India, where particular identities and rivalries are more entrenched. This is exactly what the VHP’s standardised catechism does and what epitomises the “Hindu Unity” temple in Dallas, which houses 11 deities from around India, while the Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore, California, displays a shikhara (a tower typical of northern India sacred architecture) and a gopuram (a similar feature typical of southern sacred architecture).
The US matters to the Sangh not just because the VHPA has become part and parcel of the Hindutva project, or due to the political connections the BJP has cultivated for financial reasons. It also matters to Modi personally because of the role of the NRGs (non-resident Gujaratis). Gujaratis probably represent the largest group among the Indian Americans with about 7,00,000 people. Among them, the owners of “Potels” control more than 40 per cent of the hotels and motels of the US. Sandesh, the Gujarati daily, has now an American (weekly) edition that bears testimony to the magnitude of the potential readership. Some of the staunchest supporters of Modi are NRGs.
Modi’s biographers, M.V. Kamath and Kalindi Randeri, mention that in the 1990s, his predecessor, Keshubhai Patel, used to go to the US “to mobilise funds from NRIs for the development of Gujarat”. Modi had an even older American connection with NRGs dating back to the Emergency when, underground, he was in charge of mobilising support from Indians abroad in the name of democracy.
When he was refused a visa in 2005, he had been invited to attend the Annual Convention and Trade Show of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association in Florida. He eventually addressed them via video and tried to circumvent the problem by developing the Vishwa Gujarati Parivaar Mahotsav, an event targeting NRGs likely to invest in Gujarat.
US-based NRGs have become important partners for Modi’s Gujarat. So much so that in 2010, an NGO based in New Jersey (the centre of the Gujarati community in the US), Friends of Gujarat, had organised an event called Swarnim Gujarat to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state — and to promote Modi as well as business relations between Gujarat and the NRGs. A member of the Gujarat government had travelled to the east coast with a large delegation.
A similar event is likely to take place this month. It will be named after the last electoral slogan of Modi: Bhavya Divya Gujarat. Again, it will aim to promote business ties and Modi, who might deliver 3D speeches in several American cities, in addition to the 600-strong delegation coming from Gujarat to New Jersey. The 40,000 guests expected will be asked to pay $100 each. It will not be the first time that Modi speaks to Indian Americans from a distance: he did it during the 2008 World Gujarati Conference when, according to nritoday.net “30,000 Gujaratis converged at the Raritan Expo Center in Edison, New Jersey to celebrate Gujarati language, culture, heritage, art, history, enterprise and people in all its grandeur”. He did it again in May 2012, mostly to attract investors, and in March and May this year (when he addressed the Indian diaspora in 18 cities). The intensification of this virtual connection is a clear indication of the importance of the NRIs and NRGs for the BJP in general and Modi in particular. Not to mention that the BJP (and India, for that matter) cannot afford to have a PM who is not allowed to visit the US.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
This story was first appeared on indianexpress.com