Rise Of The ‘Overseas Friends Of The BJP’ Is India’s Loss
Through OFBJP, the BJP is causing serious harm to India’s national interests for short-term political benefits.
Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) is the foreign arm of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). OFBJP, like BJP, is ideologically dedicated to the promotion of Hindutva. Its primary aim is politics and it takes a religious-cultural route to achieve it. It never fights for the common cause of the Indian diaspora, only for the issues related to Hinduism or to support the political programs of BJP. In 1992, the then President of the BJP, LK Advani had founded it a few months before the destruction of Babri Masjid, to offset the critical media coverage the party was receiving in the West for its mobilization of the ‘Ram Janmbhoomi’ movement. As its first task, OFBJP had sent letters to American lawmakers explaining the BJP version of the Babri Masjid controversy.
Since the 1960s, the RSS, through its subsidiary Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, has been actively recruiting its members in Europe and North America. After its formation in 1992, the OFBJP started to build upon the shakhas and cadres of HSS. Most of the active organizers are upper caste Hindus, originally from Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. OFBJP grew quite quickly when BJP came to power between 1998 and 2004. After Congress’ victory in 2004, OFBJP’s progress received a temporary setback. The BJP’s defeat in 2009 election, pushed OFBJP to be active again and received a major boost with the Anna Movement. Since 2012, OFBJP has grown tremendously, with its branches in more than 40 countries. It has already established a powerful presence in North America, the UK and Australia and spreading faster in smaller countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Hindu diaspora has already become a highly valuable constituency for the BJP. Hindus living abroad are not only important as voters but also as agents of indirect influence over homeland-based friends and relatives and, of financial help for election campaigns. OFBJP, like the BJP, was Advani’s idea and he had spent decades to build and nurture it. However, Narendra Modi is reaping the real benefits of it now.
In 2014, OFBJP carried out a very powerful campaign to support Modi’s mission to become the Prime Minister of India. Not only did a large number of OFBJP members contribute financially to BJP’s election fund but they also traveled to India to campaign for the party. From the USA and Canada alone, the number was more than 5000. For 155 urban parliamentary constituencies, which had better internet connectivity, BJP had specifically asked OFBJP to assist in its campaign. OFBJP members were recruited to make calls and send SMS to their friends and relatives in India to vote for the BJP. OFBJP organized Yoga events and charity runs for the Hindu diaspora to collect money for the BJP. it even conducted chai-pe-charcha and Google hangouts with voters in India. After the election, OFBJP has been on the forefront of organizing Modi’s over-the-top public meetings with the diaspora, in his frequent foreign visits. Bypassing Indian missions abroad, OFBJP is even organizing events like International Yoga Days in many foreign countries.
Congress Party has its own Indian National Overseas Congress, which was inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi in 2001. It is an organization, which exists primarily in pen and paper only. It is true that the Congress had actively cultivated and engaged the Indian diaspora to support its struggle for independence from the colonial rule, however, in the post-independence period, it has refrained from mobilizing diaspora for partisan politics. Nehru was against diaspora engagement in domestic politics and that view has more or less continued to guide the Congress Party.
Some commentators see the success of BJP’s diaspora mobilization through the OFBJP as the result of a lack of Congress’ interest in the same. This is not true, as we see in other parts of the world, particularly in Central America, political parties like BJP which have strict hierarchical cadre-based structure are usually successful in mobilizing their diaspora support. Moreover, a Hindu chauvinist party like BJP is ideologically more aligned with highly culturally insecure Hindu diaspora groups. In general, nationalist parties attract majority diaspora support, as we witness among Jewish, Balkan and Ethiopian diaspora groups. So, OFBJP’s success in mobilizing Hindu diaspora is not unique. It is true that the OFBJP, by its powerful mobilization of Hindu diaspora, has brought significant political dividends for its parent party. However, a hyper-active partisan politics unleashed by the OFBJP among overseas Indian community is causing significant harm to India’s national interest and is posing numerous challenges for India’s professional diplomats.
With OFBJP’s rise, Indian diaspora has become a divided house. Not only has the consolidation of Hindutva diaspora left Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Dalits out but it has also forced liberal Hindus to distance themselves from diaspora activities and events which openly promote BJP’s majoritarian cultural and religious agenda. Indian diaspora used to see itself in cultural terms and it was somewhat united earlier in the interest of working for India and promoting a favorable image of their home country abroad. With the promotion of partisan politics in their ranks, this is not the case anymore. Among Indian diaspora, cultural nationalism is taking the shape of political nationalism. OFBJP is only interested and engaged in promoting the BJP, or precisely, Modi’s Hindutva politics. This is being resented by other political and religious groups and the open fight among various Indian diaspora groups is not helping to promote the positive image of the country as OFBJP claims to be engaged in.
OFBJP has also become very active in supporting Modi’s foreign policy agenda in the west. It has been seriously playing an advocacy role on issues concerning Balochistan and Kashmir. Its members are holding regular meetings and protests on these issues, and sending out emails and newsletters to media outlets. They have also been meeting lawmakers and political leaders of their host countries to lobby for their support for Modi’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. Though not much success has been made by following these methods, these pressure tactics have certainly brought annoyance to the diplomatic community of the West.
Diplomats are usually wary of diaspora groups because of their rigid and conflict promoting views. The political advocacy role of the Hindu nationalist OFBJP is only strengthening that mistrust. Moreover, the OFBJP politics is also being criticized in their host countries by most of the diaspora humanities and social sciences academic community, which has traditionally been involved in advising the host country diplomats and also in contributing to the public discourse. These diaspora academics, who are apprehensive of BJP’s religious fundamentalism, are also coming out openly to share their views on various public platforms. Since 2014, India has certainly received more critical media coverage in the West than it had ever got it in the past. Instead of projecting the country’s positive image, OFBJP is directly contributing to the growing criticism of India abroad.
The rising importance of OFBJP is also the cause of a serious headache for Indian diplomats. Their limited resources are mostly being spent in organizing large diaspora meetings for Modi, which have become more like political rallies than anything else. Diplomatic staff is working under the guidance of OFBJP organizers to arrange events like International Yoga day. Indian diplomats, unlike their civil service counterparts, are not used to directly working with and for politicians. There is an increasing resentment among the Indian diplomatic community because of the increasing interference of OFBJP organizers in the activities conducted by the Indian missions abroad.
Diasporas are a unique valuable constituency for the country. They need to be treated and courted differently than the political parties usually treat the electorates at home. As the ruling party, the BJP bears the greater responsibility of supporting the diaspora to remain united and cohesive, and not to be partisan and conflictual. However, for short-term political benefits the BJP, through OFBJP, is causing serious harm to India’s national interests. Lessons must be learned from the Turkish experience, as Erdogan’s AKP which had mobilized its diaspora supporters for electoral gains, and the public diplomacy project had turned into a disaster by ruining Turkey’s relations with Germany and the Netherlands. India has a lot to worry about both in the short term and the long term, in relation to the rise of the OFBJP and the political mobilization of its diaspora for partisan purposes.
The writer is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.