Mr. Modi’s Diaspower

The Prime Minister’s NRI outreach through massive arena functions is his leitmotif. The journey from New York City’s Madison Square Gardens to London’s Wembley Stadium shows the varied effects of engaging a more politically involved diaspora

November 14, 2015 03:14 am | Updated September 12, 2016 10:38 am IST

It is 2 a.m. on the night before Prime Minister >Narendra Modi’s address at Wembley Stadium , 30-year-old Mayuri Parmar has no expectation of getting any sleep. As communications director and organising committee member for the event, she must put all finishing touches to the function for about 60,000 people, Mr. Modi’s biggest diaspora event by far. “There isn’t a thing that can be left to chance,” says Ms. Parmar, “With two Prime Ministers attending the event, and UK’s biggest fireworks display ever, mapping every contingency is keeping us up.” For the past few months Ms. Parmar and her group of volunteers from the National Hindu Students Forum were involved in crafting the PM’s address at the rally, seen as the highlight of the PM’s UK visit. There was even a row of buses called the “Modi express” that travelled around the UK to bring in supporters to the rally.

However, while the Wembley event is unique in many ways, it is part of a planned series of diaspora events PM Modi has undertaken in the past year. From San Jose to Sydney, from >Madison Square Gardens in New York to Dubai’s Sport City cricket stadium, and from Shanghai to Toronto, Mr. Modi’s NRI outreach through massive arena functions is his leitmotif, one no other Indian PM has attempted on this scale.

In November alone, Wembley was the first of three such events, with rallies planned in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for audiences of 20,000 each. “We have now become used to what this entails,” says BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, who forms the advance party for each of the events. “We decide the venue, set up the organising committee, and then go back regularly to check on arrangements.” In fact, as each of these events are billed non-governmental, private and volunteer-funded, with no tickets, it is the BJP and RSS’s affiliated organisations who form the backbone for them. There is also a standard format to each event. From the cultural performances before the PM’s speech, the handpicked indian-origin celebrities that introduce him, the invitations to prominent lawmakers in the country, and even the language on the websites for Mr. Modi’s various events (,, suggests a planned template. There is the common pitch to NRIs to invest more in India, with a recent World Bank report estimating that the Indian diaspora’s savings amount to about $44 billion worldwide, apart from $70 billion in remittances sent home.

As they queue up for their passes to enter the Wembley arena, many tell us what draws so many NRIs to Mr. Modi’s speeches. Some say it is his “positive vibe”, while others refer to the “high expectations he has generated for India”. For decades, emigrating Indians have faced some shame for “abandoning the motherland”, say NRIs Piyush Gohil and Avinash Varia, “Made in India” sweatshirt-wearing volunteers on Mr. Modi’s welcome committee in the UK. “We always lived with a corner of guilt in our hearts,” says Mr. Gohil, who has run a small business in London for 12 years. “But by attending Mr. Modi’s rallies, we still feel a part of India, and we feel reassured that our values, our bonds are intact.” Mr. Modi’s message to NRIs as a “brain gain, not a brain drain,” has particularly struck a chord with them.

Some, like businessman Narendra Thakarar, who moved to Britain from Uganda, also say that it is PM Modi’s message of Hindutva and Indian values and traditions that draws them. “There’s an inherent conservatism to any diaspora,” explains one of >Britain’s most famous NRIs , Lord Meghnad Desai. “Add to that, a large chunk of them are businessmen or business professionals who aren’t very political. That’s the core of PM Modi’s support base amongst the diaspora, as his twin messages of pushing trade, while retaining religious conservatism and right-wing beliefs perfectly align with theirs.”

While the religious conservatism remains, the “non-political” profile of NRIs is changing in the UK and other countries like the US, Canada and Australia, says Mayuri Parmar. Ms. Parmar is herself a key figure in the National Hindu Students Forum (UK), but has also worked with PM Cameron on diversity issues as a leading light of the Conservative Friends of India. The Indian diaspora claimed a record 10 seats in the >2015 elections in Britain , she points out, and their political presence is growing every year. In Canadian elections last month, their number reached a whopping 20, while in the US, there are three Indian-American members of Congress, and two state governors of Indian origin. In the UK, this year’s Conservative party campaign saw the first ever campaign song in Hindi, “Neela hai aasman, yeh hi rang hai Britain ki shaan (The sky is blue, like the colour of Britain’s pride)” — blue is associated with the Conservatives. In fact, Mr. Modi alluded to this slogan during his speech in the UK Parliament when he told Cameron, “I want to remind you, Mr. Prime Minister, that you owe me royalty for an election slogan.” Mr. Modi also reportedly shared campaign tips, and lent his clout with the diaspora to Canadian PM Stephen Harper, who wasn’t, however, as successful.

Party insiders say Mr. Modi is sharing more than campaign slogans with his counterparts in countries with a heavy “desi” presence: he may also be planning to share their constituencies. In August this year, the government told the Supreme Court that it hopes to >implement voting rights to NRIs at the earliest, while Mr. Modi has announced at several diaspora functions that he hopes to institute more investment and ownership rights for Persons of Indian Origin. “There is no question that this is a consolidated and viable vote-bank for us,” a senior party official said.

While a more politically involved diaspora, of the kind perhaps only Israel has at present, seems attractive for Mr. Modi and the BJP’s campaigns, there are signs that there may be some unease from host countries of the Indian diaspora over any “show of strength” or “muscle-flexing” during the PM’s rallies abroad. The government in Singapore, for example, has insisted that the event in Singapore on November 24 be restricted to Indian nationals only, and not to Singapore nationals of Indian origin. As a result, the “Namo in Singapore” website only accepts registrations after people submit their Indian passport details. While Singaporean officials haven’t explained their reasons officially, diplomats say the measure was a result of the sometimes “hypernational” tone of Mr. Modi’s speeches, and given Singapore’s long and tenuous history of inter-racial tensions, these may not go down as well with the larger population. Officials reportedly studied the PM’s rally in Dubai this august, where similar tensions persist, especially amongst blue-collar workers, and decided on the measure. When asked, Mr. Ram Madhav denies there is any squeamishness over the events from the host countries in question. In any case, Mr. Madhav points out, apart from East Africa and the Caribbean, the PM has already visited all the countries that have big diasporic populations, hinting there may be less occasion for such NRI extravaganzas in the future.

Not the least, there is the downside of a more politically active diaspora that Mr. Modi is facing more of, of the kind that came out to protest in London this week. Even as he met with Prime Minister Cameron inside 10 Downing Street on Thursday, more than a thousand people, including many of Indian origin, protested outside over what they called human rights issues in India under the Modi government. In previous years, such protests were smaller, and run mainly by separatist Khalistani and Kashmiri organisations. However, this time there were many other groups, and even individuals like Dr. Goldie Osuri, a professor at Warwick university, who migrated from Andhra Pradesh decades ago, working first in Australia and then in the U.S. “We still feel very connected with all that is happening in India,” Ms. Osuri says. “And we think it is our national duty to come out and protest.”

Amidst the clash between different “national” duties, standing across the road outside the Prime Minister’s office, one could see Piyush Gohil, and other supporters who had greeted Mr. Modi outside the PM’s hotel as well, shouting “Modi-Modi” chants to drown out the din of “Go Modi Go”. For a brief, surreal moment, there on the streets of Whitehall, the debate playing out resembles the debate in Bihar, or television newsrooms.

“It’s ok, really,” says one pro-Modi supporter, “Even the arguments here make us feel closer to how it is back home. And whether you like him or you don’t, you cannot be indifferent to PM Modi here as well.”

Devesh Kapur

Director at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

" Diaspora too is using the PM as part of its strategy "

Devesh Kapur, Director at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, talks to Anuradha Raman about Prime Minister Modi’s unique outreach to NRIs. >Excerpts from an email interview

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