How the Congress lost the diaspora
In April this year I was in Houston, which has a large Indian community. I had dinner with a group of NRIs, and we spoke about the 16th general elections. I was told a hundred college students and professionals from Houston had gone to India to campaign. How many for the Bharatiya Janata Party, I asked. At least ninety, said my hosts, adding, most likely ninety-nine.
For at least two decades now, the BJP and its sister organisations have worked actively among Indians in North America. NRIs have helped fund the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh; according to one study, between 1994 and 2001, some $2.5 million were repatriated to groups associated with the RSS and the VHP. Within the United States, NRIs have campaigned to elect legislators sympathetic to Indian interests, and to have school curricula amended to remove references seen to be slighting Hindus or their faith.
When I Googled ‘Overseas Friends of the BJP’, I came up with some 22,500 results. The first entry was to a well-designed ‘master’ website (http://www.ofbjp.org/). Later entries directed me to the organisation’s units in the United Kingdom, Australia, etc., and to numerous articles in the press (including one from February 2014 with the headline: ‘NRI Indians are BJP’s Biggest Donor’).
When I Googled ‘Overseas Friends of the Congress’, I found one entry, this directing me to a Facebook page with 2 likes. Then I discovered an ‘Indian Overseas Congress’, an organisation founded in 1969 which seems to have gone to sleep in recent years. There is also an ‘Indian National Overseas Congress’, inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi in New York in 2001, but its website suggests it is not very active either. I could not find any press reports on NRI’s working for the Congress in the 2014 elections (one suspects the few Houstonians who did not campaign for the BJP worked for the Aam Aadmi Party instead).
Not long after I returned from America, I was working in the archives in Delhi. I found a report commissioned by a political party with the title: ‘Publicity Work in America: A New but Permanent Plan’. The year was 1922; the party, the Indian National Congress. The document had been prepared by the Hubli-based nationalist NS Hardikar. Hardikar had been deputed by the Congress, at Mahatma Gandhi’s special request, to travel in the United States and Canada, and meet Indians living there temporarily or permanently.
Based on his travels, Hardikar made five recommendations:
First, that ‘India must create and control public opinion in Foreign Countries at her own expense in order to safeguard the interest of her sons and daughters, and to let the world know of India’s Ideals’;
Second, that this propaganda work should be in the hands of overseas Indians working under the ‘direct supervision of the Indian National Congress’;
Third, that the Congress should supply ‘authentic’ social and political news every week for dissemination overseas;
Fourth, that Indians in foreign lands should help Congress leaders when they travelled abroad on political work;
Fifth, that ‘some of our first class students’ overseas should be specially trained for publicity work.
That Mahatma Gandhi should commission such a report was in character. For Gandhi was a master of communication, spreading his message wherever it might reach.
With the United States having emerged as a global power after World War I, having Americans view India sympathetically was in the interests of the national movement. Besides, Gandhi had himself cut his political teeth working with Indians in South Africa. That he should canvass support among the diaspora in North America was logical.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Congress cause was promoted by some outstanding NRIs living in the United States—such as Krishnalal Shridharani, Taraknath Das, and, especially, JJ Singh, whose India League played a critical role in raising public consciousness about the need for freedom from British colonial rule.
After independence was achieved, however, and the Cold War began, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were not entirely trusting of the United States. On the other side, Indian leaders were viewed with suspicion by American politicians. Meanwhile, a steady stream of professionals from India migrated to the US, but this first generation wished to forget their country of origin and assimilate as quickly as possible.
In the 1990s, after the Indian economy began to grow rapidly, NRIs began to look nostalgically back at the motherland. However, it was the BJP, and not the Congress, which now reached out to them. This should not come as a surprise. For the Congress had moved very far from the days of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress had imagination, energy, and effective leadership — qualities all conspicuously lacking in the party which now bears the same name.
Ironically, the BJP’s work among their ‘Overseas Friends’ has followed precisely the five steps outlined for the Congress by NS Hardikar in 1922: (1) To create a favourable opinion of India among Americans; (2) To have NRIs work under the direct control of the parent party in India; (3) To have the party send out authorised news to disseminate abroad; (4) To ask NRIs to aid party leaders from India during their visits overseas; (5) To especially cultivate ‘first class students’ and recruit them to the cause.
There are two notable differences, however. First, unlike the BJP today, the pre-Independence Congress was not the recipient of large amounts of funds from overseas. Second, the NRI nationalists of the colonial era sought to represent all Indians regardless of religion or ethnicity. The current Overseas Friends of the BJP have, inevitably but regrettably, diminished the meaning of ‘Indians’ to make it ‘Hindus’.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India.
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal