To Narendra Modi’s fan base among proud Hindutva supporters in the U.S., his unique combination of free-market rhetoric and cultural nationalism appears as a tonic. By VIJAY PRASHAD
NARENDRA MODI would like to journey to New Delhi on his Vikas Yatra: he wants his standards to proclaim him as the incarnation of Development and Efficiency. Unfortunately for Modi, he cannot put behind him his saffron supporters, whose eagerness for his role in the Gujarat massacres of 2002 sours Modi’s standing amongst liberals and the generally apolitical middle class. The most vocal of these saffron supporters are not within India. Those within, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), recognise the mathematics of the Indian general election and would not like to put allies such as the Janata Dal (United) and Nitish Kumar, its Chief Minister in Bihar, in a difficult spot. In Chicago and Houston, on the other hand, Modi has a much more excitable fan base—people like Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, the non-resident Indian (NRI) businessman from Chicago who organised the yatra by three U.S. Congress members to visit Modi in March. They have no compunctions about the sentiments of Nitish Kumar. For them, self-identified as self-made Yankees and proud Hindutva supporters, Modi’s unique combination of free-market rhetoric and cultural nationalism appears as a tonic.
Shalli Kumar and other NRI businessmen who support Modi possess a large megaphone to exaggerate the popularity of their views. I was involved in the two campaigns against Modi in the United States: the popular groundswell to deny him his visa in February-March 2005 and the successful bid to have Financial Times revoke the 2009 Asian Personality of the Year award to him. This year, my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania raised a ruckus when they heard that he was to speak at Wharton; the mainstream mood kicked in and the initiation was rescinded. It is certainly true that the U.S. government acted in 2005 on the initiative as well of Christian groups that had been concerned about the RSS-VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) violence in the Dangs region of Gujarat, and it is also true that the U.S. government felt emboldened to act because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was no longer in power in New Delhi. But it would be a mistake to reduce the visa issue and the revocation of the prize as a signal only of U.S. government designs with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. There is a general sentiment against Modi in the Indian American community that finds his brand of politics intolerable. Amongst mainstream groups such as the Global Organisation for People of Indian Origin there is a strong view that Modi is divisive and bad for business.
The Gujarati poet Adil Mansuri (1936-2008), who lived in New Jersey, told me that amongst Gujarati Americans there is an edge of embarrassment about Modi. He was too muscular for them. The pogrom of 2002 had revealed a side of their State that they did not wish to acknowledge. Even those who held views close to the BJP did not like the exaggerations of Modi. They preferred their Hindutva genteel.
Since 9/11, a section of the Indian American community has veered rightward, into the camp of the Republicans (as far as U.S. politics is concerned) and concomitantly into the arms of the BJP. The sentiment in this demographically small section of Indian America is that both Republicans and the BJP are programmatically opposed to Islam and that both Republicans and the BJP are in favour of untrammelled free-market policies that ignite the animal spirits of Man. Despite his own self-identification as a “Reagan Democrat”, Shalli Kumar is a fitting representative of this unity between Republicans and the BJP.
In 2011, Kumar launched the National Indian American Coalition (NIAC) with a meeting, funded by his firm AVG Group. Kumar and some of his friends had been fervent Ronald Reagan supporters in the 1980s. His love of Reagan is so strong that Kumar’s India home in Bangalore is called the Rana-Reagan Palace (named for Maharana Pratap Singh and Reagan—with pictures of the two adorning the entire house, with Bhagat Singh set next to Reagan in one of the galleries). Kumar’s group went into hibernation for three decades and re-emerged in the summer of 2010 to promote the candidacy of Nikki Haley (Republican) for the governorship of South Carolina. The NIAC has another name, Indian Americans for Freedom, which gives it its proper Republican flavour. Kumar’s NIAC and Indian Americans for Freedom are committed to such firm Republican nostrums as ending deficit spending, lowering taxes and strengthening immigrant laws, as well as firm BJP ideas such as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and promotion of Hindu culture.
Kumar’s NIAC is part of a web of organisations set up by the overseas RSS, including groups such as the Indian Intellectuals Forum and Americans for Free Speech (which organised the pro-Modi protests at Wharton School of Business) headed by an RSS worker, Narain Kataria. As an old hand at NRI politics told me, “Kumar is an active member of the Overseas Friends of the BJP” and an associate of Chicago’s most well-known RSS worker Bhailal Patel.
Kumar shares with his brand of Republican Indians an obsessive fascination with the way the Israel lobby functions. In his remarks at a 2011 event to celebrate Nikki Haley’s victory, Kumar pointed to the Jewish Americans, who he claimed had a disproportionate hold over the U.S. Congress to benefit Israel. “We have about half the population of Jewish Americans,” he pointed out, “with even better education and economic status, but ask yourself as to how much influence do we have on national policy as compared to Jews? Since we are half, so do we carry half the clout? 25 per cent? 10 per cent? How about 1 per cent? Nobody seriously doubts that it is not even on the radar.”
Kumar and his friends assume that it is the Jewish American community that is responsible for Israel’s ability to move U.S. policy. There is no rational analysis here, with an assessment of the lingering guilt for the Holocaust, of the calculations of U.S. foreign policy in West Asia and of the power of Israel to sell itself as the “only European country” in the region. There is no appraisal, as well, of India’s neighbourhood, with Pakistan an essential part of the U.S. projections in the region. However much money the Republican Indians spread around Washington, India cannot have the same kind of special relationship with the U.S. as Israel does. If their mission is ill-fated from the start, it succeeds in one aspect: it allows the Republican Indians a platform to dispel ruinous views on Islam, on India-Pakistan relations and on the economic ails of the Indian population. It also allows them to place their distant hopes on Modi, whose history emboldens them to believe that India can within their lifetimes become America’s Israel in South Asia.
Kumar and the Republican Indians are outliers in the Indian American community. In the last election, 89 per cent of Indian Americans voted for Barack Obama, the Democrat (97 per cent of Bangladeshi Americans supported Obama). Most of the analysis of the political life of Indian Americans shows that they tend to vote Democrat because they favour a robust health-care system, more public financing for infrastructure, better education opportunities, a more just immigration system and less warfare. Most of them make their voices heard through the electoral process or through their involvement for this or that reform of the U.S. system.
On the Indian side, the NIAC has pinned its hopes on Modi. Congressman Joe Walsh, supported generously by Kumar, campaigned for a U.S. visa for Modi. “He’s kind of like a Tea Party free market guy in India,” Walsh said in June 2012.
Walsh’s district, the 8th in Illinois, has the highest density of Asians, including a large number of Indian Americans. A few months later, Walsh lost his re-election bid. In May, Kumar visited Modi and appraised him about the NIAC. In January 2013, U.S. Congressman Aaron Schock (Illinois) wrote a letter of congratulations to Modi on his re-election, which he read into the Congressional register. Kumar took that letter to Modi a week later, accompanied by Vijay Jolly, the BJP’s diaspora head. The visit of Schock and his fellow Republicans to Modi in March 2013 had been in the works. It was Kumar’s National Indian American Public Policy Institute that funded the “business delegation led by Congressmen Schock, Stutzman, Loomis and Gardner” (as their flyer put it), all Republicans, to visit India and share a “private dinner meeting with top leadership of India including Chief Ministers Modi, Badal, Shettar and Top Leadership of BJP”.
The delegation came, mired itself in controversy and left. What Modi fears most is what once more came to pass: his record in the 2002 pogrom. Any discussion of the visa denial will return us to Modi’s actions in those fateful moments during the mass murders, and the RSS role in the Dangs killings. Modi will not be able to insulate himself so effectively from his own record. Yankee Hindutva will not have it. They want all of Modi, even the murkier parts.
Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today will be published by HarperCollins in late April 2013.