Among the believers: Diasporic bhakts are a force to reckon with
Modi’s divisive pitch may not appeal to a new generation of liberal Indian Americans and the Indian diaspora may be divided, but the conservative acolytes of the Indian PM are still numerous
To the many Indian Americans who had let trolls colour their perception of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, his recent interactions in the United States — beginning with the audience at Stanford University — were a revelation. He had, it is believed, as many as 17 interactions during his stay.
His team denied on record any ‘reports’ that he had gone to the White House for a meeting.
In an era when political leaders leverage raw emotions, Mr Gandhi stressed the primacy of ideas and vision, telling Indian Americans that India’s founding fathers too were once, like them, non-resident Indians (NRIs) — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
“To be nasty to people, to be arrogant, to be violent are not Indian values. If these were Indian values, we would not be celebrating Gandhi, Guru Nanak or Ambedkar,” he said to members of the Indian diaspora, many of whom were clearly sceptical, and fans of the BJP and the of Indian prime minister.
The last time Indian Americans were so divided on Indian politics was immediately after Operation Bluestar in 1982, when the Indian army entered the Golden Temple in Amritsar under orders from Mr Gandhi’s grandmother, then-prime minister Indira Gandhi. The action had then alienated a sizeable section of Sikhs in the United States.
Today’s polarisation of the Indian American community appears to have begun at the turn of the century, with the rise of an aggravated sense of historical aggrievement.
The resentment was directed at the Congress and the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In living room conversations, the reaction to Nehru gradually morphed into hostility and then outright derision as attitudes hardened.
Today, sadly, even a passing mention of Nehru as the architect of modern India leads to hostile questions on one’s identity. Among members of the diaspora, those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi can see no wrong in him.
As with the increasing polarisation of politics in America, the space for moderates on the subject of India’s politics has narrowed in the diaspora as well. Even honest criticism of the government’s policy deficiencies is deemed to be an attack on the Indian ethos and evokes immediate and strong responses.
Not surprisingly, many Indian Americans find it prudent to follow the ‘spiral of silence’. The theory articulated by German researcher Elisabeth Noelle–Neumann states that people’s willingness to express their opinions on controversial issues is affected by the perception of those opinions being popular or unpopular.
Nearly a decade back, a prominent Indian American community leader who hailed from Gujarat cornered me at an event with an anguished question. Since I was from Kerala, was I really a Hindu, he asked, the implication being that he found me lacking in ‘Indianness’. The fact that my wife was from the Punjab apparently redeemed me somewhat in his estimation.
In an era when outrage is an industry, even Indian Americans who left their motherland several decades ago are captivated by the narrative of a once-great civilisation suppressed by centuries of Mughal and British rule. These hyper-patriots actually shun the use of the word ‘India’, choosing instead to call the country ‘Bharat’.
Real freedom came to India only in the last decade, some of them insist, with the rise of an unfettered Hindustan. The nuances of history pass lightly over these ferociously devout patriots. If only they paused to reflect, this could be seen as a delicious parody of Nehru’s declaration on 15 August 1947, “an age ends, and the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
In 2005, I worked in an Indian American community organisation which erected a life-size statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Skokie, a city in Illinois which had a few survivors of the Holocaust among its residents. We had raised a substantial sum of money to have the statue sculpted in Ahmedabad and transported to Skokie.
With the now prevailing belief that the personal ambitions of both Gandhi and Nehru resulted in India’s Partition, I am not sure if we could have managed to pull off a similar project today.
It is impossible to argue with the ‘believers’ that a defining feature of Hinduism has always been its tolerance for divergent views, even ambiguity.
Several decades back, I recall debating with the Congress leader from Maharashtra, the erudite Shrikant Jichkar (who tragically died young) about Maharishi Charvaka.
Jichkar quoted some of the seer’s precepts, like “Religion is an invention of the strong who prey upon the weak; the ultimate good in life is pleasure, the evil is pain; pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is the sole purpose of human existence”. Hinduism had space even for him, Jichkar had said with a laugh.
In the early 1990s, if my memory serves me right, while reporting for a leading newspaper from South India, I had an interview with Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad when he was a senior BJP functionary. He was very accessible, and we spent well over an hour together.
What has stayed with me is his hospitality, and his flawless command over the language as well as grasp of local issues. He was in many ways like the Rahul Gandhi of today, welcoming questions and unfazed by challenging ones. The imperious demeanour that he projects today apparently evolved much later.
Since his election as prime minister, Modi has had a very large constituency of diehard supporters among Indian Americans. In 2014, I had reported on groups of Indian Americans who manned phone banks and called on friends and relatives in India to vote for Modi.
As many of them point out, it would be hard to find any world leader today who has the ‘popularity ratings’ of Modi. He is literally a rock star among world leaders, they say, proudly quoting Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese’s recent quip.
The ‘Howdy, Modi’ rally in Houston that the Indian prime minister held with American president Donald Trump in 2019 saw over 50,000 people attending, a figure matched only by the Pope.
From a certain perspective, Modi’s current visit — only the third state visit by a national leader in the last year — and his scheduled address to a joint session of the US Congress is seen by many (if not most) Indian Americans as the ultimate affirmation that India has arrived on the global arena. (Similar visits and addresses by earlier prime ministers apparently do not count.)
Rapid political and economic changes have converged to make India a most desirable partner for the United States. The escalating tension over Taiwan, the recent American ban on exporting advanced computer chips to China and the bonhomie between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin make a tie-up with India all the more expedient for the United States.
Conceivably, Modi’s trip will be a success in terms of the agreements signed between the two countries, and perhaps even herald a new era of bilateral cooperation. But it is short-sighted to see this as the personal accomplishment of one man or one party, or expect the collaboration to endlessly endure, bolstered by the charisma of one leader.
Henry Kissinger, who as American secretary of state paved the way for America’s relationship with China, had presciently said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” He would know. It was Kissinger who orchestrated President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, hailed then as the week that changed the world. Today, America’s relationship with China is perhaps the most fraught in its history.
It might be inspiring and reassuring to think that the warm response of many Indian Americans to Rahul Gandhi’s exhortation to rise to our better selves would be the beginning of a new movement. But the robust rise of the right wing even in the unlikeliest of places, like Finland, shows the fragility of such hopes.
Hatred, paranoia and outrage are not, however, causes that endure in perpetuity either. The call of a culture being under siege may find resonance among first-generation Indian Americans, but it is unlikely to appeal to their children born in the United States.
America-born Indians generally tend to identify themselves as liberals —more concerned with human and democratic rights and the rights of the underprivileged. Many of them travel only infrequently to India. While a number of them do watch Bollywood movies and eat Indian food, it is a rather tenuous link to their country of origin.
As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” a quote former American president Barack Obama was fond of repeating.
(Ashok Easwaran has reported from North America for over three decades. He has also been editor of a South Asian newspaper and executive director of an immigrant advocacy organisation.)
An earlier version of this article appeared in the National Herald