Modi’s image in the U.S. is more important than ever after election setbacks

June 7, 2024

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected Tuesday amid surprising blows to his party, both supporters and critics agree that his influence in the diaspora is an even more crucial part of his global image.

Some posit that losing its majority in Parliament under Modi — a polarizing leader who has become the face of both a modern, global India and a growing Hindu nationalist movement — indicates support might be waning for the seemingly bullet-proof Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And with that, allies say, Modi will be looking to keep the diaspora invested.

“This movement gets so much of its support and so much of its energy from the diaspora,” said Modi critic and Washington D.C.-local Pranay Somayajula, 23, organizing and advocacy director for the nonprofit Hindus for Human Rights. “Now that they’re in a more defensive position, they’re going to be relying even more heavily on their support network.”

Some Indian Americans, like Somayajula, condemn Modi’s record on human rights and his treatment of minority groups, while others applaud what they see as India’s immense progress under his rule. A study by the Carnegie Endowment found that around 50% of Indian Americans approve of Modi, compared with 74% of Indians in India. 

Modi and the BJP have spent years trying to drum up support in the U.S., and, in many ways, they’ve succeeded. They owe that reach in part to organizations like Overseas Friends of the BJP, a registered foreign agent that operates in 32 countries around the world. From White House visits to massive rallies, the way Modi has mobilized the diaspora has been more direct than any Indian leader before him. 

Modi sees Indian Americans as his ambassadors abroad, allies said, and they can only expect those outreach efforts to increase.

“He saw this large Indian diaspora who are very prosperous,” Adapa Prasad, the president of the U.S. chapter of Overseas Friends, told NBC News. “They should be leveraged for the causes of India and the friendship between India and their host countries.”

Pranay Somayajula stands for a portrait outside
Pranay Somayajula, organizing and advocacy director for the nonprofit Hindus for Human Rights, says he opposes Modi’s human rights record.Courtesy Pranay Somayajula

A surprising setback

Like many Indian Americans, Washington, D.C.-local Sreenath Nampally, 49, a Modi supporter, was glued to his screen Tuesday. He said he felt an air of disappointment settle over his watch-party as results began to come in.

“It was a weird night,” he said. “We set ourselves such high expectations.”

But he’s not worried, since achieving a third term in power hasn’t been done in India since the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nampally said he is confident that Modi is still well loved and that the BJP is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Having spent his childhood in the southern city of Hyderabad, Nampally says the development he sees when he goes back home is night and day. Railways, roads and airports have all thrived, he said, and it’s part of the reason he loves Modi.

“I’m totally amazed by the infrastructure development,” he said. “The places where it used to take me four or five hours to travel, now it takes an hour.”

But the regions of India that delivered some of the BJP’s steepest losses on Thursday were rural parts of the country, where voters cited unemployment and inflation as the most pressing issues to them. 

While India’s national economy has thrived, the youth unemployment rate has risen since the end of last year. Regions with more caste-oppressed voters also turned away from the BJP, with voters worried affirmative action programs would be rolled back.

Other civil rights concerns, like Modi’s anti-Muslim dogwhistling and attacks on press freedom, have also drawn concern from watchdog groups in the U.S. and abroad. Critics say he has heavily contributed to the rise of Hindu nationalist sentiment, the idea that India should be a Hindu-dominated country, both at home and abroad.

Somayajula predicts that the setbacks will light a fire under BJP actors and drive them to spread their message more intensely in diaspora communities. 

“I think in the next five years of this new government under Modi, we’re going to see a really significant doubling down of Hindutva politics here in the U.S.,” he said, referencing the political ideology that encompasses Hindu nationalism. “In the same way that Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election emboldened his base to carry out an attempted insurrection at the Capitol.”

While campaigning in April, Modi referred to Indian Muslims as “infiltrators,” saying his opponents in the election would give them all of the country’s resources.

But Modi’s supporters in the U.S. say this is a mischaracterization and reject the idea that his politics target any religious group. They say the people who feel that way simply don’t know the facts.

“I think it’s just ignorance,” Nampally said.

Prasad thinks it’s something more nefarious.

“These are all parts of a toolkit for larger design to denigrate Hindus, India and whoever is in front of that cause, like Modiji or BJP,” he said, using the Hindi suffix “ji” at the end of Modi’s name as a sign of respect.

A crowd of supporters of Narendra Modi wave Indian and American flags
People await Modi’s arrival at the White House in 2023.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

Efforts to garner U.S. support

Given Modi’s controversies at home, support and legitimacy from other world leaders is crucial to his image, both allies and critics contend. 

“Indian American community members have heavily participated in promoting and basically campaigning for Modi and BJP,” Prasad said.

The Overseas Friends of the BJP has organized pro-Modi car rallies and marches in several U.S. states. They have also hosted call-a-thons, where Indian Americans will call voters in India, starting with their friends and family before moving on to others, to directly encourage them to vote for Modi. 

A 2019 rally in Houston called “Howdy Modi” drew 50,000 people. There, Modi held hands with Trump as they shared the stage. 

Last year, thousands gathered on the White House lawn as President Joe Biden welcomed Modi to an official state dinner. He addressed Congress, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and praising the “Samosa Caucus,” a coalition of Indian Americans elected to the House of Representatives.

This recognition from the U.S. solidifies Modi on the world stage and serves to quell deeper questions, Somayajula said, adding that the diaspora’s role in this is huge.

Jill Biden, Narendra Modi, and Joe Biden wave from the terrace of the White House
First lady Jill Biden, Modi and President Joe Biden at the White House last year.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

“The Biden administration, the Trump administration before it and whatever administration comes into power in November absolutely bears responsibility for the legitimacy that the far-right regime in India has been able to garner,” he said. 

But for those who love Modi, this international outreach to the diaspora is a way they can feel close to home. They left India for the U.S., they said, but that doesn’t mean they want to leave it behind entirely.

“He’s creating that opportunity and interest, ‘Hey, come back and give back,’” Nampally said. “Not only just for us but for our next generation here. That’s an area I’m passionate about — how do I make the connection to my children?”

Somayajula says that the diaspora can also play an integral role in speaking up for those in India who can’t and in questioning Modi’s treatment of the subcontinent’s most vulnerable groups.

“This requires a broad coalition across religious lines, across community lines,” he said. “But we have a key role to play, and that is in fighting this fight within our communities where we have the privilege and the positionality that makes it safe for us to be having these conversations.”

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