Millions of Indians living abroad have a say in elections, even if they cannot vote

Dishes served at a community center for Indian expatriates near Washington, D.C., ranged from chana masala, a popular North Indian chickpea curry, to idli, a South Indian rice cake.

Equally varied were the guests' opinions on the general elections in India. Some have praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi's economic achievements. Supporters of candidates challenging Modi's party criticized what they saw as his contempt for minorities and democratic norms.

“What is the vision for India in 2024?” the host, Somu Kumar, a manager at a cloud computing company, recently talked about that winter lunch. “This makes a lot of people excited to talk.”

The 35 million-strong Indian diaspora, roughly equivalent in population to the Delhi metropolitan area, represents a small minority of the nearly one billion people who are eligible to take part in a six-week voting process that will conclude Saturday. Additionally, expatriate Indians cannot vote by postal votes under Indian election laws.

But the diaspora is heavily courted by India's major political parties. Many of its members belong to the country's political and business elite, and voters at home want to know what they think.

“When a person is abroad, people become interested and believe that what they say is right,” said Adapa Prasad, president of the American branch of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The result, he said, is that the BJP's approximately 10,000 volunteers in the United States alone can reach tens of thousands of voters.

This spring, Indians around the world hosted rallies and rallies for their favorite political parties. Many Indians abroad take pride in India's rise and associate Modi with it. Much of the recent activity has supported his bid for a third term.

In the United States, which the Indian government says is home to more than five million people of Indian origin, there have been pro-Modi demonstrations in Times Square, the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge and other landmarks. “Save India,” some pro-Modi posters read.

Pro-Modi groups also set up phone banks and organized other events. In a Chicago suburb last month, Modi supporters wearing the BJP's saffron tassels lit a bonfire next to a Hindu school as part of a sacred fire ritual. India's Hindu majority is a key constituency for Modi, who has been criticized for normalizing Hindu nationalist policies in a country that began as a secular republic.

In Australia in April, a caravan of cars draped in saffron flags stretched for miles through Sydney. In Germany, Modi supporters who own restaurants in Berlin and Munich have organized meetings for BJP supporters, said Arun Varma, an entrepreneur who founded an e-commerce brand there.

And in Britain, people visited Hindu temples, as well as mosques and churches, to offer prayers for Modi's election success, said Neil Lal, president of the Indian Council of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

“The elections are the talk of the town,” Lal said from London.

Modi has actively cultivated diaspora support over the years, in part by packing stadiums around the world for rallies. A 2020 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, found that a majority of Indians abroad supported him over his rivals.

Milan Vaishnav, a Carnegie political scientist who studies the Indian diaspora, said expatriate Indians were a marginal force in Indian politics and that their campaign donations, while difficult to quantify, were small compared to the billions of dollars raised at home.

“But diaspora rallies have helped the BJP create an image of global popularity,” he said.

The BJP is not the only party active outside India. The overseas arm of its main rival, the Indian National Congress, organizes events, distributes election posters and helps place columns in newspapers. The Aam Aadmi Party, part of a parliamentary coalition led by the Congress Party, has foreign members running phone banks and spreading friendly memes about its candidates.

Kumar, an Aam Aadmi supporter, said there is growing concern in the diaspora about a potential third term for Modi. He said expatriates watching India are concerned about the recent marginalization of religious minorities, the assassination of a separatist and the imprisonment of opposition politicians.

Some of the people who attend his potlucks, many of whom he plays cricket with, are staunch Modi supporters. Others are former Modi supporters who now question whether he should be re-elected.

“I hope this carries over to India as well,” Kumar said.

Outside the mainstream parties, independent activists living abroad have criticized the government in ways that would be difficult in India, where Modi's government has cracked down on dissent and jailed opposition leaders.

One such activist, Suresh Ediga, an Indian expatriate in New Jersey, organizes meetings on electoral reform and runs a blog that fact-checks Indian politicians.

“Independent institutions have collapsed under Modi,” he said. “This is more alarming than anything else.”

While many in the diaspora have engaged in election campaigns, others have taken a more hands-off approach.

Lion Hina Trivedi, a prominent social worker from Gujarat, the Indian state where Modi served as prime minister from 2001 to 2014, has known him for decades and met him during his trips to Washington. She said that after more than 45 years in Chicago, she was now more involved in her American community.

But he still urges Indians he knows to return home to vote, recalling his father's advice: “Never forget India.”

“You should go,” he tells them. “Your voice matters.”

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