For the past few years, countries like the United States and Britain have been gripped by allegations that Russia interfered in their elections. Even as that controversy is yet to die down, a new and rather unlikely candidate for election interference has emerged: India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the United Kingdom, the President of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat has made it clear that his organisation will be playing an active part in the upcoming General Election by supporting the Conservatives over the left-leaning Labour Party.
Anti-Indian in the UK
The reason for this is because Labour’s foreign policy is inimical to India, Shekhawat claims. “We are doing this for three reasons,” he told the Times of India. “Firstly, some Labour MPs joined the violent protests outside India House on August 15 and September 3. Secondly, no Labour MPs spoke in favour of India in the House of Commons on Kashmir, and thirdly because of the Labour motion on Kashmir passed at their party conference. Kashmir is an internal matter of India. Why is the Labour party discussing the Indian state? We will only support MPs who support us.”
Singh claims that his efforts, which involve approaching temples and community bodies, could swing as many as 40 seats for the Conservative Party – a figure amounting to 6% of the strength of Britain’s lower house of Parliament.
While community-based mobilisation might not be new, it is remarkable that the efforts of Overseas Friends of the BJP are purely to do with Britain’s foreign policy towards New Delhi – which means it is even ready to oppose other MPs of Indian origin. He said that his followers would not support some Sikh Labour MPs is because they “have a Khalistani tag, they are not doing anything for us or looking at India as a sovereign nation”, said Shekhawat.
He elaborated: “Some of them have signed letters against India. We will happily support anyone who supports India as a sovereign nation, including non-Indian origin candidates, against these candidates.”
As people familiar with BJP politics in India would expect, this campaign in Britain is being run via the messaging app, WhatsApp. The Guardian accessed messages that urged British Hindus to vote against Labour, accusing the party of being “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”.
One message read: “The Labour party is now the mouth-piece of the Pakistani government … It is anti-India, anti-Hindu and anti-Modi. So if there are any Indians who are still voting for Labour, or are still members of the Labour party – then respectfully I say, they are traitors to their ancestral land, to their family and friends in India and to their cultural heritage.”
The public messaging by the Overseas Friends of the BJP as well as these messages has promoted concern within Britain. “There has been a lot of talk in recent years about foreign external interference in elections and surely this is just another prime example of it,” Tamanjeet Singh Dhesi, an MP from the Labour Party told Sky News. Concerns have also been expressed that given the messaging is often on religion lines, it could “stir up inter-community tensions,” according to a report in Open Democracy.
Foreign interference concerns
British author Peter Jukes compared the campaign of the Overseas Friends of the BJP to Russian interference calling it “illegal”.
A journalist with the London newspaper, The Times, tweeted out Open Democracy’s story with the comment, “Why is the BJP trying to influence the British election?”
Across the Atlantic
The United Kingdom isn’t the only country where India has been accused of trying to influence its domestic politics. In July, the Canadian newspaper National Post reported on a government report that had flagged how Canadians of Indian origin could be influenced by New Delhi.
Titled “Countering Hostile State Activity: The Canadian Perspective”, the 2018 report focuses on new risks faced by Canada and its intelligence partners – the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. The report alleged that India is working to “directly and indirectly work to influence diaspora communities across the country”.
The report adds: “The risk of these communities being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas cannot be overlooked.”
In the United States
In September, Narendra Modi had also made an unprecedented appeal for Indian-Americans to vote for the incumbent US President Donald Trump. Standing alongside Trump at a packed stadium in the United States, Modi said, “Ab ki bar Trump sarkar”, a Trump administration this time – a play on his own 2014 campaign slogan in India.
It was the first time an Indian prime minister had sought to directly support one party in the United States’ domestic politics. The move caused enough consternation for India’s External Affairs minister, S Jaishankar to issue a clarification. “We have a very non-partisan [approach to domestics US politics],” Jaishankar said. “So, our sort of approach to whatever happens in this country is their politics, not our politics.”
Since Modi has come to power, the chapters of the Overseas Friends of the BJP are “redirecting their efforts to act as pressure groups in their home countries”, reported Quartz. This involves strong lobbying efforts in the US capital.
In the wake of Modi’s support for Trump, the opposition Democrats have taken a hard line on India and its policy in Kashmir. In an October 22 legislative hearing, Democratic lawmakers took the lead in sharply criticising India for its Kashmir policy and the lockdown in the Valley.
Hindutva diaspora network
The BJP as well as its parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s strength with the Hindu diaspora has long been a topic of study and comment. Outside of Nepal, the RSS’ networks are the strongest in the US, the UK, and Australia, write Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle in their 2018 book RSS: A View to the Inside.
The BJP’s overseas arm, the Overseas Friends of the BJP, has “thrived in the US and the UK” writes Mriganka Mukhopadhyay on the London School of Economics’ blog. Mukhopadhyay goes to say that the recent past demonstrates how the “Indian right’s global political network is dominating the Indian diaspora in the west”.
After he came to power, Modi made sure to leverage this diasporic support to the BJP’s advantage. Foreign funding rules were relaxed significantly in 2018. More interesting, however, is the fact that Modi uses the BJP’s strong diaspora network to build support back home.
Modi has addressed Western citizens of Indian origin in a unique manner, holding massive events in foreign countries. These shows are beamed back to India, where channels run them as part of their wall-to-wall Modi coverage. Key events like Modi being interviewed by Bollywood lyricist Prasoon Joshi in 2018 took place not in India but in the United Kingdom. The BJP, in fact, even used Modi’s foreign trips as a campaign issue in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
As the Indian diaspora influenced politics in India, now it seems the reverse is happening: with the BJP using its strong diaspora network to try and influence politics in the West.