The American wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party took a few significant steps over the last few weeks. First it asked members of the ‘Overseas Friends of the BJP-USA’ unit not to use the party’s name if they are involved in campaigns for the upcoming US presidential elections. Then the US wing of the BJP became, according to the Hindu, the first mainstream Indian political party to list itself under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Here is what we know:

What has the Overseas Friends of BJP-USA told its members?

According to PTI, Vijay Chauthaiwale – who heads the BJP’s Foreign Affairs department – has instructed the American wing to ensure that its members don’t use the name of either the party or the Overseas Friends of BJP name if they are involved in the upcoming American presidential eleciton.

“The OFBJP-USA members can participate in the US election campaign and support any candidate or a party in their personal capacity but they have been instructed not to use BJP or OFBJP name during the campaign,” he said.

Chauthaiwale cited the “deep strategic relations” between the two countries and the bipartisan support for these ties in the US and insisted that “any election is solely a domestic process of that country and BJP has no role whatsoever in the process.”

What is the significance of the ‘Foreign Agent Registration Act’?

The BJP has, as per the Hindu, become the first mainstream Indian organisation to sign up under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. The Overseas Friends of BJP-USA registration under the act says that, among other things, it seeks to “work towards projecting a positive and correct image of India in the US and foreign media,” and to “work towards strengthening social bonds between Asian Indians.”

The American wing’s moves came amid allegations that it was under investigation because of its activities in the US, claims that it denied in a Twitter post:

Earlier, on August 18, the official Facebook page of the US wing of the BJP had posted a clarification regarding a news item that featured a member of the unit taking a position regarding presidential candidates. Although the statement did not specify the news article, a day earlier News18 had included this paragraph in a report about Indian-American reactions to the Harris pick:

“Dev Karlekar, from the Overseas Friends of BJP, didn’t mince his words while describing Harris’ candidature, “as Biden’s campaign is largely influenced by Pakistani Caucus, they suggested Kamala Harris from a historically blue state California,” – referring to the colour associated with the Democratic Party.

Karlekar predicted that the move will further derail Biden’s campaign as a sizable section of Indian American voters have already moved towards the GOP. “She (Kamala Harris) has zero reputation whatsoever among Indian-American voters and her record with black community is also poor,” Karlekar added.”

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, which dates back to 1938, seeks to ensure oversight of organisations that have political or quasi-political connections to entities in countries outside the United States. Individuals or organisations that engage in political activity for foreign governments or political parties in the US, without registering under the act, can be criminally prosecuted for violating the law.

Indeed, the US government has been much more active in its prosecution of FARA violations over the last few years, not least because a number of officials connected to US President Donald Trump’s election campaign were found to have breached the law. This has prompted the US Department of Justice to devote more resources to enforcing the law, and resulted in a spike of registrations by various ‘foreign agents’.

Chauthaiwale, not long after news emerged that the US wing of the BJP had registered under the FARA law, posted a tweet asking if the Congress unit in America would do the same:

What is the background?

The US elections, slated for November, comes with extremely high stakes for the BJP, which has invested heavily in building up the image of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a close friend of Donald Trump’s America. Modi has twice turned up at rallies with Trump, where much of the rhetoric on offer seemed more like political campaigning than the usual language used by foreign leaders at public events.

Modi even seemed to tacitly endorse Trump, saying “ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” (‘this time, Trump’s government’) at a rally in Houston, Texas in 2019. Although the party tried to claim that Modi was simply referring to Trump’s use of the term – which is a reference to the Indian prime minister’s campaign tagline from 2014 – in 2016, it was hard to see it as anything but an endorsement.

Trump’s campaign this year, meanwhile, has tried to lean heavily on Modi’s words as a way of reaching out to the Indian American community. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fund-raiser for the Trump campaign and the girlfriend of his eldest son, tweeted out what seemed like a campaign video exactly in this vein in August:

Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee and former US Vice President Joe Biden has taken a harsher tone with Modi’s India, while also reaching out to the Indian-American population – not least by pointing out that his vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, would be the first Indian-American to occupy that position if the Democrats win.

Biden currently is ahead of Trump by as much as 7 points according to the RealClearPolitics average of major US polls, though that may well change between now and November 3, when the US election will take place.