Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand return to a second five-year term was the result of a consistent and highly organised campaign strategy in the months building up to the recently concluded general elections.
A major component of this strategy was the BJP’s massive outreach programme to the global Indian community.
“Mr Modi believes that the NRIs and the Indian diaspora are one of the biggest strengths of India and we need to engage them not only ceremonially or symbolically but at every step,” said Dr. Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the foreign affairs department of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, in an exclusive interview to Connected to India.
A trained molecular biologist, Dr Chauthaiwale was hand-picked by Modi and the current home minister Amit Shah.
He has been key in getting the Prime Minister’s message out to the Non-Resident Indian community, which may be based in other countries but is strongly connected to the homeland.
“Our engagement is not confined to one or two events or when some leader goes there,” said Dr. Chauthaiwale. “It is a continuous engagement. Whenever they come to India we meet them, we engage with them. Whenever any of our BJP leaders go, he or she ensures they spare some time for diaspora in spite of their busy official schedule,” he added.
The deliberate strategy seems to have worked well for the party. The 2019 campaign saw heavy NRI participation in both the campaigning process as well as during the seven-phase election.
“In 2019, the campaign was much more structured. We ourselves created a platform called NRI4NaMo and we did the entire campaign under that banner because people connect themselves more with Mr. Modi than the BJP as a party,”said Dr. Chauthaiwale.
“We sent several thousand e-mails initially and appealed to NRIs if they would like to contribute somehow to the campaign. Contribution doesn't mean money, but their time and energy and intellect. We got close to 7000 people’s response who wanted to volunteer, so enthusiasm was enormous. We could use technology very effectively. That way we could engage several thousand people through various activities,” he added.
Better than the Congress
The global Indian community banded together and participated enthusiastically in the 2019 election, campaigning not just for the BJP but for other parties as well.
The Indian National Congress even flagged off a special NRI bus to tour constituencies in Haryana and Punjab prior to the polls.
Those who couldn’t fly back to India to campaign, held canvassing strategy sessions in the countries of their residence, made phone calls to friends and family back in India on behalf of candidates and used social media very effectively to spread their message.
However, it is the ruling party that used its NRI support base in the most effective and organised manner, led by Dr. Chauthaiwale, through regular overseas visits, personal interactions at the BJP’s office in New Delhi and social media.
“NRIs have their own small groups and they continue to meet on a regular basis,” he tells Connected to India. “I interact with the core teams every now and then through Skype calls, or conference calls. In many countries, they have their own social media platforms, on which they are active. There is continuous engagement which generally doesn’t come into the media and that actually is the real strength of our interactions with the diaspora.”
Voting from abroad
Approximately 70,000 NRIs registered as overseas voters in addition to the thousands of Indians living abroad who flew to India to campaign.
However, the majority of those 70,000 people were not able to fly back to India to vote, the proxy voting bill failing to get passed in Parliament ahead of the elections.
“I think one of the things NRIs are definitely looking for is the ability to vote from wherever they are. There is some forward movement in that direction but it requires a change of law. So unless the Parliament approves the new legislation, that cannot happen. But the government is keen to do it,” says Dr. Chauthaiwale.
The Indian government has been very active in the last five years in dealing with and resolving many issues that NRIs face including problems related to visas and passports.
“A lot of development and progress has taken place as far as NRI issues are concerned. Now you have visa on arrival for several countries. Passport renewal mechanisms in embassies has been sped up to a great extent. Grievance redressal platforms are very effective. There is a unified platform called Madad, which any NRI or OCI, any member of the Indian diaspora, can call and complain,” said Dr. Chauthaiwale.
Former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s ‘Twitter diplomacy’ attracted much praise from NRIs across the world during the government’s first term. And it would appear that the new Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar is following the same path, having joined Twitter soon after he was given charge.
Modi’s travel budget
In December 2018, the current government informed the Rajya Sabha that over Rs 2,021 crore was spent on chartered flights, maintenance of aircraft and hotline facilities during PM Modi’s visits to foreign countries since June 2014.
In comparison, the government’s data showed an expenditure of Rs 1,346 crore on chartered flights, maintenance of aircraft and hotline facilities during the previous PM Manmohan Singh’s foreign visits between 2009-10 and 2013-14 his tenure.
“The real issue is the impact that Mr Modi has created across the globe and the visibility that he has received as compared to Mr. Manmohan Singh because of the stature,” said Dr. Chauthaiwale dismissing all criticism of the expenditure on Modi’s foreign trips.
“And that is really the cause of heartburn for our opponents. It is not the cost or anything. Also, if you analyse it - he has travelled most of the time in the night, rather than staying in a hotel. He goes to 2-3 countries at a time,” he said.
The government’s December 2018 report also stated that the countries visited by Modi between 2014 and 2018 figure among the top 10 countries from where India has received the maximum Foreign Direct Investment inflows.
However, it is not just the increase in FDI inflows or meetings with world leaders. The Indian government is also hopeful that the conscious focus on interactions with the diaspora will result in the creation of a strong and active global Indian community that will be heavily invested in both the country and the government.
“We would love for NRIs and members of the Indian diaspora to invest in India more, to come and visit India more often and actually work as a kind of informal ambassadors in their own country. And that will create a real strength for India,” says Dr. Chauthaiwale.
Engaging NRIs and its benefits:
* 93.9% of the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the United States of America supported the re-election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister
* 92% of NRIs feel that India is better respected now than before 2014
* Over 93% of NRIs in the US believe that the Modi government has done great work in infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, river transportation and electrification
These are some of the findings of a survey conducted by the US-based public and international policy platform Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIIDS) in early May 2019.
On May 23 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came back to power with a resounding victory, bringing in a mandate even larger than in 2014. This was the first consecutive majority for a single Indian party in over three decades, with the BJP winning 303 out of the total 542 Lok Sabha seats.