India’s Election Is the ‘Talk of the Town’ in Its Diaspora

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The dishes at a community center potluck for Indian expatriates near Washington, D.C., ranged from chana masala, a popular northern Indian chickpea curry, to idli, a southern Indian rice cake.

The guests’ views on India’s general election were equally varied. Some praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic achievements. Supporters of candidates challenging Mr. Modi’s party criticized what they saw as his disregard for minorities and democratic norms.

“What is the vision for India in 2024?” the host, Somu Kumar, a manager at a cloud computing company, said recently of that winter potluck. “That gets a lot of people excited to talk.”

India’s 35 million-member diaspora, roughly equivalent in population to Delhi’s metropolitan area, represents a tiny minority compared with the nearly one billion people who are eligible to take part in a six-week voting process that ends on Saturday. Expatriate Indians also cannot cast absentee ballots under India’s electoral laws.

But the diaspora is heavily courted by India’s main political parties. Many of its members are from the country’s political and business elites, and voters back home want to know what they think.

“When a person is abroad, people take interest and believe what they say is right,” said Adapa Prasad, the president of the American branch of Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The result, he said, is that the 10,000 or so B.J.P. volunteers in the United States alone can reach tens of thousands of voters.

This spring, Indians around the world have been hosting gatherings and rallies for their preferred political parties. Many Indians abroad are proud of India’s rise and associate Mr. Modi with it. So 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 rallies at Times Square, the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge and other landmarks. “Save India,” some of the pro-Modi posters said.

Pro-Modi groups have also set up phone banks and held other events. In a Chicago suburb last month, Modi supporters wearing the B.J.P.’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 Mr. Modi, who has been criticized for normalizing Hindu-nationalist policies in a country born as a secular republic.

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

And in Britain, people have been visiting Hindu temples, as well as mosques and churches, to offer prayers for Mr. Modi’s electoral success, said Neil Lal, the chairman and president of the Indian Council of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

“The election is the talk of the town,” Mr. Lal said from London.

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

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

“But gatherings of the diaspora have helped the B.J.P. create an image of global popularity,” he said.

The B.J.P. isn’t the only party active outside India. The overseas arm of its main rival, the Indian National Congress, organizes events, distributes campaign posters and helps to place columns in newspapers. The Aam Aadmi Party, which is part of a parliamentary coalition led by the Congress Party, has overseas members who run phone banks and spread friendly memes about its candidates.

Mr. Kumar, an Aam Aadmi supporter, said there was growing concern in the diaspora about a potential third Modi term. He said expatriates watching India worry about the recent marginalization of religious minorities, the assassination of a separatist and the jailings of opposition politicians.

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

“I hope this also translates back toward India,” Mr. Kumar said.

Outside of the main parties, independent activists who live abroad have criticized the government in ways that would be difficult in India, where Mr. Modi’s government has cracked down on dissent and jailed opposition leaders.

One of those activists, Suresh Ediga, an Indian expatriate in New Jersey, organizes meetings on election reform and runs a blog that fact checks Indian politicians.

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

While many in the diaspora have thrown themselves into campaigning, others have taken a more hands-off approach.

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

But she still urges the Indians she knows to travel back home to vote, recalling her father’s advice: “Never forget about India.”

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