Narendra Modi's Secret Weapon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we may be hearing the death knell for India’s borders.
By Sanjena Sathian
Madison Square Garden was at capacity, like a rock concert. It sounded like one too, with people chanting the name of the white-haired man in the orange tunic onstage — who proceeded to address the crowd of nearly 20,000 in slow, deliberate Hindi. It was the political address heard round the world, one that felt something like Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech in the minds of millions of Indian-Americans.
The man speaking was the distinguished, newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. The unsung puppeteer behind it all? A plump, balding 54-year-old named Vijay Jolly.
Jolly is the go-to guy for Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP for short), when it comes to all things outside the subcontinent. He’s served as the co-convener of the BJP’s foreign cell, and today is sent abroad to 82 countries to “collect the hearts” of the some 25 million Indians living abroad. That’s a huge deal. Any sentient consumer of the news knows that the world’s largest democratic election took place last year in India over a period of weeks, during which camels dragged voting booths through the desert to reach rural voters and a political dynasty had its knees knocked out from under it by now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a bespectacled former tea seller.
Last year’s election was “a huge turning point” for Indian politics, says Edward Anderson, a University of Cambridge researcher who works on the history of Hindus and Indians abroad — and not just for what was going on within India’s borders, but also for what it inspired beyond home shores. In 2014, Hindus in the diaspora played an unprecedented role as voters, funders and lobbyists in their home countries. Their role will only expand. Welcome to the new borderless, global India. Welcome to the new age of nation-statehood.
At first I was disappointed to interview Jolly over a slightly staticky international line from California to New Delhi. That is, until I heard him speak: If I closed my eyes, I might as well have been standing in the middle of a crowded, buzzing rally, listening to his impassioned (if not polished) stump speech. And it’s fitting that I’m speaking to Jolly from afar. Though it’s taken some 20 emails, five failed phone calls and two Skype attempts to connect, I am witnessing firsthand his specialty: arranging, presiding over and reveling in the energy of political grandeur, even as he is oceans away from the people he addresses. He speaks with various international contingents of supporters daily, often in person, but other times through Google Hangout, Skype, texts, phone calls. The world isn’t just flat for Jolly. It can be traversed in moments.
What’s the point of all his diaspora-mongering, though? We’re talking about people who left the country, after all. But of those 25 million, the Indian government estimates nearly 11 million are “non-resident Indians” (NRIs), meaning they still hold Indian passports and haven’t become citizens in their new country. These NRIs are considered temporary residents abroad, even if they plan never to return to India, and as of this year, they can vote via absentee ballot from abroad. (In last year’s polls, they were allowed to fly home to vote for the first time ever.) Many NRIs are distinctly pro-Modi because of his promises to open borders to international commerce. That’s the case for both Shri Aditya Tawatia and Taniga Samarassame, BJP conveners in Canada and France, respectively. The BJP, says Tawatia, is India’s big chance at “making footprints in international politics.”
And yet given the diaspora’s relatively small numbers, its votes are not as important as its money. Citizens of India living overseas can contribute any amount of personal money to elections, and they do: By some estimates, NRIs donated as much as 18 percent of campaign funds for the Aam Aadmi Party, a left-of-center party, in the last election. With its comparative muscle, the BJP likely raked in more and will continue to, experts say. (Note: Both the BJP and its opposing Indian National Congress party were found guilty by the Indian Supreme Court of accepting even more money from illegal foreign donors.)
Then there’s the power of the diaspora for lobbying. In the U.S., Modi’s supporters will “definitely have an impact on policy,” says Vijay Prashad, professor of South Asian history at Trinity College. Indeed, policy is a top priority for the diaspora, says Jayesh Patel, president of the BJP’s American chapter, who adds he’d most like to move the needle on immigration, as well as “educate the American public” on the new India. Anderson cites two British politicians, on either side of the aisle, who represent districts in West London chock-full of Gujarati Hindu immigrants. Modi’s election night found Gardiner and Blackman alike celebrating with their constituents. “That was quite remarkable,” Anderson says, adding that such diasporic support “changed the way Modi’s perceived abroad.” After all, the man wasn’t even allowed to enter the U.S. for several years until his election, thanks to his suspected association with anti-Muslim communal violence while serving as chief minister of his home state, Gujarat.
So all this is what brought Jolly around the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Canada, the U.K. … whew … last year. He rattles off these lists of countries he’s visited more than once during our conversation, and I’m reminded of that intense Howard Dean moment in 2004 — that red-faced, fist-pumping “WE’RE GOING TO SOUTH CAROLINA AND OKLAHOMA AND ARIZONA AND NORTH DAKOTA …”
Jolly, for his part, is a bit more measured when he speaks to supporters. In New Jersey a few years ago, he wore a blue button-down shirt and navy sweater-vest to address a hotel ballroom full of suit-jacketed (mostly) men sporting saffron BJP sashes, unleashing his passionate cry for BJP support in slightly ungrammatical Hindi. With an earnest, familiar grin, he “invited” his audience to return to India to cast their votes. He is mostly bald and has a penchant for Shakespearean hand gestures. “We have come from India. We’ve brought messages of love. We have come to build relations and partnerships with you. And we’ve come to get your support to get BJP victorious in India.”
It’s like he tells me: “NRIs are the sons and daughters of India, of whom we are proud of their achievements! Their hard work!” He adds, “NRIs are not only money banks.”
Jolly is not exactly cosmopolitan, and he’s definitely not Westernized. He delivers many of his speeches in colloquial Hindi, and described himself to me over email, before our interview, as “a very simple man” for whom “the party has been my mother.” But he’s hobnobbed with prime ministers — of Norway, Fiji, Bangladesh. What Jolly does represent is an emerging version of deeply nationalist India; his generation’s politicos aren’t much interested in appearing on the international stage as Nehruvian, Anglophile or Westernized. Instead, they want India to represent itself as a global economic and political power, having long shed its colonial trappings. Proof? Take one of Jolly’s most passionate moments during our conversation: “India achieved independence in 1947, but it was not truly until May 26th, 2014 [the day of Modi’s election] that India achieved true independence as a nation.”
Born in 1960, Jolly has never known a colonized India. Instead, he’s lived through the evolution of a new country and its hiccups. The 1975–1977 Emergency, for instance, during which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (daughter not of the Mahatma, but of India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru) cracked down on civil liberties, imprisoned political opponents and censored the press. Gandhi’s assassination a decade later. And the continuation of those Gandhis in office for years and years; it was Rahul Gandhi whom Modi defeated last year. That’s one reason the BJP gained traction — frustration with the Gandhis’ Indian National Congress party, its associated corruption and their dynastic rule. He’s also lived through decades of Hindu-Muslim tensions, from terrorist activity along the borders to fights over Kashmir to those Gujarat riots and another round of violence in Mumbai … to start with.
Jolly grew into a political being at a time when the Indian diaspora was coming of age. Cambridge’s Anderson points out that Indian nationalism abroad is not entirely new: As early as the 1940s, Indians living far from the motherland were involved in the independence fight. In the 1950s and 1960s, Anderson explains, that engagement grew in Britain in particular, where Indians who emigrated by way of East Africa developed a “much closer engagement” with India.
Raised in Delhi by a gynecologist mother and a hotelier father, Jolly quips that he had “50 rupees” (about a dollar) in his pocket once upon a time, which seems an exaggeration given his parents’ professions. They sent him to a missionary school, a common choice for parents who wanted their children to learn English, but one that a good BJP member would never approve of today. Later, Jolly switched to government schools and then attended college at the University of Delhi. Soon he found himself attracted to politics “because of my strong habit of speech.” At school, he met his now-wife— their marriage was half-“love match,” half-arranged by their parents, he says. Today, Jolly lives in a comfortable home with two gardens, two servants and a driver. His 82-year-old father and 71-year-old mother-in-law, with whom he founded a global export business, live with him.
It’s rare to be a full-time party operative in India, and Jolly and his family still tend to the firm, which, fittingly, exports to diasporic grocery stores — those cash-and-carry places in suburban strip malls with cement flooring and flickering fluorescent lights. They send bootleg Bollywood DVDs, spicy peanuts, Maggi noodles, instant chai mix, stainless steel plates and, of course, a merry array of idols depicting Hindu gods. Catering to that market has made Jolly and company fairly wealthy, and placed him at the center of yet another globalizing force — commerce. Specifically, commerce powered by immigrant nostalgia.
On his very first day at university, Jolly met Arun Jaitley, who’s now Modi’s finance minister, and he soon joined the BJP as a student organizer, giving early incarnations of his speeches today. In those days, he spoke of education and development and getting India caught up with the rest of the world. Jolly also joined the RSS — Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the right-wing paramilitary limb of the party, known for objections to India’s religious pluralism and its belief in Hindu nationalism. He’s still a “proud member,” he says.
Herein lies the controversy. The RSS has been vocally anti-Muslim at best and violent at worst. With me, Jolly is vehement about his “tolerant values,” never once calls his party Hindu nationalist and cites more than once his belief in pluralism. When I ask about Muslims’ place in India, he doesn’t skip a beat: “Our enemies have always portrayed us as anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-minority. We are tolerant. We will never say, ‘We are better than you.’” Plus, he argues, India never would have elected Modi last year had the party been a solely Hindu party. (That argument doesn’t quite stack up; Hindus make up about 80 percent of India, while Muslims are only 15 percent.)
“He’s not the best guy,” says Trinity’s Prashad, simply. He refers to one incident in which Jolly was arrested for vandalizing the home of the female editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine in New Delhi; she had been accused of covering up a sexual assault case in her editorial staff. Even within the BJP, Jolly is seen as a right-of-center, poke-you-in-the-eye type, he adds. Prashad, a vocal critic of Hindutva — the Hindu nationalist ideology comprising RSS beliefs — doesn’t think we’re seeing the “Jollification” of the diaspora, though. In other words: There’s something bigger afoot, and this dude was in the right place at the right time. That something bigger? A new India, a powerful India. This is just what happens when you’re invited to the big-kid table.
Jolly relishes punning his own name: “People would call me a jolly good chap!” And you know? He is jolly. Jovial. Somehow carefree. He says he’s motivated by love for his countrymen, who can be “just as patriotic as Vijay Jolly, even from afar!” He doesn’t begrudge NRIs for brain drain or desertion. He treats them as neighbors each time he sends out his notes to some 150,000 people, expressing concern for those sons and daughters of India. I’m now on those email blasts. I can’t help but feel tinges of fury, frustration, even nostalgia for a country I’ve never lived in, when I read Jolly’s wild decrials of the Indian murdered in Australia.
Allow me some academic musing here: Sociologist Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, theorized that nations as we know them became nations upon the advent of print media. The nation, he argued, was always a figment of our imagination, held together by conversation among its members. I think of Jolly’s emails, phone calls, messages, public gatherings: an empire of new media, a place for conversation. Maybe he is addressing a nation. Maybe diaspora is now officially a place, and not just a concept.
Before we hang up, Jolly asks for my two-minute bio. I tell him: American-born, first-generation parents; Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco. He “hmm”s with familiarity. “Send me some photos of yourself after this call, please,” he requests, as though that will bridge the oceans and continents sitting between us.
Libby Coleman contributed reporting.