Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 15:08 UK

Election grips US-based Indians

By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington

BJP campaign literature in the US
Older Indian Americans are closely watching the vote

After a day's work at Penn State University, where he is a professor of engineering and department head, Dinesh Agrawal returns home and turns on his computer to indulge his passion for politics.

But it's not the daily duels between Democrats and Republicans in America that transfix him. Dr Agrawal's attention is focused laser-like on the election season drama playing out halfway across the globe.

A former president of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), he is part of a dedicated band of Indian-Americans that is drumming up support for political parties in India.

From the recently concluded US elections to the upcoming vote in India, the past few months have been exciting for Indian-Americans.

But for some, the excitement of a historic US presidential election pales in comparison with what's happening in India.


"We were very enthusiastic about Barack Obama because we have a vote here. But in India, even though we cannot vote, we have a much stronger emotional involvement," says Dr Agrawal.

Elephant in New York
There is a strong strand of Indian culture in the US

This bond has drawn Indian-Americans from as far away as Chicago and New Jersey to work on campaigns in places such as Chhattisgarh and Gujarat.

But it is not something that appeals to everyone. A large majority of second-generation Indian-Americans are significantly more detached from Indian politics.

The US arms of major Indian political parties - the OFBJP and Indian National Overseas Congress (INOC) - have been working hard to create an awareness among Indian voters about the importance of supporting their respective parties and candidates.

The OFBJP has undoubtedly been better organised in this effort.

Founded in 1991 in New York, the OFBJP has a mission to "educate the ethnic Indian community, dispel the misgivings and false perceptions of the American public and lawmakers, correct the media distortions, propagate the BJP's philosophy and at the same time foster friendly relations between the two counties".

Some Indian Americans have been working a "half-day job" raising awareness about their party's platform.

'Biggest thing'

"Every day I spend a few hours in the evening reading news from India and informing people here in the US and in India about what can be done to help the BJP," says Dr Agrawal, who was in Uttar Pradesh this year and confesses to have been worried about the low morale of his party.

We people from America... our message carries much weight in India
Prof Dinesh Agrawal

Since then, he believes, the party has been galvanised by the row over the detention of BJP candidate Varun Gandhi - a member of the Nehru Gandhi political dynasty.

OFBJP members across the US have been calling in for teleconferences to discuss strategy. Some Indian Americans are travelling to India to help candidates with their campaigns.

Nimesh Dikshit, a New Jersey-based IT consultant, will be volunteering on BJP campaigns in Gujarat.

He is upset that "in the last five years the biggest thing that came out of India was the Mumbai attacks" and believes it is crucial that the BJP sweeps this election.

It is illegal for US citizens to donate money to Indian politicians or their campaigns and most Indian-Americans are quick to point out that they do not make such contributions.

However some do admit to giving money to their "relatives" in India.

Surinder Malhotra, the New York-based president of INOC, says members of his group do not believe in getting financially involved with Indian politicians.

"Our job is to see that money is not used for social disharmony," he says.

The OFBJP also denies raising funds for the BJP.

"It's very hard to track the flow of money," says Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

"Everyone says they are going to volunteer their time, not give money."

Influence voters

The OFBJP has spent money on placing advertisements in newspapers in the US and India - telling readers to "call your family members and friends in India and urge them to vote and campaign for the BJP".

BJP leader LK Advani
Mr Advani has an efficient support network in the US

The organisation has about 800 members and reaches out to Indian expatriates in Britain and Canada.

OFBJP leaders are in constant touch with BJP leaders in India, where as relatively affluent middle class professionals, they have the power to influence voters in urban areas of India.

IT experts have even helped to launch, a crucial tool in OFBJP's outreach efforts.

National security tops the list of concerns for the OFBJP, followed by the economy and H-1B visas for Indian professionals working in the US.

Supporters of the Congress party in the US have also not been inactive.

They point out that "even the BJP acknowledges that we have never had such an honest prime minister as Manmohan Singh".

"Congress has been strong on combating terrorism," Dr Malhotra says.

"There have been historic achievements on [the Congress party] watch - we have a civilian nuclear deal with the United States and India is no longer a nuclear pariah.

"Look at how a financial crisis grips the rest of the world, but India has not been affected much by it."

Both parties are confident that their efforts from thousands of miles away will eventually pay off.

"We people from America... our message carries much weight in India," Dr Agrawal contends.

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