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PM Modi's South Africa visit: Diaspora may not be a play in Lok Sabha polls

Archis Mohan/New Delhi 13 Jul 18 | 07:05 AM

New Delhi fears a repeat in Johannesburg of the PM’s London visit in April that was marred by protests | Photo: Reuters

South Africa has a sizeable Indian diaspora, nearly 1.5 million strong comprising three per cent of that country’s population. But unlike his previous visit there in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be addressing the Indian community when he visits South Africa from July 25-27. 

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Modi will be in Johannesburg for three days to attend the BRICS Summit, but not even one event has been planned where he addresses the Indian community. New Delhi fears a repeat in Johannesburg of the PM’s London visit in April that was marred by vociferous protests by sections of the Indian diaspora. 

On his way to South Africa, Modi will be visiting Uganda on July 24 and is scheduled to address a gathering of the influential non-resident Indians there. The fight among the various Indian associations in Kampala has become ugly enough for 15 outfits threatening to boycott the event. Interventions from the Indian High Commissioner and BJP leaders in India haven’t helped.

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Support from the Indian diaspora was a force multiplier for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The rousing receptions Modi received from NRIs and people of Indian origin on his visits abroad had added to his charisma and international standing. 

But increasingly, managing the diaspora has become a headache for the BJP. Domestic controversies over religious, caste and linguistic identities and effective outreach by the BJP’s political rivals has contributed to the diaspora’s increasing disillusionment with the PM. 

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There have been allegations of mismanagement of funds raised for Modi’s diaspora events, particularly in Canada, and grievances about the dominance of a particular linguistic group that has found easy access in the Modi government and Indian missions abroad, while businesspeople from other regions complain doors have been shut on them. 

Those responsible for the diaspora outreach in the Congress and the AAP go so far as to say that the sentiment in the diaspora, or large sections of it, has turned distinctly anti-BJP. The Overseas Friends of BJP, the party’s diaspora outreach headed by Vijay Chauthaiwale, refused to accept this criticism and believe interests inimical to India’s “increasing prestige in the world" to be behind this anti-India campaign. However, the BJP’s strategy to reach out to the diaspora may rely more on social media than physical outreach. 

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AAP’s Ankit Lal, the party’s social media head and in-charge of the party's US chapter, claims the disillusionment in the diaspora is more widespread than what is reported. “In 2014 and with his subsequent visits abroad, Modi had promised that Indians outside would benefit from India’s economic prosperity. This has proved to be a jumla," Lal said. 

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The AAP has significant presence among the Punjabi diaspora settled in the US, Canada and England. The BJP said the AAP's support base comprises mostly those who are supporters of Khalistan. But the AAP says it has a vigorous presence of Indians hailing from other North Indian states as well in its ranks. Under its leaders Sam Pitroda and Milind Deora, the Congress has also been more active in its diaspora outreach in the last 12 months. The Telugu Desam Party and YSR Congress Party has reached out to the Telugu diaspora, and Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress to Bengalis living abroad. Even the CPIM’s social media presence has been bolstered, mostly in the academic, in the US and Western Europe. 

As fights within various diaspora associations get more bitter with the 2019 elections approaching, the AAP and Congress believe the Indian community as a factor in elections back home stands largely neutralised.

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