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Are India's Elections A Wake Up Call For The Diaspora?


From Africa's most populous country, we want to turn now to the world's largest democracy. India is preparing to swear in a new prime minister next week - the controversial Narendra Modi, who led the country's conservative opposition party. His overwhelming victory ends more than 60 years of control by the Indian National Congress - that's the party that's been led by the Gandhi family for decades. Commentators say this win could profoundly change the course of India's future. We wanted to find out more so we've called the LA Times South Asia correspondent Shashank Bengali. Shashank, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: We were also interested in what the Indian-American diaspora is saying about all this so we've called Deepa Iyer. She's the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. She's now working on a book about America's changing racial landscape. Welcome back to you as well. Thanks for coming.

DEEPA IYER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Shashank, let me start with you. Tell us some of the reasons this victory is considered so significant.

BENGALI: Well, it's the first time in 30 years, Michel, that any single party in India has captured a majority of seats in the parliament - hasn't happened since 1984. And in India's sort of fractured system, most governments are led by kind of shaky coalitions. So the size of the victory by the opposition party led by Narendra Modi was really significant. And it (inaudible) swept even the kind of most optimistic predictions were before the election.

And it really shows just how overwhelming the demand was from a large segment of the voters here for real change and for real economic dynamism, which India seemed to have lacked in the last several years with rising inflation, a lot of corruption scandals have come to light. Modi campaigned for change and voters seemed to embrace that message very profoundly.

MARTIN: He seems to have done particularly well among younger voters, is that correct?

BENGALI: That's right. Voters younger than 35 really flocked to him. He ran a really slick campaign, almost Western-style. There were a number of campaign events where he appeared via hologram. There was a very sophisticated social media effort by his aides to really find people - not just young people - but really around the country, reach out to Indians on Facebook, Twitter, text messages, WhatsApp. All kinds of different things that Indians use to communicate, the Modi campaign was really very good at leveraging those platforms.

And beyond that, really the message of change and bigger - even though Modi is 63 years old and he's been a governor of a Western state for about 12 years, he really resonated with the youth, you know, just this sort of vigor and optimism he projected were really very powerful themes of his campaign.

MARTIN: Well, I want to talk more about that with Deepa and in fact - 'cause she wrote a piece about this. You know, there's another side of Mr. Modi that you wrote about that a lot of people are concerned about. In 2002, anti-Muslim violence killed nearly 2000 people in the province where he was the chief minister. And he was accused of instigating and organizing the rioters. And that's why many people might remember that he was actually denied a visa to the U.S. a few years later.

And so I'd like to ask - first of all, you wrote a piece about this. Are there concerns about his particular brand of nationalism and what that might say about his commitment to the pluralism that is a fact in India?

IYER: That's right. Well, I think Indian-Americans like myself are having robust discussions within our families and online about the impact of the elections. And one of the strands that's emerging, Michel, with progressive Indian-Americans is, how will this new government address issues of social and economic justice? So how will the rights of women, LGBT communities, immigrant workers, faith minorities be addressed?

And I think there are two reasons for that. One is what you just alluded to, that there's a history here with the 2002 riots, and Mr. Modi was roundly criticized by human rights groups about his leadership or lack thereof. And then secondly, I think that second and third generations of Indian-American immigrants in this country have really come of age. And we are now more attuned to issues of racial, social and economic justice, given our own positioning as people of color in the post-9/11 environment.

MARTIN: Well, speaking specifically about hate crimes that were directed against many people of South Asian descent because they were believed to be Muslims - I mean, not that anyone is condoning it if they had been Muslims - but in part that there were a number of cases of people who were attacked based on, you know, appearance, which...

IYER: Right.

MARTIN: ...You mention in your piece. You called it - the Indian elections a wake-up call for Indian-Americans. What do you mean by that? I'm particularly interested in also the question of whether Indian-Americans have traditionally been that involved...

IYER: Right.

MARTIN: ...In the politics of India.

IYER: Well, I think traditionally what we've seen is that the first generation of Indian immigrants in this country have obviously been interested in foreign policy, India-U.S. relations and the like. But with second and third-generations, people born and brought up here, people like myself, are really looking to how issues affecting marginalized communities will be addressed.

And I definitely think that's because of some of our own experiences in the post-9/11 environment where six Muslims and people who look South Asian have been targeted by surveillance, racial profiling and hate violence. And so that lens, I think, influences the way that we're looking at these issues both here and in our country of origin.

MARTIN: Shashank, do I have this right that this was the first time that nonresident Indians were allowed to vote?

BENGALI: That's right, and a number of them did. And we don't know the exact numbers because the final numbers have not been put out by the election authorities. But there really was a lot of interest that I could sense from the U.S. in this race. I mean, Modi is a very outsized figure. And a large part of the Indian diaspora - Deepa, correct me if I'm wrong - in the U.S. is from Gujarat, which is the state that Modi has led since 2001.

So a lot of people - as that state has progressed economically in part due to Modi's leadership, there has been a lot of - probably a lot more travel back and forth between U.S. and Gujarat. As you say, you know, family members come to check on relatives and also some - in some cases to move back to Gujarat as the situation there has improved.

So there has been linkages, and Modi is really quite well-known among Indians in the U.S. So it may be a case of his personality also kind of influencing people to get involved in the U.S., you know, whether they like him or they distrust him.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask, what about the other way? Was he interested? Did you get any sense that he was interested in what the diaspora thinks of him?

BENGALI: Well, it's interesting. You know, part of his appeal, especially to young voters who are of a different ilk than, you know, the parents' generation and those before them, you know, Modi was really very much campaigning about India. He ran a campaign about his record, and he ran a campaign about what he wanted to do.

He was very careful not to talk too much about other countries. He barely even talked about Pakistan, which of course is India's kind of blood rival. And I think that is part of his appeal to young voters, who are sort of sick of India playing second fiddle to other countries. They very much want to compete with the U.S. and achieve some of the same middle-class comforts as we in the U.S. have. But his message was very much about what he can do for India based on his own record.

MARTIN: Deepa, final thought here. India has a huge diaspora. I mean, not just in the United States, but in the U.K., you know, Australia, you know, throughout the world really. So it's really hard to kind of say what is the kind of point of view of the Indian diaspora going to be. But focusing on the U.S., are there - is public opinion coalescing in a particular posture? Do you have a sense of where the Indian diaspora in the U.S. wants to be relative to Mr. Modi going forward?

IYER: I think we'll have to wait and see. At some level, I mean, there are nearly 3 million Indians who live in the United States. And, you know, I do think that there is a sense of cautious optimism. I think that the promise of economic growth, no corruption and other campaign promises, people are looking at that and are hopeful about that.

But at the same time, I think that there is some vigilance among Indian-Americans and other South Asians about, how will this new government, how will Mr. Modi address issues around social and economic justice affecting marginalized communities? And that is going to be, I think, a framing point in terms of the organizing moving forward.

MARTIN: And, Shashank, final thought from you. Is there a 100-day plan or a top priority that Mr. Modi must deliver to deliver on the promises that he made in the campaign? What's his top priority in your view?

BENGALI: Well, everyone's looking, Michel, to see what his economic team looks like and who he appoints as finance minister. Jobs are really number one on everyone's list, and it's going to be a long slog. There's some really structural issues in the Indian economy that will make it harder for him to achieve rapid change here in, you know, the way he streamlined things in his home state. It's going to be difficult to run a whole country based on what he did in Gujarat.

So people are really watching to see what he puts together. Right now he is really focused, like a laser, on the economy. It's in every speech that he gives. He talks about bringing growth and development for all. And so far, he has given signals that he wants to really make this growth for the whole country, which includes women, which include minorities. He is trying to move past the divisiveness of his image and really try to build a more inclusive, you know, sense of his own leadership. So we'll see. It's going to be very, very interesting.

MARTIN: Shashank Bengali is the LA Times South Asia correspondent. We reached him in Mumbai. Deepa Iyer is the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, a civil rights group. She's now working on a book about America's changing racial landscape, and we're looking forward to that. She joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

IYER: Thank you, Michel.

BENGALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.