The BJP’s ‘foreign agents’ in America
The TLDR: Recently, the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) registered itself as a ‘foreign agent’ as per the US law. It was an overdue acknowledgement of the organisation’s fervent political lobbying—aimed at influencing members of Congress and the White House. But what got less attention: The OFBJP’s links to election campaigns in the US—which is trickier and not-quite-legal territory. Nope, this isn’t just about ties to Donald Trump.
Wait, what's this OFBJP?
It is the international arm of the BJP party. It was first launched in 1992 in the midst of the party’s Ram Janmabhoomi campaign which was attracting unfavourable global attention. The organization was created “to educate American lawmakers, the American people and the Indian American community about the true principles of the BJP.”
So why are they ‘foreign agents’ now?
The term is far less ominous than it sounds. The US Foreign Agents Registration Act was passed in 1938—at the height of worries about political interference by the Nazis. It requires everyone who is engaged in political activity on behalf of a foreign entity—be it a government, company or party—to register themselves as a ‘foreign agent’.
The law was largely unenforced until Trump rose to prominence—which was linked to renewed fears about Russian meddling in the US elections. As a result, the Justice Department has suddenly cracked down, forcing various entities and individuals to register their work for foreign clients. And the OFBJP’s sudden decision is likely due to this broader push—and the fact that its political activities have escalated ever since PM Modi rose to power.
What political activities?
Indian elections: Most of the attention on the OFBJP’s role has focused on its support for Modi at home. In both 2014 and 2019, the organization played a big role in mobilising the Indian diaspora to do their bit—by joining phone banks, giving money and flying back to India to help on the ground. For more on this: see LAist and The Citizen.
Mega-Modi extravaganzas: They also helped organise Modi’s rallies in the United States—including the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston. Much of the buzz around the PM’s loyal NRI base is almost entirely due to OFBJP.
US lobbying: But OFBJP’s India work doesn’t concern US authorities—nor does it make it a ‘foreign agent’. That designation relates to their work aimed at influencing US politicians. This kind of lobbying has escalated since Modi rose to power:
“In America, the OFBJP has begun to have an active presence on Capitol Hill. [OFBJP Vice President] Prasad said he interacts with Republican and Democratic party think-tanks, lawmakers, and the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans to discuss subjects such as economic cooperation between the US and India, global terrorism, and relations with Pakistan. ‘If there is a hearing going on related to Pakistan, such as America sending F-16 (jet fighters) to Pakistan, we work with other Indian organisations to block those F-16s,’ said Prasad.”
As South Asia expert Milan Vaishnav explains:
“It is almost, in some sense, a parallel structure to official government channels as represented by Indian embassies and consulates abroad… Right now, the two seem to be working together—because the political leadership has sent a strong signal.”
So, yeah, they have been working as a foreign agent for many years now.
What about US elections?
Now, that’s trickier since US law firmly forbids foreigners from playing any role in domestic elections—including all forms of support, cash or in-kind. (OTOH, the UK has no such law and the OFBJP put all its resources into campaigning against Labour candidates in the last election.)
Open support: In the US, the OFBJP and BJP leaders have been sliding down a slippery slope. For example, Modi-ji openly declared ‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar’ at the Howdy Modi event. Far more brazen: Vijay Jolly who was chief of BJP’s foreign affairs arm in 2019. Here he is declaring open support for Tulsi Gabbard—Democratic Congresswoman running for reelection—as a “soldier of the BJP” no less:
Point to note: That kind of brazenness is now a big no-no with the US elections round the corner—and an increasingly antsy Justice Department. This may explain why his successor, Vijay Chauthaiwale, hastily wrote to the OFBJP warning them not to use the party’s name while campaigning for candidates. Translation: support the candidates we like, but as US citizens and not OFBJP members.
So the BJP is staying on the sidelines?
Not exactly. The BJP has strong indirect links to both Republicans and Democrats.
Meet Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar: He is a powerful Chicago-area businessman who co-founded the Republican Hindu Coalition—and played a significant role in the election of Trump in 2016. The prominent Republican fundraiser is also a very good friend of the BJP and Modi. And he’s worked overtime to connect his friends. A Vice investigation found:
“...Kumar, through a business entity, paid for a delegation of Republican House lawmakers, along with family members and staff, to visit Modi in India. The trip, including multiple meetings with Modi and a dinner with him at the Taj Hotel, cost more than $15,000 per participant and included representatives Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Aaron Schock (R-IL).”
Meet Amit Jani: He’s a senior adviser in the Joe Biden campaign—and director for its Asian-American outreach. He is also a big supporter of Modi-ji, as is his family. His father, Suresh Jani, was one of the founders of OFBJP—and his mother worked for Modi’s re-election campaign.
When the PM was re-elected, he congratulated his mother on Facebook: “Loved the energy and jubilation throughout the state on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the Indian national elections! Proud of Deepti Jani for all the work you did during the campaign!” And it was accompanied by this collage of photos (look who’s wearing a ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ tee):
Biden came under huge pressure over Jani’s appointment. He has been relieved of his responsibility for Muslim outreach, but remains in his role. But he has also been defended by prominent Muslim Americans.
Point to note: If you count ‘em, the OFBJP has close ties with three of the leading Democratic candidates in this election: Tulsi Gabbard, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg’s policy director Sonal Shah was a former national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of America, and her father was a former OFBJP vice president. Shah has since disassociated herself from the VHP.
What’s striking is the great overlap between members of the OFBJP, Hindu American organisations and Hindu American political action committees aimed at influencing elections—all united by a common ideology.
The bottomline: Both Trump and Biden are vying for the votes of Hindu Americans—and each has set up a special outreach group. There is nothing wrong with that. There have long been similar groups for Jews and Muslims as well. The real problem: the close association of these Hindu American groups with a single political party and its agenda.
The good news: In the end, Indian Americans will vote as Americans—not as NRIs obsessed with CAA or Kashmir. For now, their choice appears to be Biden.
- The Print explains FARA. Scroll and Quartz have the best reporting on the OFBJP.
- The Intercept looks at Amit Jani, while News18 offers a more flattering profile.
- Also in The Intercept: How US Hindu organisations mark the nexus of Trump and Modi brands of nationalism.
- News18 has more on why Hindu American organisations—and the OFBJP—loathe Kamala Harris. The Spectator explains how her ascension is dividing the diaspora.
- Also listen on NPR: Will Hindu Americans swing the diaspora vote toward Trump?