Modi’s election setback surprises Indian Americans in the DMV

By Washington Post (World News) | Created at 2024-06-11 04:16:13 | Updated at 2024-07-21 20:04:52 1 month ago
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The first thing Syed Ashraf did when he awoke at 5:45 a.m. last Tuesday in his Ashburn, Va. home was look up the Indian election results.

His tension eased and he felt a glimmer of hope as he scrolled the results that trickled out from the subcontinent, he said. After a 47-day election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had secured the most parliamentary seats, but it fell short of securing the majority needed to form a government — an unexpected rebellion against the Hindu nationalist party that has dominated the country’s politics for a decade and stoked tensions among religious groups.

“People have really spoken up, and it’s a good thing,” Ashraf, a Muslim Indian who was raised in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and moved to Virginia in 2000, told The Washington Post. “I was worried about the future of my community there, and other communities as well. I was losing my confidence in the democracy of India.”

Modi was sworn in for a rare third term Sunday, but the new parliamentary makeup could put more checks on his power. “And that’s what I feel good about,” Ashraf, 51, said.

Indian Americans across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region tuned in to the Indian elections last week, checking WhatsApp group chats and waiting for the latest news reports. The stakes are high: widening wealth inequality; India’s position in the global economy; and threatened multiculturalism and secularism, as the BJP has attempted to push the country’s minorities to the margins.

As Modi and the BJP’s setback became clear, reaction from Indian Americans in the DMV ran the gamut: shock, delight, hope, worry, resignation. For some, the shift in Indian politics suggests a positive step to support the country’s diversity. Others said it could put India’s economic growth at risk — or won’t change much at all.

Raj Prasannappa, 60, is among those concerned the results will slow India’s economic growth.

A BJP supporter, Prasannappa followed the election on NDTV, an Indian news outlet, anticipating that the party would secure more seats than it did.

He noted how Indian stocks plunged as election results rolled out. (The country’s stocks have since recovered.)

“India was going on the right path economically,” Prasannappa said from outside a Sterling, Va., Hindu temple as the sun dipped and a Hanuman pooja, or prayer, rang out. Now, he said, a parliament without a clear majority “leaves India in uncertainty.” (Under the BJP, India’s share of the global GDP has grown, though high unemployment and low rural wages persist.)

Kumar Tirumala, another member of Prasannappa’s temple, carried bananas as offering into the pooja. He was up late Monday night for results, which he expected to be another BJP landslide. To him, Modi and the BJP represent a preservation of Hindu culture. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s population is Hindu.

By Tuesday evening, he said, he was satisfied with the results: Modi secured a third term, and that is enough. In the years to come, Tirumala said he hopes the BJP rebounds.

Many who hail from the country’s minorities, such as Ashraf, disagree. The party built a temple on the site of a razed mosque, revoked the predominantly Muslim Kashmir region’s autonomous special status and excluded Muslims from a fast track to citizenship. Emboldened by the party’s lead, lynch mobs have targeted the country’s Muslims, and local officials have used bulldozers to demolish the properties of Muslims accused of crimes. On the campaign trail, Modi referred to the country’s Muslims as “infiltrators.”

Tensions have touched Western soil, too. Indian officials orchestrated an assassination attempt against a Sikh separatist leader, a vocal critic of Modi, in the United States this year, The Post reported, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was investigating allegations that the Indian government was behind the killing of a Sikh Canadian separatist leader.

“Modi didn’t do anything for us,” Balwinder Singh said from the quiet foyer of a Northwest Washington gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship. “How he’s treated Muslims, it’s not good. The Sikh community has not been happy either.”

For Singh, 54, the election results represent a pushback against Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. “It’s a good sign for India,” he said.

Laby George, who leads an Indian church in Silver Spring, said that breaking up the BJP’s political monopoly was crucial for the health of the nation’s democracy. He stayed up until about 3 a.m. tracking the election and went to sleep relieved.

“India is a democratic country. For any democracy to flourish there should be a good opposition party,” he said. “This will help the country go in the right direction. I’m not saying everything is going to be fixed, but there can be resistance.”

Last year, mobs fueled by Hindu nationalism attacked hundreds of Christian converts in dozens of villages in eastern India. Hopefully, now, aggressions against minorities will be less frequent, said Selvin Selvaraj, 49, of Gaithersburg.

He waited until 4:15 a.m., hoping the opposition would secure more seats, Selvaraj said.

Rupinder Singh, a Rockville resident, said the parliamentary shake-up is not enough. He said many Sikhs don’t have much faith in any political parties — that the parties have “been different sides to the same coin.”

This month is a stark reminder of that for many Sikhs. June marks 40 years since the Indian army raided Sikhism’s holy site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to kill a Sikh militant leader. Hundreds died during the attack. The bloody raid took place under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, of the Indian National Congress Party.

Now — regardless of who holds the prime minister title or who sits in parliament — India contends with issues that grow more urgent by the day, such as a worsening climate crisis, Rupinder Singh, 40, said. Last week, a heat wave killed 14 people in India, including 10 elections officials.

“When it’s 140 degrees and there’s no water, what’s going to happen?” he said. “It will be the haves versus the have nots, and that’s scary. No political party is seriously addressing this.”

Many Indian Americans across the DMV said they’ll continue watching their home country’s political situation closely — some hopeful, some dubious.

“It’s neither positive nor negative. I’m still skeptical of what’s going on, and what is coming next,” said Imran Kukdawala, 40. “The BJP did not get the type of majority they were hoping for. But they’re still in power.”

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