Many of the 40,000 Indian Americans in the Sacramento region stayed up all night Thursday watching the results of the world’s largest election. Rocklin’s Ravi Verma, who spent the last month in India directing a documentary on the historic vote, was glued to his computer past 3 a.m. Friday, watching CNN-IBN as 550 million votes were tallied.
A Buddhist from the state of Bihar, Verma was neutral. But the majority of Indian Americans are Hindus, and many celebrated the landslide victory of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who sold tea as a boy to help support his impoverished family. Modi, who heads the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP,, was toasted at local homes and restaurants, including one across from the Intel campus in Folsom.
BJP defeated Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that has ruled India for most of its 60 years. After weeks of voting, BJP secured 340 of the 543 seats in Parliament.
Verma, 49, came to the United States in 1995 and has his own software development company with branches here and in India, where he started a nonprofit to run schools in villages and provided computer training in Hindi to workers in his hometown of Katihar. His first film, “Journey of the Heart,” chronicles the travels of 7th century Chinese monk Xuangzang. He has also worked with the Dalai Lama to found Sacramento’s Tibet House of California.
For his election documentary, he interviewed over 150 men and women from all walks of life, representing the four major parties.
Why did Modi’s BJP Hindu Nationalist party win?
While 85 percent of Indians are Hindu, BJP won because people are fed up with Congress. The turnout in Muslim precincts was 80 percent, compared to 60 percent in Hindu precincts, because Muslims were trying to stop BJP from coming into power at any cost. Three days before the election, one BJP leader said anyone who opposes Modi should go to Pakistan. So Muslims were really worried if this guy becomes prime minister bad things will happen to them, and that fear trumped the desire for progress.
BJP was founded in 1951 in the name of Hinduism, while one of Congress’s first leaders was Mahatma Gandhi, who was secular to the extent of being pro-Muslim because he felt Muslims were in the minority and he had to be extra-vigilant to protect them. That’s why historically, Muslims prefer Congress over BJP. A close friend of mine is second-in-command of BJP, and they stole their slogan from Obama, declaring “Better Change Is Coming Tomorrow.” BJP's social media team led by Amit Shah copied the strategy of David Plouffe of the Obama election team and came up with the the slogan “Better days are coming.” They beat Congress in the game of outreach. One of Congress’ slogans was “We Are Secular.” The Aam Aadmi Party ran on an anti-corruption platform; their symbol was a broom. They only got four seats, but they made a big splash.
What’s going to happen next?
BJP’s win is a breakthrough, but Hindus are deeply secular people in nature, and the majority do not like fundamentalism. That’s the beauty of India and Hindus. BJP promised that when it comes to power, India will stand up against Pakistan and China a little more forcefully; there will be more development, less corruption and more employment. But elections in India are more about entertainment than governance, it’s like a sporting event. Everything else stops. All people do is talk about elections. Anywhere you go you find people talking about elections with passion. One of my most memorable experiences was filming a heated political debate on a running train.
In every interview, people said they don’t expect anything to change. The Indian government is run by civil servants no matter who’s in power. They are very bright, capable people who maintain law and order. When a new party comes into power, there may be a nudge in foreign policy and decision making, but overall nothing changes, good or bad. People have short memories; BJP was in power for six years a decade ago and they were as corrupt as anybody else.
Every political party in India has been convicted of corruption. What has to change?
Mr. Modi is a very honest man, but after that corruption starts. Indians will demand honesty from that person while engaging in corruption themselves. I was surprised how aware even illiterate people were about the elections and the political process. But they didn’t expect their elected officials to keep any of the promises they were making during the elections. Elections in India are the ultimate display of the democratic process on Earth, but the most debilitating problem India faces is the scourge of corruption. During my filming I encountered heart-breaking poverty. Poverty in India can be completely eradicated if corruption could be eliminated.
A poor villager has to save enough to bribe the lowest level government official in his village before the official even takes an application for government assistance. If the roles were reversed, the person applying would have been asking for the bribe as well. Corruption won’t go away by sending crooked civil servants to prison. It will go away only when every Indian takes a pledge to work on himself or herself.
What’s at stake for Indian Americans and the United States?
Most Indians in the U.S. are Hindus, who are more traditional and religious than the ones back home, and favor BJP, which is more pro-American and pro-business than Congress. They’re more like the Republican Party here. They are more likely to allow U.S. businesses like Wal-Mart to come to India.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed to this story.