Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Indians in UAE call for country to unite as Narendra Modi retains firm grip on power

Non-Resident Indians were among thousands of BJP supporters who returned home to campaign for the party during the elections

In India, they danced in the streets, set off firecrackers and cheered joyously as the ruling Bharitiya Janata Party secured a triumphant victory in the world's largest election.

Thousands of kilometres away in the UAE, the celebrations were a little more low-key.

BJP Supporters gathered in homes, glued to television screens providing rolling coverage of unfolding events as Prime Minister Narendra Modi recorded a landslide election win.

The scenes where even more muted for backers of the opposition Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, with a planned gathering in Sharjah cancelled as the reality of crushing defeat set in.

Phir ek baar Modi sarkar (One more time for a Modi government),” shouted a group of friends who took time off from work to watch the live election results in a Dubai villa on Thursday.

Most Indians were up early to watch the first numbers come in on television and social media.

They were among thousands of Non-Resident Indians who travelled back home last month to vote in a general election often described by the media as a ‘battle for India’s soul’ due to the resurgence of religious nationalism since the BJP won a majority in the 2014 elections.

Mr Modi's resounding win came after a gruelling six-week election campaign in which more than 600 million votes were cast.

For Sarita Dixit, 49, who canvassed for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, the clear message from Indian voters was for development and progress.

The Dubai housewife said welfare schemes for the poor, better roads and electricity in remote Indian villages ensured the BJP stayed in power.

“We had only 16 hours of power a day in my village but now there is electricity to pump water to farms and children can study late at night,” she said.

“The poor in villages got support to build houses that were broken. People voted for the BJP because they got what they most needed – power and proper homes to live in. Someone listened to them.”

Social programmes rolled out by the BJP government included aid to poor farmers to replace thatched mud huts with concrete homes.

In response to nationwide protests by farmers on low crop prices, a government scheme was also announced to provide 6,000 rupees ($85) in an annual payout to an estimated 120 million farmers with less than two hectares of land.

BJP supporters watch on at Ashok and Komal Ashok Bhagnari’s home in Dubai as the Indian election results come in. Antonie Robertson/The National
BJP supporters watch on at Ashok and Komal Ashok Bhagnari’s home in Dubai as the Indian election results come in. Antonie Robertson/The National

UAE residents said intense national pride about the growing strength of India overseas added to the BJP’s vote share.

“It makes us proud as Indians that the UAE Ruler has visited India and Modi has come to the UAE several times as Prime Minister,” said Ramakant Dixit, 52, who went home to vote last month with his 106-year-old grandfather and 75-year-old father.

"It is because of Modi's relationship with the UAE rulers that we will have a temple in Abu Dhabi."

President Sheikh Khalifa recently honoured Mr Modi with the Zayed Medal, the country’s highest civil honour.

Mr Modi has visited the UAE twice in three years, has signed several trade agreements and launched a project to build the country’s first traditional Hindu temple in the nation's capital.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has also visited India twice and was guest at India's Republic Day celebrations in 2017.

But Mr Modi has been criticised for failing to rein in right-wing Hindu groups that promote an aggressive brand of Hinduism and widen the divide between the minority Muslims and the majority Hindus.

Cow vigilantism has surged with Muslims and Dalits, or low-caste Hindus, attacked for allegedly eating beef or slaughtering cows, an animal many Hindus consider sacred. The BJP has denied any links to the groups.

But, ecstatic BJP supporter Ashok Bhagnari said the next five years would be about amity.

“Any gap perceived by different communities will be narrowed because the BJP will reach out to everyone,” said the 61-year-old who runs a catering business.

There was a sparse turn-out at the Overseas Indian Cultural Society in Sharjah as dejected Congress supporters came to terms with defeat. Satish Kumar/ For the National
There was a sparse turn-out at the Overseas Indian Cultural Society in Sharjah as dejected Congress supporters came to terms with defeat. Satish Kumar/ For the National

“It has been projected that Modi is promoting Hinduism but the social welfare schemes for the poor and villagers have reached all religions and castes. Everyone is being uplifted irrespective of religion.”

Others were confident that the government would address protection of the minority communities and the negativity linked to the party’s Hindu religious base during the next term.

Hindutva (Hindu ideology) does not mean that we are pushing for Hindu domination,” said Manoj Menon, an engineer and UAE resident for more than 25 years.

“The message is sanathana dharma or an inclusive way of life where everyone comes together to do their duty for society. The people have voted for stability and development and it shows the strong groundwork of BJP supporters.”

As the television projected the poll tally, Indians like Senthil Kumaran, an online consultant for cryptocurrency, began planning victory celebrations with family and friends for the weekend.

“It will be a celebration of my country and of democracy,” he said.

“The media talked about divisions of caste and religion but the voter is interested in what the government gives him. The next few years will be about people coming together.”

In contrast, the mood was bleak at the Overseas Indian Cultural Society in Sharjah, where a planned gathering of the opposition Congress party supporters was called off once the BJP's victory was evident.

“We are disappointed and the reality is this will be felt by many people in India,” said TA Raveendran, former convenor of the opposition United Democratic Front, a Congress ally.

Chandraprakash Edamana, an insurance officer, said the party should focus on the next election.

“We expected more people here but they were very disappointed when they saw which way it was going,” he said.

Additional reporting by Nicholas Webster

Updated: May 23, 2019 07:41 PM

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