India Polls: Overseas Indians travel home to support Modi

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Adapa V. Prasad, a 60-year-old entrepreneur from Washington DC, has been risking Maoist violence in central India for the sake of the man he wants to see become the next prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Travelling door-to-door in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh state, a hotbed of left-wing extremism, he has been asking people to vote for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"India is going down the drain under the present Congress government. I cannot see that happen," said Prasad, an American of Indian origin who left his homeland 25 years ago and has spent about $2,000 to travel back for polling.

Echoing others who are fired up by Modi's strident nationalism and development agenda, he sees the controversial 63-year-old as a means to create pride in the poverty-wracked country.

"The impetus to come here (India) is to bring Modi as the prime minister. We don't want our country to be seen as a weak country," said Prasad, who spent his younger days in Chhattisgarh but has never campaigned there before.

He serves as a vice-president with the international network of the Hindu nationalist party, Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) in the United States.

A Delhi-based BJP leader coordinating international outreach efforts estimated that more than 4,000 non-resident Indians from over 30 countries have travelled to India to work for the party since January.

"I received calls from many young people living abroad," said Vijay Jolly, global convenor for BJP's overseas affairs.

"I have not seen such a phenomenon before," said Jolly, a former legislator who has been with the party for more than three decades.

He explained that despite living abroad, overseas Indians yearned for progress in their motherland after allegations of corruption and weak leadership marred Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's two terms in office.

The high-octane social media campaign of the BJP coupled with regular online interactions with its overseas members and the charisma of Modi has drawn these supporters to India, Jolly said.

As well as organising events locally in their home countries, returning BJP supporters have helped with a formidable grassroots campaign by the party, which can also count on right-wing Hindu groups to provide volunteers.

By contrast, at the headquarters of the Congress party in New Delhi, members were reluctant to share any details of help from the diaspora.

Emails to different chapters of the party's international arm, Indian National Overseas Congress (INOC), yielded just one response.

"Unfortunately the person appointed by AICC (All India Congress Committee) to head INOC has totally failed in organising support for the party in US at this critical election," read the email from an anonymous party member.

"We are all disappointed! This is the problem with our party leaders and they are out of touch with the grassroots!" it added.

- 'No hope here' -

Following legislation passed in 2010, Indian passport-holders who are living abroad are able to vote as long they sign up and register.

However, they have to return home to cast their ballot and only 13,000 have registered among some 10 million non-resident Indians - a tiny percentage of the overall total of 814 million voters.

The staggered election, which began on April 7, will finish with results on May 16 with the BJP forecast to emerge as the biggest party in parliament.

The party, which was born in 1980, has run the federal government only once, between 1998 and 2004, unlike Congress, which has ruled the country for more than five decades since India's independence from Britain in 1947.

Sanjay Srivastava, who left India eight years ago to work as a manager with a telecom company in Nigeria, sees Modi as a harbinger of change.

He cast his ballot in his hometown of Ranchi, capital of mineral-rich eastern Jharkhand state, which has among the worst human development indicators in India.

"I feel there is no hope here. There is no development here," said 37-year-old Srivastava.

But he is confident that Modi, chief minister of the thriving western state of Gujarat since 2001, could transform his home state.

"Jharkhand has poor amenities, bad roads, poor electricity. The success model of Gujarat should be replicated here," he said.