‘Overseas Friends of BJP’ in U.S. Now Listed as Foreign Agent

The Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), after 29 years in operation in the U.S., formally registered as a “foreign agent” on 27 August 2020.

Asked what prompted this sudden change in status, OFBJP Vice-President Adapa Prasad told me, “We learned about FARA regulation very recently and upon review of the regulation, we thought it best to register voluntarily.” FARA — the Foreign Agents Registration Act — is a 1938 law which, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), “requires certain agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.” In other words, US-based actors who lobby on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must disclose their expenditures, source of funds, and activities, including their meetings with US elected officials.

OFBJP’s registration, says a report, highlights a massive shakeup within an organization that has long served as a huge overseas support base for BJP’s electoral campaigns in India as well as a leading advocate abroad for the party’s agenda.

In the recent years, India’s ruling party BJP has aggressively used the diaspora to promote Modi’s often-controversial policies, writes The Diplomat.

It adds: OFBJP-USA’s FARA registration comes at a time when sections of the party have shown an open preference for President Donald Trump’s reelection at the upcoming U.S. election. Most strikingly, at a rally in Houston last September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi figuratively, if not literally, endorsed Trump – a first for a country whose leadership has traditionally eschewed making comments on the domestic affairs of other nations. Since then, as Trump’s reelection prospects have significantly worsened, the BJP has adopted a more cautious tone.  The BJP’s Foreign Affairs Department head, Vijay Chauthaiwale, has written to OFBJP-USA members asking them not mention the party while campaigning in the American elections.

Achalesh Amar — described as OFBJP’s Houston chapter coordinator — suggested in an interview that he is no longer with the group, explaining, “There have been lots of changes recently.”

Changes include circulating rumors that the DOJ is investigating the group. Responding to inquiry, DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi said, “We don’t confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations.”

The allegations first emerged on 9 September when Professor Ashok Swain of Uppsala University claimed that there is “a serious attempt going on to suppress this news.” WhatsApp messages he obtained from Vijay Prabhakar — a Chicago-based OFBJP activist who campaigned for the BJP in Tamil Nadu in 2019 — claim that the “OFBJP USA suspends all activities” and the president “abruptly resigned” as there is a DOJ “investigation ongoing.”

The OFBJP swiftly issued an official denial, announcing that it is ”fully functional and is not under any investigation.” However, WhatsApp messages from a figure identified as an associate of OFBJP and worker with Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) — the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — conflict with the denial. In messages supplied by an anonymous source, the HSS worker, asked if there is an investigation, says, “Yes. I heard so.” He further states, “OFBJP guys did not know the difference between politics and advocacy. They crossed the line and started advocacy without realising. It was a mistake at OFBJP side. Don’t know much about US laws.” Referring to OFBJP Organizing Secretary Vasudev Patel, he says he is “also [in the] soup,” adding that he thinks the group has hired lawyers and may be facing monetary fines, presumably for violation of FARA regulations.

The OFBJP’s registration as a foreign agent also means that, going forward, any interactions with US elected officials must be reported to the US government.

The changed status of the BJP’s overseas wing also puts a new spin on any future US-based receptions for Modi. Andersen and Damle report that the OFBJP has been “working closely with the HSS to organize Modi’s rallies.” All three of Modi’s major rallies in the US — including New York City in 2014, San Jose in 2015, and Houston in 2019 — have featured heavy organizational involvement by OFBJP leadership or associated activists.

The August 27 registration is a first for a mainstream Indian political party. OFBJP-USA is a nonprofit incorporated in New Jersey. The FARA enforcement unit falls under the DOJ’s National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

OFBJP played a key role in Narendra Modi’s election in 2014.

When Modi won re-election in 2019, the group organized victory parties in at least 20 cities across the US. Over the past year, the group has hosted BJP officials at multiple events throughout the country, including in Illinois, New Jersey, and California.

The group was formed in March 1991, said founder Mukund Mody in a 2004 interview. “We have three categories of membership: 200 active members, 2,000 supporters, and more than 20,000 sympathizers.”

Founded at the height of the BJP’s “Ram Janmabhoomi” movement, OFBJP was intended “to counter the bad press coverage the party was receiving.” Asian Studies expert Isaac McQuistion reports that “its first task was to send out flyers to American lawmakers giving the BJP version of events” after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. “Besides echoing the party line,” the group “makes arrangement for visits of party leaders” to the US and  “ensure that they get a chance to meet US government representatives such as State governors, Congressional leaders, and State Department officials,” writes historian Padma Rangaswamy.

Whatever the future holds for the OFBJP — and whether it is actually under investigation or not — it seems certain that (at least in the US) it will no longer be par for the course for the BJP’s international wing.

The original report by Pieter Friedrich appeared in TwoCircles.net

Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is author of “Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers” and co-author of “Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent.”