The Telugu-speaking diaspora spread across the globe is making its presence felt in the upcoming elections in the two Telugu states. They are utilising social media and WhatsApp to reach voters, funding themselves to be in India during election season, and canvassing for political parties they believe in.
The Telugu diaspora in the US alone is approximately 3.2 lakh strong, as well as several lakh in the Gulf countries combined. Many of them have taken a few weeks off from work and are self-funded. These supporters are actively taking part in the Parliamentary elections in Telangana, and the state and Parliamentary elections in Andhra Pradesh.
Both the Telugu states go to polls on April 11.
The Telugu Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community is not a politically homogeneous entity. Their loyalties stand divided mainly among the three major regional political parties - Telugu Desam Party (TDP), YSRCP and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS). Support also exists for the Congress and the BJP, however, they do not enjoy the same level of support that the regional parties receive from the NRI community.
Mobilising votes for regional parties
Harsha Reddy, a green card holder and the NRI wing coordinator for the YSRCP said, “It’s a known fact that NRIs are well-treated in the community so one NRI can easily convince 10 people and get the vote for the party. Because NRIs are all well settled and well recognised, it shows that all the educated people are in support of the party. The NRIs motivate people to vote for the party.” Around 120 NRIs from various countries are presently on a bus tour canvassing for the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh.
The NRI wing of the YSRCP is spread across 14 countries, Reddy says, but a major chunk of their support is drawn from the US and the UK. They also claim to have close to 30,000 party supporters in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The NRI wing of the party is volunteer-based and is structured along the lines of the party in Andhra Pradesh, with their own convener, co-convener and general secretaries in each country.
The TRS boasts of a presence in over 40 countries, according to their NRI wing coordinator Mahesh Bigala. “No other party has that kind of reach,” he says. A major chunk of the NRI support comes from the US and the Gulf regions. In the recently concluded state assembly elections in 2018, over 100 NRI TRS party workers campaigned for the party. “We made arrangements for party sympathisers in the Gulf region to get registered in the electoral rolls so they could vote,” he added.
Unlike the other two parties, the TDP does not have an organised NRI wing. "We don't have an organised diaspora as such but we do have a large support base in other countries as well. There are several smaller organisations in America, London and in the Middle East, including places like Kuwait that work in their personal capacity and support the party," said one TDP leader, who did not wish to be named. "While some of them contribute to funding the party, they mainly help by campaigning for us informally on social media during the times of elections," he added.
Utilising social media and WhatsApp
The NRI wings of both YSCRP and TRS coordinate over WhatsApp groups and social media like Facebook and Twitter. The YSRCP’s NRI wing self-funds social media campaigns on popular Facebook pages and news websites read by the diaspora. “We do social media advertising and ads on Telugu blogs. As Election Commission says we can't do it anymore, we have stopped it, otherwise we do advertisements through popular Facebook pages. The funding for such activities depends on people’s interests. As a party, we are not allowed to collect foreign funds. The NRI wings are self-funded and not heavily. The party does not fund any social media campaigns by the NRIs,” said Harsha.
Most of the content pushed by the TRS NRI wing through social media and WhatsApp forwards are generated from Hyderabad, some are developed by the NRI wings themselves. The NRI wing of the TRS helps the party in three ways, according to Mahesh, “By direct campaigning, through social media and tele-calling.”
For the NRIs taking part in the elections, it's not about the money or power. “It’s a pay-off in a different form,” says Mahesh. “About six months ago, we brought 550 people from the UAE back to India who were overstaying their visa. They were given amnesty by the UAE government. We went there as representatives from Telangana. It’s not just about campaigning during elections. It's also about acting as a bridge and not for individual benefit, it's for the cause,” he added.