Overseas Telugus: The ‘assets’ that play a role in the politics of Andhra and Telangana

As Telugu Americans are a powerful group in the US, political parties look to them as a force that can help them back home.

ByRaj Rayasam

Published Aug 23, 2023 | 12:00 PM Updated Aug 23, 2023 | 12:00 PM

Telugu in the US

The Indian diaspora in the US has, of late, become a much-sought-after group in political circles, with politicians frequently flying across oceans to connect with them, especially close to elections back home.

Telangana PCC president A Revanth Reddy joined Rahul Gandhi on his trip to the US, and interacted with the Telugu people in what is called the land of opportunities.

Indian Americans are an influential lot and their population is quite huge. According to the External Affairs Ministry, as many as 44,55,909 Indians live in the US. Of them 12,72,846 are non-resident Indians (NRIs, or Indian passport holders), and the remaining 31,83,063 are US nationals of Indian origin.

Indian Americans have a median household income of $101,408, the highest among all ethnic groups in 2021, according to the latest available data from the US Census Bureau.

This is against the national median income of $61,717. They are the second-largest Asian group after China. About 15 percent of them have their roots in the twin Telugu states.

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Parties and their NRI Cells

“There is no doubt that Indian Americans, particularly those from the Telugu states, have made a mark with their professional and business pursuits,” said Kalavala Vishweshwar Reddy, founder chairman of the Global Telangana Association (GTA).

Speaking to the South First from Washington, DC, he said: “As the Indian-American diaspora is a well-to-do class in the US society, it is natural that the political parties look at them to further their interests.”

In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with the Indian diaspora in the US, at the Ronald Reagan Centre in Washington.

He praised their role in cementing the relations between India and the US, and highlighted the various deals that were finalised during his three-day state visit.

Even BRS Minister KT Rama Rao visited the US recently and interacted with the Indian diaspora in New Jersey. He urged them to invest in Telangana and also own the Mana Ooru-Nana Badi programme — the state’s flagship initiative for developing and strengthening infrastructure in government schools.

He was hard-selling Telangana, going vociferous over the achievements of the state in various sectors, including power, irrigation, drinking water, rural development, etc.

It is well known that all political parties woo the NRIs. BJP Telangana NRI Cell operates in various countries. It furthers the party’s philosophy and makes efforts to get the NRIs with the Congress or the BRS to join the BJP. The NRIs are active on social media, acting as the party’s mouthpieces.

The BRS, also has an NRI Cell which organises events and celebrations to promote the activities of the state government and runs social media pages to spread the party’s ideology. The Congress, too, has a similar one.

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TANA and ATA — and now, GTA

TANA, founded in 1977, is the oldest and biggest Indian-American organisation in North America. It attends to the social, cultural, and educational needs of the North American Telugu community. It also promotes cultural activities.

Other Telugu-American associations include the American Telugu Association (ATA), which was founded in 1990. It aims to assist and promote literary, cultural, educational, religious, social, economic, health and community activities of the people of Telugu origin as well as to promote exchange programmes for students, scientists, and professionals of Telugu origin between the US and India.

Interestingly, while TANA is considered to represent the powerful Kamma community in Andhra Pradesh, the ATA is a non-Kamma outfit where Reddys play a dominant role.

This is to ensure that the caste is relevant and the identity protected. They treat each other as rivals.

Then there is the Global Telangana Association (GTA) — the new baby on the block, having been set up in 2022 — which is trying to get all Telangana NRIs on board.

Since the Telugu Americans are a powerful ethnic group in the US, affluent as well as politically well-connected, the political parties back home look at them as a force that can help them spread their party ideology.

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Influence in the US government

More than the wealth they possess, it is their clout with the US government that makes them an invaluable asset to India. Modi during his tour, shared the details of the deals he had struck in the US, which in a way lets one know how important the Indian diaspora is to the ruling party.

At the state level, political parties look up to NRIs who think they should do something for their native village or district and encourage them to do so. Any investment, whether upgrading school infrastructure or investing in business, would only help the state which, in turn, improves the image of the ruling party.

This was the reason why KTR had asked the NRIs to lend a helping hand for Mana Ooru-Mana Vadi, to improve educational infrastructure.

However, it is not as though NRIs do not help the parties with funds. It is done discreetly.

“Employees and professionals do not donate. But businessmen do. They want to have some kind of political influence back in their home state. As they have business interests too, helping a party would do well for them. It is said that businessmen who have interests back home donate to parties. There is always quid pro quo,” Vishweshwar Reddy said.

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Importance of individual transactions

Another NRI, Jalagam Sudheer, who is a BRS leader, said that, at an individual level, all kinds of financial transactions take place.

If any NRI wants to get into politics, he would need the help of the powerful politicians in India.

Speaking to the South First from Austin, Texas, he outlined the role of money in politics.

“A minister in the BRS government, at the time of his election in 2018, had sought financial help from an NRI. It helped him in getting a party ticket for a by-election. It is individual to individual,” he said.

“But when it comes to donations to political parties, I do not think it is happening now. The BRS had set up a portal in 2014 to receive donations but I don’t think they are aggressively pushing it to mobilise funds from the NRIs,” he added.

“The political parties, as they enjoy clout back home, could easily interact with the Telugu diaspora in the US and seek their help in the elections. The NRIs influence the villages and towns they come from and they could help a party by canvassing for them,” Sudheer said.

“For some, it is helping the society from where they came from; for others, it is business. It pays to be pally with political parties, particularly when one has business interests back home,” he added.

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NRIs seeking role in Telangana Assembly poll

In Telangana, there have been NRIs who have successfully contested elections in the past. They include Shanampudi Saidireddy, the Huzurnagar MLA of the BRS, and former MP Madhu Yashki Goud.

There are a few NRIs who are ticket hopefuls in the coming elections, cutting across party lines.

Though Jalagam Sudheer, a social activist-cum-NRI, has done some work in Kodad constituency and was hopeful that he would get a BRS ticket.

But he did not have that much luck with Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao preferring  Bollam Mallaiah Yadav, the sitting MLA.

Sudheer had met KTR when he visited the US recently and sought his help in getting the ticket — but it was not to be.

Another NRI, Rakesh Reddy, is seeking the BJP ticket for Armoor in Nizamabad district.

In Khanapur in Adilabad district, NRI Bhukya Johnson Rathod Naik managed to get the ticket using his Velama connections.

He is said to have good relations with BRS working president KTR.