The American Election and the Visa God

Images: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
A temple in Telangana is known for helping visitors gain U.S. visas. Does immigration policy concern the deities?

The Consulate Officer of the U.S. Embassy is supposed to be the final arbiter on whether a visa application is approved or not. But in India, this office might have a competitor – the Chilkur ‘Visa Balaji’ temple in Telangana.

With immigration controls on the rise worldwide, from the U.K. to the United States and even Saudi Arabia, Indians seeking foreign shores dread the visa appointment. Many believe that performing 11 circumambulations around the temple will lead to its deity, Balaji Venkateshwara, granting your wish. More often than not, this wish is for a successful visa application.

Rangarajan, the 500-year-old-temple’s media-savvy priest, recounts his experience with an American journalist.

She asked me a straightforward question. ‘How is it that the visa is given by our embassy, and the people are doing rounds here?’…Then I told her one situation. Imagine a devotee who is doing pradakshina (circumambulations) at the time. This person went to the embassy three times. Three times the visa was rejected. [Before his fourth attempt] he came to Chilkur, and he went back to the embassy in Hyderabad.The visa was stamped. The embassy is the same, the officers are all the same, the passport is the same and the documents are the same. But what changed the entire situation? The blessing of Balaji

Temple, priest, chilkur, balaji, visa, god, US, telangana
Image: 7MB

A successful visa application requires a host of documentation – from English fluency tests to financial validations, and application fees that cost thousands of rupees. Visa applications are rejected often enough to warrant divine intervention.

Chilkur, Balaji, temple, visa,
Image: 7MB

This might be why a steady line of devotees always fill the passages of the inner shrine at the Balaji temple. A single round of the shrine takes a couple of minutes. Some make 11 rounds, others 108. Where the former have a dream, the latter have fulfilled it. The dream is often a stamped visa.

Woman, praying, visa, balaji, chilkur, Telangana,
Image: 7MB

With the US elections nearing their climax, we asked Rangarajan if he was concerned about the outcome.

Devotees are worried about the US elections now. Some of them say that if the Democrats come there will be problems. The Republicans say they don’t want to encourage foreigners to come here. A student who is studying in the United States told me, ‘if Donald Trump comes, he will not allow Indians to come and get the visa in the US. These people [US Presidents] are temporary people. Four years, one fellow will come. Four years another person will come. So nothing is going to change.

Visa Balaji’s seemingly apolitical stance reflects hard geopolitics – India is too important in the United States’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ to be sidelined, especially on contentious issues like immigration. Indian applicants make up more than 86% of all H1B visas and contribute vital labour to the US economy even as the companies that send them can use their profits in India.

Sometimes, the Gods are appeased to take a stance. A religious outfit in Delhi, the Hindu Sena, has performed numerous pujas, to invoke a Trump victory. While they offer prayers in India, their counterparts in the US are busy canvassing the Indian-American vote.

The Republican Hindu Coalition invited Trump to a fundraiser in Jersey last week, with the likes of Malaika Arora Khan performing. Its founder, billionaire Shalabh Kumar, has donated almost a million dollars to Trump’s campaign. Hillary’s lead in opinion polls, as well as Kumar’s donation, might also have prompted Trump’s son, Eric Trump, to make a visit to a temple in Orlando just a day before the polls.

While for those in the digital age, the saying goes ‘there’s an app for that’, in India it might well be ‘there’s a God for that’. For either a visa application or a presidential election, here, the gods are invoked.

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