The Americans spotted Narendra Modi early. Even as a little known RSS Pracharak, the US State Department selected him to visit the United States on an all-expenses-paid International Exchange Visitor. An American Ambassador in New Delhi is also known to have lobbied for his selection for an American fellowship even after he was turned down by the selection panel headed by a former Indian Foreign Secretary. This was before he went to Gujarat as the Chief Minister.
As the Gujarat CM, he is said to have received an unusually large number of American visitors and dignitaries. His American-style campaigning, his wooing of the United States and American multinationals, much more than any other Indian Prime Minister, have also lent credence to the belief that Washington D.C. today wields far more influence over New Delhi than ever before in history. But there has been little debate in India on whether it is in India’s interest to be a US satellite. Ashis Ray writes from London.
After defecting from the Congress, Morarji Desai became the Janata Party Prime Minister of India in 1977. In 1983, four years after the fall of the short-lived government – of which the Jana Sangh (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s previous avatar) was a constituent - Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American investigative journalist, alleged in his book The Price of Power that Desai was a mole of the United States’ Central Investigation Agency when he was a Cabinet minister in an earlier Congress government at the Centre. Hersh detailed Desai was paid $20,000 a year to feed vital information to the CIA and that this was a ‘long-standing arrangement’. It was clearly an explosive charge and immensely destructive to Desai’s reputation. He challenged it in a US court by accusing Hersh of libel but lost. If effect, Desai died with a dubious tag of having been a CIA agent; a stain he failed to remove. Which brings us to today’s incumbent at 7 Race Course Road. Desai was and Narendra Modi is of rather right-wing persuasion – the latter more so.
The difference is, Modi was consumed by the poison of the Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh at an early age. He possessed a natural ability to rabble rouse in theatrical Bollywood style, which is infectious to the Hindi-comprehending masses hooked on this type of cinema. His RSS instructors utilised this innate monstrosity to mould him into a quintessential His Masters Voice. But unlike most other RSS activists, Modi was ambitious and also possessed by a wanderlust. This travel-mania not only took him to the Himalayas, but to his dream destination – the United States of America. Indeed, he was bowled over by America. In 2005, after he had become Chief Minister of Gujarat, his favourite country denied him a visa for his suspected role in the state’s 2002 riots. He, however, did not hold this against Washington. In fact, after his victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he was eager to visit the US at the earliest opportunity and did so less than three months after assuming office.
This is when hitherto little known stories about his tours of America in the 1990s began to filter out. The Times of India described New York as “his second home”. It went on to report he was “a frequent visitor who stayed for weeks at a time in the US as a party apparatchik tasked with spreading the gospel of the Sangh Parivar in America”. Suresh Jani, an RSS associate of Modi from his hometown Vadnagar days, migrated to the US in 1987. The former’s house in Jersey City was one of Modi’s homes when he visited.
He was struck, Jani recalled, by the Statue of Liberty. According to him, the seeds of a Vallabhbhai Patel statue in Gujarat were sown during this sightseeing trip. Using New York as a staging post, he reportedly ventured to Boston, Chicago, Indiana, Texas and California. Indoctrinated by the RSS, his fundamental goal was Hindu supremacy in India. In order to achieve this, he knew the BJP had to be in government for an extended period; and to accomplish this, it had to deliver prosperity. Thus, wherever he went he attempted to absorb the type of administration and infrastructure that existed and how the US tackled problems – having accepted this as the model for India. Notwithstanding his rejection by US authorities, hundreds of Modi’s friends, acquaintances and cronies in the Indian-American community – many of them US citizens – kept faith in him, for they knew he was assiduously implementing their common construct of enlarging Hindutva’s footprint. Thus, when he was uncertain about winning the 2007 Gujarat elections, they rallied around him.
A partner in a consultancy firm based in London’s Baker Street spoke openly about British Gujarati Hindus bankrolling Modi. APCO Worldwide is a Washingtonbased lobbying organisation, with offices in Delhi and Mumbai. Its clients include US agencies and dictatorships or right-wing regimes of Egypt, Israel and Kazakhstan, including the President of the country last mentioned, Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. In 2009, it won a contract to promote Vibrant Gujarat, the state’s annual investors’ meet. The gathering has been more notable for acolytes showering praise on Modi than participants fulfilling their pledges. The Economic Times wrote: “On paper, APCO works for the Industrial Extension Bureau, the Gujarat government’s nodal agency for investments. But for all purposes, it is identified as the public relations manager of the Gujarat Chief Minister.”
APCO maintained: “We do not work for Chief Minister Modi and we do not speak for him.” Yet, at least one APCO executive has been known to defend Modi in respect of the Gujarat riots. Non-Indian media told ET if they wanted to interview Modi, they approached APCO. In short, Vibrant Gujarat seems to have been a camouflage for a projection of Modi. A majority of lobbyists within APCO are former politicians and bureaucrats who have served in the US administration. It also has an International Advisor Council, where Lalit Mansingh, who was foreign secretary and ambassador to the US under the last BJP government, is a member. In a sting operation in 2007, Harper’s magazine duped APCO into giving it a communications plan for Turkmenistan. After it found out, the lobbying firm called the journalist unethical. The scribe slammed it for agreeing to “whitewash the record of a Stalinist dictatorship”. He cited APCO had rendered services to a Nigerian dictatorship and Azerbaijan. The moral of the story is: while APCO may be good at its job – and it has certainly proved itself one way or the other in India – it is not exactly choosy about who it lobbies for. It is, undoubtedly, modernistic to hire a professional PR company to improve one’s image as well as receive advice on a range of areas, from self-promotion to populist policy formulations.
From Mann Ki Baat (an aping of the historical US president’s weekly radio broadcasts, until abandoned by Donald Trump) to the unnecessary embrace of the US administration, to the almost deferential hugging of Israel, there is an unmistakable un-Indian imprint on a slew of steps. Where could this have come from? The US administration – and now even the British government – have increasingly understood it is more effective to use the RSS network - which enjoys a hotline to Modi, which ambassadors and high commissioners don’t - to get the job done with the Pracharak than pursue matters through conventional diplomatic channels. Some such elements – whose claim to fame is Hindu activism in these two countries - also appear to be linked to APCO. In three and half years in office, Modi has given the impression of being more a representative of the 30 million overseas Indian community - at least half of whom are foreigners - than 1.3 billion Indians.
Appeasing of the former, despotic towards the latter. He has also conspicuously reached out to foreign corporates for investment, but not granted the same importance to India Inc., barring a few exceptions. The bottom line is, APCO is a foreign company - quite possibly seeking advice from the State Department as an American company generally would when operating overseas; and Modi’s RSS collaborators abroad – among whom he enjoys greater popularity than resident Indians – are quite significantly foreign nationals. It is not so much the inputs he receives from them – which of course may not always be in India’s national interest, for their perspectives are different – but the information he may be imparting to them – for he thinks they are his trusted people – that is worrying. In other words, while he may not be a CIA agent, does his misguided approach to governance render him a security risk to India?