Gujarat state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, who is about to become prime minister of India. Photo via Flickr user Global Panorama
An online advertisement in the last US congressional election flashed a series of scary images: burning American flags, masked Islamic militants brandishing rifles, the Twin Towers engulfed in flames on 9/11, a message about Benghazi, a claim that a Muslim civil rights group was tied to terrorism, and finally, a call to support Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh over his Democratic opponent because of her support for said Muslim civil rights group.
A fringe campaign effort? Sure. But the spot was sponsored by a group with deep ties to the man about to assume control of India's nuclear arsenal, Narendra Modi.
In fact, the incoming prime minister of India may well be the first world leader to record a welcome message for an American political action committee. "I am sure that the National Indian Coalition and the leadership of Mr. Kumar can help us greatly," Modi said, staring blankly into the camera for a recorded message on behalf of Indian Americans for Freedom, the Republican super PAC that produced the pro-Walsh spot. The PAC is run by Modi's American consigliere, a Chicago-area businessman named Shalabh 'Shalli' Kumar.
Modi just became the leader of the world's largest democracy by leading his Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to a landslide victory at the polls. And as he sets forth with a new vision for India, the premier-elect's deep ties to the American right wing, forged almost solely through the tireless work for Kumar, are likely to cause trouble for both sides.
Critics say Modi, known for overseeing impressive economic growth as chief minister of Gujarat state, which borders Pakistan and was the adopted home of Mohandas Gandhi, may signal a dark turn in India's politics. Modi, no fan of civil liberties, has courted far-right zealots, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which he is a member. The RSS is a hard-line Hindu paramilitary group that started as a fascist organization modeled on Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party (the founder advocated purging India's Muslims as Hitler massacred Europe's Jews), and Modi's close adviser Amit Shah is an alleged murderer and anti-Muslim activist. During the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed, observers say Modi ignored or was even complicit in the violence. The New York Times, in covering the controversy, noted Modi's only regret over the incident consisted of not handling the news media better.
It was the riots, along with the flood of ensuing international condemnations, that placed Modi on a path that has him in the peculiar position of being much closer to Republican lawmakers and Tea Party leaders than any official in the Obama administration he's now tasked with engaging diplomatically.
Three years after the riots, human-rights groups caught wind that Modi had been invited by a hotel trade association for a talk in South Florida with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and then Governor Jeb Bush. The rights groups, which included a coalition of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim organizations, lobbied US officials to block Modi's visit. After a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a resolution condemning Modi “for his actions to incite religious persecution,” the State Department denied his visa. As Zahir Janmohamed recounts, in those days, even American Evangelicals rallied to the cause of religious freedom and were happy to join secular forces in condemning Modi.
The visa denial, considered a slap in the face to Modi and his allies, or as he called it, "an attack on Indian sovereignty," set forth a furious lobbying campaign by Modi's American allies. In particular, it was a call-to-arms for Kumar, a longtime Republican activist and confidant of the new premier.
After years of pleading with lawmakers in his network, Kumar, a top fund-raiser for Republicans among Indian Americans, set about changing the visa policy like any other interest group: by throwing money at the problem. Beginning in 2010, the Kumar family began pumping cash into Republican campaign accounts, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, the South Carolina Republican Party (which was on its way to electing the first Indian American woman as governor, Nikki Haley), the Republican National Committee, and their own super PAC, Indian Americans for Freedom.
The payoff came almost immediately. Haley provided a recorded wedding toast to Kumar's son and started meeting with his group. According to IndiaWest, Kumar began working with Congressman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and chief strategist for the House GOP, to form the "'Sessions-Kumar Project' to recruit and support 10 Republicans in bids for Congress who support a pro-India platform, the main plank of which is getting a US visa for Modi."
The biggest boost came from then Congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois, one of the loudest Tea Party Republicans in Congress at the time, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that Modi be granted a visa. Walsh told local reporters that he felt comfortable with Modi as someone with "quite a successful track record" of fiscal responsibility, "kind of like a Tea Party free market guy in India, which I found very appealing." Walsh, who participated in events to highlight anti-Christian persecution while in office, has downplayed the fact that Modi's nationalist Hindu supporters in the RSS have overseen forced religious conversions and attacks on India's Christian community. In any case, the Kumar Super PAC thanked the congressman by spending thousands of dollars on his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 2012.
"I spoke to Mr. Modi a couple of times around the time I sent a letter to the State Department asking to lift the ban on Modi’s visa, and Mr. Kumar helped facilitate that conversation," Walsh said in an interview with VICE. Now a talk show host, Walsh told me he's elated over Modi's election victory. "It’s going to be a new day in India," he said in a phone conversation while driving home from work. "I hope now we let him into this country!" Asked about Modi's past controversies and involvement in a group responsible for the harassment of Indian Christians, Walsh said Modi assured him he has deep respect for the many ethnicities of India during their private conversations.
Last year, the GOP outreach campaign kicked up another notch. VICE reviewed congressional travel forms and found that Kumar, through a business entity, paid for a delegation of Republican House lawmakers, along with family members and staff, to visit Modi in India. The trip, including multiple meetings with Modi and a dinner with him at the Taj Hotel, cost more than $15,000 per participant and included representatives Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Aaron Schock (R-IL).
While in Gujarat at a round table with Kumar, Modi, and the assorted Republican lawmakers, the group recorded a Skype discussion with Newt Gingrich, who said he was sorry he couldn't make it but wanted to do whatever he could to bring the chief minister to the United States one day, and perhaps organize his own delegation of Republican officeholders to visit Modi. "Frankly, if we had your growth rate over the last ten years, we'd be a lot healthier country, so there's a lot we could learn from Gujarat and your leadership as chief minister," said Gingrich, who added that McMorris Rodgers should be taking notes during her visit to learn from Modi's success. Later during the meetings, Schock, who entered a statement of praise for Modi into the congressional record, told the minister that there's "no better ambassador in the US" than Kumar.
Shortly after returning from her trip, Rep. McMorris Rodgers recorded a video with Kumar, telling him, "When I heard you tell me about Chief Minister Modi, I thought, I have to get to India." And a few months after the junket, Kumar and the congresswoman organized a "Bharat (India) Day on Capitol Hill," with invitations for Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to attend, along with Modi (via satellite), RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, and members of the BJP party (Cantor did make a brief appearance, though it's not clear whether Boehner did or if Modi's attendance by satellite ever actually occured). Before the event, McMorris Rodgers penned a letter to Modi, gushing, "First of all, I want to congratulate you on winning the nomination of the BJP for Prime Minister of India… I tried to reach you by telephone right after your win but was unable to connect."
According to Foreign Policy, human-rights groups were appalled with the congresswoman's participation in pro-Modi events and reached out to her office. It's not clear how the relationship soured, but McMorris Rodgers has now issued a cease-and-desist letter to Kumar for misrepresenting the congressional seal and her participation in pro-BJP events. The setback may have been minor; Kumar's Indian Americans for Freedom website, which opens with a greeting from Modi, claims association with the Heritage Foundation, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, the Weekly Standard, and other leading conservative institutions. A pamphlet from Kumar's group, which invites Indian Americans to join the "Modi Vision Movement," also claims Indian Americans for Freedom is responsible for a Tea Party-backed push in Congress to cut foreign aid to Pakistan.
“While some US groups would like to sweep under the rug and have Americans forget Modi’s genocide tainted past as Gujarat Chief Minister, American Muslims and people of conscience will not overlook his leadership and material support for the 2002 rape and murder of women and young children, and the destruction of homes, businesses, and resources primarily belonging to Indian Muslims,” Council on American Islamic Relations Government Affairs Manager Robert McCaw said in a statement to VICE.
If the recently concluded election campaign is any indication, India's Muslims under the BJP may have even more to worry about. Dispatched to Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country's largest province and its most important electoral battleground, Modi strategist Amit Shah worked to exploit divisions between Hindus and Muslims, telling a crowd that a vote for the BJP would serve as "revenge for the insult" inflicted during another round of Hindu-Muslim riots in the UP city of Muzaffarnagar last year. To drum up votes, Shah "fielded three candidates who have been officially accused of fanning the communal violence" during the Muzaffarnagar unrest. As many observers note, though Gujarat's economy grew under Modi's leadership, Muslims were increasingly forced into large ghettos, and discrimination proliferated.
But with enough money, and one wily businessman willing to dole it out to lawmakers, some aren't just willing to sweep Modi's past under the rug—they're eager to roll out the red carpet and celebrate his arrival on the world stage. In a toast at his son's wedding a few years ago, Nitin Gadkari, the president of the BJP (which as of last week had become the most powerful force in India), described his party's American fixer Kumar as a "very dynamic man, a genius person."