HOW INDIA'S NEW PRIME MINISTER WON OVER THE TEA PARTY
By Lee Fang May 19 2014
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.