New Delhi | 9th May 2015
The Ford Foundation is lobbying to use US economic leverage over India to get the Narendra Modi government to roll back the action taken against the organisation, high-level sources in Washington and New York say.They claim that financial entities with considerable influence in India, such as Goldman Sachs (which is known to have privileged access to North Block) and Citibank (which enjoys similar privileges with the Reserve Bank of India) have been contacted by senior Foundation officials to intercede with, among others, RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Arvind Subramanian, to "persuade the Modi government to drop the measures" enforced against the prestigious body, including the transfer of responsibility for clearing of foreign donations from the Ministry of Finance (which to date has yet to look askance at a request from the well-connected US funder) to the less sympathetic Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This was done through bringing the Ford Foundation into the "Prior Reference Category" (PRC), which in fact has been the only substantive action that has been taken in the case of the Foundation. However, this limited action has been sufficient to lead to US Secretary of State John Kerry (who according to sources in Washington had a meeting with Ford Foundation president Darren Walker hours after the Indian decision was announced) instructing his spokesperson to issue a strongly-worded statement against the decision by the Government of India. Soon after the rebuke from the State Department, the head of another major US-based foundation was sent back from Delhi airport after being refused permission to enter this country, in a message that Team Modi would not buckle to pressure the way the Manmohan Singh government was frequently accused of doing.
Sources in New York claim that the Ford-friendly US envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has been lobbying hectically on behalf of Ford to get the UN Secretary-General to join the State Department in condemning India, although thus far, criticism from this quarter has been absent. However, six Senators are known to have interceded on behalf of the Foundation with the Obama administration, leading to open pressure from US envoy Richard Verma. Sources in Delhi say that the shift of the Ford Foundation to the Prior Reference Category is hardly a punishment. It must be added that the Ford Foundation has over the decades assisted several socially worthwhile projects, including several schemes under the Green Revolution of the 1960s, although in recent years it has focused less on such nation-building projects than on others which are societally interventionist on the model followed in Venezuela, Egypt and elsewhere.
Those close to Ford are in full battle cry, accusing the BJP government of "harassment of civil society" through a "crackdown" on NGOs. Lack of a structured communications strategy by Team Modi has thus far obscured the fact that only 16 of more than 35,000 FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act)-registered NGOs having around 3,000 foreign donors are in the Prior Reference Category (PRC). The impression sought to be created is that instead of acting in the matter of just 0.5% of the 3,000 foreign NGOs operating in India, the PRC condition has been imposed on an overwhelming number of such entities. Greenpeace is another agency that had escaped serious governmental scrutiny during the Manmohan Singh decade, but which has now been held to account for seeking to fund activities designed to block production of essential minerals in India in order to promote their import from Canada and Australia. These countries, whose nationals are active in the higher reaches of Greenpeace, are earning billions of dollars each year from exporting minerals such as iron ore, coal and now uranium to India, minerals that are in plentiful supply in this country, but which NGOs and their UPA allies had thus far prevented from getting extracted, and who are on track to earn much more in a context where China is cutting back on its purchases.
A prominent donee of the Ford Foundation has been Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who got a monthly scholarship of Rs 30,000 during 2004-7 from the US-based Ashoka Foundation, and who was given the Magsaysay Award, which is directly funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Kejriwal had also received $400,000 in 2006 and again in 2009, while references to a third grant of $200,000 in 2011 seem to have been removed from the Foundation's website, perhaps owing to the possibility that it may have gotten linked to the street protests organised during that period on the lines of those in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries (which too received substantial funding from US-based entities that had close links with then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton). Interestingly, several politicians in India drawn from across the political spectrum have ties to such organisations, which is why it would be inaccurate to single out Arvind Kejriwal in this context.
Interestingly, the Ford Foundation now appears to have tasked a former employee, Amitabh Behar, to create a network of NGOs across India under the "Wada Na Todo" (Don't Break Promises) slogan. Behar has taken over the well-regarded National Foundation of India (NFI), and according to sources in Delhi, has received over $7 million from Ford, besides significant amounts from the MacArthur and Rockefeller Foundations for expanding his activities into directions that appear to veer into the political, exactly as they did in the case of some other donees of the Ford Foundation, especially in Gujarat, a state which seems to have been on the radar of several organisations during 2002-2013. Such a network would have the capability to launch within weeks "independent and spontaneous" agitations on the lines desired by donor agencies, and can therefore get used whenever there is a disconnect between the wishes of the governments backing such foreign NGOs and the Government of India. Extensive networking in media and even within government has added to the power of these agencies to channel public opinion in ways seen by their principals as beneficial to their interests.
Over the past decade, assisted by friends in politics and in the administration, identity issues have been the predominant concern of such foundations, which have collectively lavished funds on projects designed to separate into mutually exclusive compartments, religious and social groups in India. They have focused on projects involving race issues, religion and the alleged discriminatory treatment of particular sections, encouraging its donees to separate different segments of society from each other and to create a sense of victimhood in them. Had David Cameron been the Prime Minister of India, he would have received a rebuke from the Department of State (not to mention the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, that is USCIRF) for saying that his country was "Christian", or Barack Obama for the frequency with which he turns to the Bible in public, a freedom regarded as regressive in the case of Narendra Modi talking about the Bhagavad Gita, despite the fact that the Gita is, in the view of many, a classic of ancient India even as it is regarded by many as a religious text.
Given the small number of funding organisations affected by the PRC, and the fact that the Modi government is in no mood to back down in the face of pressure from within the country and outside, it would appear that Ford and other foundations may need to tread more carefully in domestic politics than has been the case thus far. "A small group of interested individuals ought not to hold India-US relations to ransom by demanding immunity", a senior official said, adding that "there needs to be mutual respect for policy autonomy in each country and this is missing when even routine bureaucratic decisions get impugned in such a sharp way". He ended by pointing out that "India will have a lot to say in future about such (US administration) inanities and insanities as the slapping of Super 301 or the USCIRF report under the pressure of big donors to political campaigns".
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