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    Posted on 19 September 2011

    What lies on the other side of US’ praise of Modi

    Even as the US Congressional Research Service report praises Modi, another report on violations of religious freedom has the BJP ignoring it, finds G Vishnu

    Brand building American firm APCO took on the responsibility of PR for both Modi as well as the biennial industrial summit ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ in 2007

    The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced with great pride and relief excerpts from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that portrayed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a messiah of economic reforms. The report, which was released on 1 September, was made public only on 13 September, also went on to predict a “resurgent BJP” that might trounce upon hopes of UPA in the 2014 General Elections. The CRS is a bi-partisan think-tank, which provides the US senate with reports that help senators make policy decisions on wide-ranging issues including diplomacy.

    The US CRS report, which was released a day after the Supreme Court transferred the case of communal riots in 2002 involving Modi to a lower-court, also showered praises on key NDA leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Even as it came as another reason for the BJP to celebrate, it took little time for a fresh debate to be triggered within the Sangh Parivar on the prime ministerial candidate for 2014.

    “Among the party's likely candidates for prime ministership is Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who has overseen impressive development successes in his state, but who is also dogged by controversy over his alleged complicity in lethal anti-Muslim rioting there in 2002,” says the report. To add to the joys of the BJP, the report went on to state: “Congress figures' support for the future leadership role of Sonia Gandhi's youthful son has resulted in the corresponding undermining of Singh's political authority”. The report states that 2014 is going to see a “Modi Vs Rahul Gandhi” battle.

    This glory, however, is largely a consequence of the brand-building exercise that Modi had adopted in 2007 through the help of a Washington-based Public Relations (PR) and lobbyist firm APCO worldwide. APCO, which is the second largest independent PR firm in America, took on the responsibility of taking care of PR for both Modi as well as the biennial industrial summit ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ in 2007. The firm, known for intensive lobbying, brought in investment commitment of up to Rs 20.83 lakh crore in the 2011 summit. The Gujarat government has been paying nearly Rs 15 lakh rupees a month to since 2009 in order to bring about the image makeover.

    APCO has also been managing Modi’s own behaviour and projection, for which the cost has been over $25,000 per month since 2007. Curiously, APCO was chosen over 10 other firms that also included Weber Shandwick, Grey Worldwide, Twenty-Twenty and Vaishnavi Communications owned by the controversial publicist Niira Radia. The firm, which also specialises in political PR, is notorious for having dictators such as former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha amongst its clients. The firm, which keenly observes political conditions across the world, also boasts about changing its clients’ fortunes.

    “We have a deep understanding of how governments make decisions and how to shape those decisions. It is through this extensive experience that we are able to advise sovereign nations on how best to tell their stories to the rest of the world,” claims the APCO Worldwide website. When asked about Narendra Modi, Steven King of APCO told TEHELKA that he could not divulge any detail on his clients.

    So can it be said that the support Modi is looking for in the US comes as a result of lobbying? Apparently not. “This one (CRS report) did not require any lobbying. It’s now for everyone to see the actual progress Modi’s government has brought in Gujarat,” said a member of Gujarat BJP on the condition of anonymity. In several ways, Modi's PR mechanism relies on a well-connected network of information. Take, for instance, the Sadhbhavana mission, which Modi just completed, was announced to the nation with a full-page ad in the form of a ‘letter to citizens’ in at least 20 national dailies to gather support and invite participation.

    However, despite widespread support for BJP’s poster boy, the party has hardly noticed another report that the US state department released. On 13 September, the American Department of State released its annual report on religious freedom, in which Gujarat continues to be amongst the worst states in India when it comes to respecting religious freedom and human rights. With several references to Gujarat riots, the report notes that the US continues to be concerned “about the Gujarat government's failure to arrest those responsible for the communal violence in 2002 that killed over 1,200 persons, a majority of which were Muslim”.

    The same report also quotes extensively from TEHELKA’s Operation Kalank that exposed the role of key members of the Sangh Parivar as well as Narendra Modi’s complicity in facilitating the 2002 riots. “In 2007 the newsweekly Tehelka published secretly recorded interviews in which many of the accused admitted their roles as well as police and BJP leadership complicity in the 2002 violence. In 2008 the NHRC requested an inquiry by the CBI into the Tehelka tapes; the CBI concluded in November 2009 that the tapes were authentic,” observes the report.

    Hence, the question that arises is if the US indeed sees Modi as a facilitator of Gujarat riots in 2002—which apart from causing deaths of thousands, also made refugees of nearly 140,000 Muslims in their own land— will it choose investment prospects over justice to the riot victims?

    Despite the CRS pat, the US continues to be mute on the denial of visa to Modi, much to the chagrin of the Sangh, which has successfully harnessed economic favours from the Gujarati diaspora there. On Friday, senior BJP leader L K Advani even recounted in his blog about raising the same issue with US State Secretary Hillary Clinton in July 2009.

    “Mr. Modi does not need to go anywhere. The world is coming to Gujarat. Who knows, the world might need a visa to enter Gujarat,” jokes a BJP Member of Legislative Assembly in the state. However, jokes notwithstanding, BJP insiders say that it is a huge relief that “America has finally begun to see the other side of Modi”.

    “He has been in contact with Gujarati diaspora all this while from all countries and not just the US. Of course, US has a bigger population of Gujaratis who also admire Modi. If the situation permits he can extract more energy from the NRI community in US,” said Yamal Vyas, Gujarat BJP spokesperson.

    The ‘energy’ that NRIs can bring in, will possibly have a tremendous impact on Modi’s fortunes as there are already signs that the Modi camp is readying itself for the 2014 battle. “Hundreds and thousands of party workers want Modi to be the next Prime Minister. But that would be just speculation and individual opinions. Modi is already an important functionary and if the party requires, maybe he will be…” said a senior office-bearer in state BJP. And Wikileaks cables from 2006 also reveal that key RSS functionary Ram Madhav had told the US embassy that Modi is indeed the Sangh’s choice. The same ‘confidential’ cable (VZCZCXRO7463) also has senior leader L K Advani and others expressing hope in Modi to “rejuvenate the party” and “stop its further slide into oblivion”.

    Although US state officials have stated many times, off-the-record, that the US will not bar Modi if he is to become a head of State, a few issues still remain unresolved. Even if the BJP manages to do away with the infighting amongst its top leaders, and field Modi as the PM candidate in 2014, the question that remains is that will his engineered charisma win over the non-Gujarati electorate? And what about those who still await justice and closure?

    G Vishnu is Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 19 September 2011



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