India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) with US President Joe Biden (C) as India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar looks on at the G20 leaders' summit in Bali on 15 November 2022 (AFP)

"My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York,” India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, declared in 2019, referring to foreign press criticism about the revoking of article 370 which nullified Kashmir’s autonomous status.

Jaishankar has repeatedly accused the US media of being biased and ideological on Kashmir and defended the move as India’s internal business. Jaishankar belongs to the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which forms the national government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This week, Modi is in Washington for a historic state visit.

While his government publicly and robustly rebuffs American criticism of its domestic matters, behind the scenes it has been lobbying hard through the Indian embassy in Washington to present its version of events to US policy-makers.

In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government body, recommended for the fourth time that India be designated by the US State Department as a "country of particular concern", citing systematic violations of the right to freedom of religion. The Indian government rejected the USCIRF charges as motivated and biased.

The BJP’s blunt responses to international criticism on Kashmir and India’s increasingly problematic human rights record have resonated with large sections of the party's right-wing nationalist voter base.

But tough postures aside, how India is perceived among US policymakers and media matters greatly to the Modi government, much as it mattered to preceding Indian governments. This is because the US has emerged as one of India’s most important bilateral partners, seen in steadily increasing trade ties and a burgeoning defence partnership.

The Indian diaspora in the US is 4.9 million strong and influential in American politics. Therefore, when US congresspersons wade into domestic Indian issues, it is with an eye on Indian diaspora voters.

Behind the scenes

Shortly after the August 2019 abrogation of Article 370, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal sponsored resolutions 724 and 745 denouncing human rights violations in Kashmir.

Reacting to the resolutions, a former Indian ambassador to the US, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, wrote a letter in December of that year to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

In it, Shringla argued that life in Kashmir had returned to normalcy. However, Kashmir at that time was in the middle of a lengthy internet blackout and a continuing security clampdown, with Kashmiri political leaders still under house arrest.

Documents filed under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show that India also hired several lobbying firms to represent its stance to US lawmakers. Foreign governments routinely utilise lobbying firms in the US to advocate their interests.

FARA laws require entities working in the US on behalf of foreign interests - such as the governments of foreign countries and foreign political parties - to disclose their work and register with the US government. In December 2019, the Indian embassy hired a lobbying firm to provide “strategic counsel, tactical planning and government relations assistance”.

According to FARA filings, several communications have been established between the lobbying firm with US congresspersons on the subject of Kashmir. For example, emails with the subject "Kashmir update" were sent to several Democrat congresspersons in January 2020.

Lobbying contracts

Later that year, Indian farmers began mass protests against a set of new farming laws, which they saw as a threat to their livelihoods. In this instance, too, US lawmakers took note and expressed support for the farmers.

Two lobbying firms working for the Indian embassy, sent emails to US lawmakers on the subject and shared background information on the protests.

The Modi government signed lobbying contracts worth over $4.41m between June 2019 and September 2022.

It was the period during which the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank created by Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries and which has close ties to the Ministry of External Affairs, established its Washington DC affiliate.

Dhruva Jaishankar, the son of India's foreign minister, was appointed as director of the initiative in September 2019 while ORF America was incorporated in Washington, DC, in 2020.

The US chapter of the Overseas Friends of BJP, the foreign arm of the BJP, registered as a foreign agent in August 2020.

Strained US ties

This is not the only instance when the Indian government has felt compelled to accelerate its lobbying efforts. India’s ambition of being a nuclear weapons power in the 1990s majorly strained ties with the US, which imposed sanctions on India (and Pakistan) for conducting nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

In 1996, lobbying constituted 10.51 percent of the total budget of the Indian embassy in Washington, according to a statement in the Indian parliament. Between 1994 and 1999, the Indian embassy spent approximately $3.56m in lobbying fees and expenses with a range of lobbying firms, according to FARA records.

In 2001, the US government lifted sanctions on India and in 2005 the two countries signed a 10-year defence partnership agreement, widely regarded as a turning point.

Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India lobbied hard for the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement 2008, which enabled India to import uranium and nuclear technology for its reactors despite not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and resulted in major contracts for US energy companies.

Alongside lobbying firms, the Indian diaspora in the US played a major role in enabling the agreement, contributing with dollars and clout.

Lack of transparency

FARA documents show the Singh government spent approximately $4.93m between 2006 and 2010 in contracts with lobbying firms. The government further spent approximately $2.2m from 2010 to April 2012 on lobbying firms, according to Indian parliament data.

Doubtless, India’s lobbying expenditures are a tiny drop in the vast lobbying ocean of the United States. The Open Secrets database points out that countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia spend millions of dollars annually lobbying the US government and decision-makers such as the media, universities and think tanks.

However, the lack of transparency under the Modi government is stark. So far, it has not disclosed any information on lobbying abroad, whether in parliament or under the Right to Information Act.

In February 2019, the Caravan magazine reported the existence of an obscure entity called the "Democratic Party of India", which was operated by a lobbying firm hired by the Indian embassy. No questions about this were raised in India's parliament.

The Indian government wants citizens to believe that it is capable of retaliating against western criticism and will not brook interference in the country’s internal affairs. But the behind-the-scenes lobbying, especially on Kashmir, suggests a starkly different reality.

Published by The Middle East Eye

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