No one can be allowed to rain on India’s parade just when Prime Minister Modi is on the cusp of being recognised as a world leader through India’s routine and rotational assumption of the G-20 presidency. Therefore, the breaking of informal red lines set for the domestic media by outsiders has to be framed by the ruling dispensation as a conspiracy of “foreign powers”.
Union minister Smriti Irani claimed that George Soros has launched a “war” against India and that he has a “desire to break Indian democracy”. Her colleague S Jaishankar also went over the top, talking of a “fear psychosis” created by Soros and rustling up images of foreign domination, saying, “We are a country that went through colonialism, we know the dangers of what happens when there’s outside interference.”
Soros’ comments and the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra have raised the ghost of Gujarat 2002 despite judicial pronouncements exonerating the government of the day. They also point a finger at the Prime Minister for allegedly being anti-minority. The Hindenburg Research report alleges his links with the controversial businessman, Gautam Adani.
The reaction of the two government ministers is a convenient way to prevent debate and discussion on the issues raised and instead calls on citizens to huddle into defensive formation behind the shield of nationalism. Hence, Irani’s call to Indians at large “to denounce the intention of this individual (Soros) who seeks to demonise our democracy, weaken it and bring onslaught to (sic) the economy of our country.” This somewhat problematically equates the persona of Prime Minister Modi with the Indian nation, just as Adani Group sought to wrap the attack on his alleged misdemeanours in the tricolour.
Perhaps the government should also acknowledge the existence of other “foreign hands”. The Congress party lists among the less than benign “foreign” influences that have impacted Indian democracy Cambridge Analytica, a firm used by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general elections; the Israeli spyware Pegasus used against critics of the Modi government in politics, media and the judiciary, by institution(s) that remain unknown despite a Supreme Court inquiry and the possible use of copycat strategies of “Team Jorge” – an Israeli firm specialising in influencing elections through disinformation and that has links with Cambridge Analytica.
Mauritius is yet another example of a foreign country facilitating criminality in India. Successive Indian governments have remained mum about the round-tripping of black money through the well-established “Mauritius route”, which continues to pollute the Indian market. No government has dared to read the riot act to Mauritius and threaten it with diplomatic consequences.
Possibly the biggest elephant in the room is the political contributions made by the foreign companies incorporated in India. Formerly, under the Representation of the People Act, no political party could receive funds from a foreign source. Any company whose nominal share capital was owned by a foreign entity to the extent of more than 50 per cent was forbidden to make any contribution to a political party.
However, the definition of a foreign company was changed by the Finance Act of 2016. A qualification was inserted that if a company was compliant with the prescribed limits under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1992 (FEMA), it would not be considered a foreign source even if more than 50 per cent of its share capital was owned by a foreign entity. Thus, a foreign company incorporated in India in defence production, which is allowed 75 per cent foreign ownership, can buy and donate electoral bonds to a political party if it complies with FEMA and the Foreign Direct Investment policy. So can a company that is 100 per cent owned by a FEMA-compliant foreign entity. Since the process of electoral bonds is totally opaque, no one knows if and to what extent such foreign companies are funding political parties.
India is also alleged to have tried to influence the outcomes of the democratic process in other countries. One only has to visit Kathmandu, Dhaka, Male or Colombo to hear such allegations. Under the Modi regime, the Indian diaspora has also been used to influence politics abroad.
Recall the “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, Texas, in September 2019, where Prime Minister Modi threw his weight behind the 2020 presidential re-election campaign of Donald Trump with the cheer, “Abki baar, Trump Sarkar!”. In the United Kingdom, again in 2019, the “Overseas Friends of BJP” warned the Labour Party that “the entire Indian diaspora in Britain” would vote against it for passing a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates work with the Indian Diaspora in the UK, US and Canada. Countries with a large Indian-origin population, like Fiji, are extremely wary of Indian influence on the Diaspora. Clearly, when India is the “foreign hand” in another country, it does not bother the government, but hackles rise when the foreign media or influencers criticise it.
Some see George Soros as a clever manipulator of currency markets abroad. But how different is he from another unacknowledged “foreign hand” accused of destabilising the Indian market — Gautam Adani’s elder brother, Vinod Adani? A citizen of Cyprus and permanent resident of Singapore who spends considerable time in Dubai, he was declared the “richest NRI” in 2022, valued at Rs. 1.69 trillion. Hindenburg Research has alleged that the elder Adani manages a network of offshore entities in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates, all allegedly used to facilitate the manipulation of the Indian stock market by the Adani Group.
Soros may know little about Indian democracy and is in no position to influence politics in India as his Open Society Foundations are not allowed by this government to function in India. But Vinod Adani and his family can hardly claim innocence about Indian politics. The alleged misdemeanours of Vinod Adani and his political affiliations need as serious an inquiry as does Smriti Irani’s accusation against Soros for “funding over a million dollars to target leaders like Prime Minister Modi”.