India Used ‘Fictitious Political Party’ to Lobby in US After Article 370 Dilution: Report

While the Democratic Party of India was registered at the Indian Mission's Washington address, the latter denied any association, reports The Caravan.

New Delhi: In the wake of criticism of the reading down of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, an obscure entity called “The Democratic Party of India” (DPI) tried to influence US lawmakers’ views. According to The Caravan, though DPI was registered at the address of the Indian Embassy in Washington – 2107 Massachusetts Avenue – when enquiries were made about it, the mission denied any association, the report says.

The report by independent journalist Urvashi Sarkar said the Democratic Party of India was represented by Cornerstone Government Affairs, a Washington DC-based consulting firm. Citing public records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of the US, the report said the embassy had a contract for “strategic counsel, tactical planning and government relations assistance on policy matters before the U.S. Government, the U.S. Congress, and select state governments, as well as academic institutions and think-tanks”.

India’s spend on lobbying in US increased manifold under Modi

The report says India’s lobbying in the US – a legal yet controversial method to influence policy – goes back decades. But the Modi government “appears to have taken lobbying efforts in the United States to unprecedented levels. Since coming to power in 2014, it has paid over $10 million to lobbying firms through the Indian embassy in Washington DC”, the report says.

It added that “these efforts intensified sharply in the face of international criticism over the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed a few months later, and the mass protests opposing new farm laws after September 2020. The government signed lobbying contracts worth over $4.41 million between June 2019 and September 2022, according to US Department of Justice records.”

Following the reading down of Article 370 in August 2019, there was widespread condemnation of the move. “By mid-December, prominent Democrats in the US Congress had sponsored two resolutions aimed at the Modi government, both calling on it to respect human rights and one expressing support for Kashmiri self-determination,” the report notes.

DPI’s services engaged amid mounting criticism over Article 370 move

On December 10, 2019, then ambassador to the US Harsh Vardhan Shringla wrote to two senior members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives stating that the decision was taken in the interests of “good governance, economic opportunities and socio-economic justice” and that the situation in Kashmir “has returned to normalcy”.

The report said Shringla also invited members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) to a meeting with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar on December 18. But the meeting was abruptly cancelled after Pramila Jayapal, the sponsor of one of the resolutions on Kashmir, was added to the list of attendees on the US side. Jayapal had thereafter labelled the cancellation as “deeply disturbing.”

Amidst criticism of India, The Caravan report said, on December 1, 2019 Cornerstone Government Affairs began to work on behalf of the Government of India and it reported the association to the US Department of Justice under FARA. The same day, it added, Cornerstone “acquired a new foreign principal” called the Democratic Party of India. However, it avoided mentioning the DPI in the legal contract and instead identified the Republic of India as the “foreign principal” it was representing.

An Indian Express report published at the time – on December 8, 2019 – also said that the Indian Embassy in the US had hired Cornerstone Government Affairs “to build a positive opinion in Washington DC and beyond”.

DPI used for covertly influencing US politicians

The DPI, the report said was used by the Modi government to covertly influence US politicians. “FARA records on the DPI show that Cornerstone too emailed at least 10 US lawmakers on behalf of the party with the subject ‘offering meeting and flagging letter sent to HFAC offices by Ambassador’, or ‘Flagging letter sent to HFAC offices by Ambassador’,” the report said, adding that these emails were sent on December 10, the day Shringla wrote to HFAC representatives.

The following month, it added that Cornerstone’s declared actions included an in-person meeting with Eliot Engel, then chairperson of the HFAC on Jammu and Kashmir, an emailed “Kashmir update” to HFAC members, as well as invitations to an event with Shringla and requests for meeting the embassy’s deputy chief of mission that were sent to multiple lawmakers’ offices.

The report also cited a FARA filing, which was submitted in February 2020, to state that all of this was done in the name of the Democratic Party of India. Overall, it said in December 2019 and January 2020 alone, Cornerstone listed more than 120 emails and phone calls to various Congress representatives as contacts for DPI. It also filed its expenditures for this as work for the DPI. It claimed to have spent $38,575 from December 5 to January 2020 and an additional $39,345 on travel expenses and meeting expenses in the DPI’s name. The payments for these expenditures came from the Indian government.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla. Photo: https://www.indianembassyusa.gov.in

Lobbied for COVID lockdown, situation on China border

The report said “by early 2020 it appears that DPI’s lobbying efforts extended beyond the issue of Kashmir” and a filing on the DPI showed that on March 24, 2020, Cornerstone emailed US lawmakers with the subject “India lockdown for 21 days”.

In another August 31, 2020 filing, Cornerstone again identified their foreign principal as the Democratic Party of India. During that period, Cornerstone had continued to communicate with US lawmakers on behalf of the DPI, the report said, adding that this involved sending out reception invitations, requests on meeting the newly appointed Ambassador, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, and the new deputy chief of mission, and email updates on the COVID-19 lockdown in India.

That June, it said, an email was also sent on “India’s statements on the situation in the India-China border” to the HCAF and the offices of lawmakers, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

RTI filed to learn about relationship between DPI and Indian embassy

Sarkar wrote that on February 15, 2021, she submitted a Right to Information (RTI) application to the Indian embassy seeking information on the Democratic Party of India and its relationship with the government, the embassy and Cornerstone.

In her application, she asked if the DPI was linked to any political party in India, who regulates it and what are its sources of finances. Her information request was turned down by the embassy citing Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act, which pertains to information that “would prejudicially affect relations with the host country.” The first appeal against the embassy’s refusal to share information was also declined citing the same section.

Then Sarkar filed her appeal with the Central Information Commission against the dismissal of her RTI petition. She said, “on the very same day, Cornerstone submitted a filing updating the previous three submissions ‘to correct a client name to the Republic of India’. The re-submitted forms removed any mention of the DPI as the foreign principal. The DPI had been previously mentioned in a total of five documents, filed between December 2019 and August 2020. After the change, all further mention of the DPI disappeared from the filings.”

Washington mission “not aware of” DPI

Stating that Cornerstone continued to work for India and reached out to Congresspersons on India’s relations with Afghanistan, COVID-19 vaccine exports, and meeting preparations for the new ambassador Sandhu, Sarkar wrote that her requests for information on DPI were also “stonewalled by the CIC after this”.

In September 2022, she wrote, “Karthik Iyer, the central public information officer of the Indian Embassy in Washington, replied to the CIC that the, ‘Embassy of India at Washington DC is not aware of ‘The Democratic Party of India’ and why it finds mention on the website of the Department of Justice’.” The CIC then reviewed and upheld the decision to dismiss Sarkar’s appeal in October 2022.

ECI also not aware of DPI

The report said the DPI had a peculiar name and though it was rare, it was not unheard of for foreign political parties to be active in the United States. So Sarkar filed a series of RTI applications with the Election Commission of India to learn about the DPI. She wrote that the ECI in an RTI response initially pointed her to a Democratic Party of India that was registered in Nagpur, and which came up in 1989, but its national working president G.S. Rathee denied any knowledge of its eponymous counterpart in Washington DC or how it came up without its consent.

To another RTI related to the DPI in the US, the ECI replied that it seemed to be “related to some organization/agent presumably engaged by the Government of India under the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” and that it was “neither aware nor concerned with any such agency set up in USA.” The ECI also observed that there was “no specific provision in the Indian Constitution or the election laws framed by the Parliament” on foreign political parties.

Was DPI created to keep India out of the picture?

When Sarkar reached out to US-based experts on foreign lobbying, they said it was odd that the Indian embassy was seeking to disassociate itself from the DPI despite strong evidence, in the form of publicly available FARA documents, pointing to their relationship.

The Caravan report cited James Thurber, who researches foreign lobbying, as saying: “This is odd and strange. It seems to be a party which does not exist, but was created for the purpose of registration—to keep the Republic of India out of the picture. The DPI seems to have been created during a period when there was great focus and criticism on the Indian government for Kashmir.”

Likewise, it quoted Benjamin Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, as commenting: “It’s very interesting that they [the Indian Embassy] are going to such great lengths to hide the DPI.”

Daniel Auble, a senior researcher at the Centre for Responsive Politics, asked when it was okay for countries to make groups on paper to encourage trade, business and bilateral ties, “Why be super-secretive about it?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Indian-Americans in Houston, Texas in 2019. Photo: PTI

‘Indian embassy lobbying synced with BJP’s’

The report said the Indian embassy’s lobbying is also complemented by the BJP’s own lobbying. “The US chapter of the Overseas Friends of BJP, the foreign arm of the BJP, registered as a foreign agent in August 2020, in the run-up to that year’s US presidential election. This reportedly followed rumours that the OF-BJP was under investigation by US authorities for violating the FARA, prompting the OF-BJP to deny any investigation and say that it had registered voluntarily.”

It added that soon after, Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of foreign affairs for the BJP, had warned OF-BJP members against using the organisation to campaign for US election candidates.

Sarkar also wrote that her attempts to get a response from Shringla, Sandhu and Geoff Gonella, the president and managing director of Cornerstone, on the issue remained unsuccessful. In response to a “detailed questionnaire” sent to him, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: “The Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment.”

While the Indian government has still not commented on the issue, Lalit K. Jha, the US correspondent of news agency PTI, said that The Caravan article is “deceptive and written with malafide intention”. He said the reference to Democratic Party of India “appears to be a clerical error”.

The magazine’s editor Hartosh Singh Bal rejected the claim.