Four US lawmakers, who are among a
group of visitors specially chaperoned to meet Gujarat Chief
Minister Narendra Modi, have stepped right on it. By it, I mean
political turd. The smell on their shoes may not last long but
while it does, it would be fairly foul.
Thanks to professional colleagues Hemant Bhrambhatt and Ashok
Easwaran, publisher and editor respectively of Hi India, a
Chicago-based South Asian weekly newspaper, an ongoing India visit
of the four Republican lawmakers and businesspeople has been
The delegation consisting of Congressman Aaron Schock, Congressman
Marlin Stutzman, Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and Congresswoman
Cathy M Rodgers along with a bunch of businesspeople was taken to
meet Modi. The details of the visit, according to Hi India, are
-- The organizers had canvassed for participants in the trip at
prices ranging from $3,000 to $16,000.
-- The trip was sponsored by a political action committee (PAC),
the National Indian American Public Policy Institute (NIAPPI)
founded by Shalabh Kumar, a Chicago businessman. An invitation
circulated by NIAPPI in preparation for the trip said it was
"limited to (an) elite group of American businesspersons".
-- The group has already met Modi in Ahmedabad and invited him to
visit the US. On the schedule of an extensive trip is a stay at
the Lake Palace in Udaipur, a visit to Karnataka as guest of the
state government, a visit to the Taj Mahal, the tiger reserve at
Ranthambore, a night at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, a visit to
the Golden Temple in Amritsar and a dinner hosted by Punjab Chief
Minister Parkash Singh Badal. A 'Bollywood Extravaganza' has also
been included for the guests.
-- The cost options given in the invitation were: '7 star trip'
(business class travel, private air charter in India) $16,000 per
person, '4 star trip' (commercial travel in India with visits to
the palace excluded) $10,000 per person, and economy option-with
all travel and hotel expenses borne by the individual- $3,000 per
Quite predictably, the story by Hi India has been grabbed for
political exploitation. The Congress Party has been quick to latch
on to the story and drop dark hints of wrongdoing here. In the
process, they have said things which are come close to being
libelous. For instance, Congress Party spokesman Rashid Alvi said
it was a "shame that the Congressmen were paid for getting a visa
and certificate of development for Modi".
"One feels ashamed over this kind of news. It is an insult to a
nation. The Congressmen were given Rs 9 lakh (Rs. 900,000 which is
a rough equivalent in rupees of $16,000) each so that America can
give him (Modi) visa and a certificate of development.
"This is unfortunate. If the money had been spent in Gujarat for
the poor and development, then it would have been much better," he
While there are very legitimate questions to be asked about who
paid for the junket and whether the US lawmakers may have walked
into some ethics questions, it is reckless to conclude
straightaway, as the Congress spokesman seems to do, that they
were "given" $16,000 "each."
"All I would say is that our trip here was signed off by the
appropriate authorities in our government... and specifically by
the House of Representatives. I would simply say that three
members of Congress don't just leave the country," Congressman
Schock has been quoted as saying.
"So I am not going to get into all the nuances. Certainly some
people do not like the fact that we are here... perhaps some
people do not agree with what we are saying here... but certainly
as American members of Congress we have a free right to come over
here," Schock said.
"I have checked appropriate boxes necessary to make this trip
legitimate and well within all the rules and accordances of US
Congress," he said.
NIAPPI's Shalabh Kumar has said, "There is a very strong House
Ethics Committee that disapproves or approves visits by
Congressmen to other countries".
"So an organization like NIAPPI, that is a think-tank, sponsors
visits, and trade people who want to go and establish business,"
The assertion by Congressman Schock, who is known as much for his
absolute political certitudes as he is for his youthfully ripped
abs (he is only 32 years old), has to be viewed with seriousness
when he says the trip was "signed off by the appropriate
authorities in our government... and specifically by the House of
If that is indeed the case, the visit acquires a
different dimension. The approval by the House of Representatives
can then legitimately be conflated by Modi's well-oiled PR machine
to claim that political views about the chief minister in American
political circles may be changing in his favor.
For Modi and the BJP, there is some gain to be made by flaunting
such visits as the chief minister test waters before he possibly
emerges as his party's prime ministerial candidate in the 2014
parliamentary elections. After recent decisions by Britain and the
European Union to end their unspoken boycott of the chief
minister, the US remains a sticking point for him.
On the face of it, Modi may not be particularly perturbed by the
continuing ban of a US visa for him in effect since 2005, he has
to be equally conscious that when it comes to his national and
international aspirations he cannot afford to be dismissive about
it. He has to make amends at some point and it is in that context
that such visits as the one organized by the NIAPPI play a part
his rehabilitation among mainstream political circles in America.
Schock's response does not necessarily settle the question of who
paid for the visit but he is right in saying that members of the
US Congress do not just leave the country. There is a clearly
defined set of rules that governs such trips and they have to be
ethically unquestionable. Nonetheless, there have been cases of
lawmakers accepting freebies and running into ethics violations.
It is instructive how all the four lawmakers are Republicans, a
party that has considerable ideological convergence with Modi and
the BJP when it comes to advocating entirely unfettered
business-friendly policies as well limited government.
Mayank Chhaya is a journalist and author based in Chicago. The
views expressed are personal and not of IANS. He can be contacted