Outgoing Indian envoy provides rationale for embassy hiring a second lobbying firm

Ever the quintessential diplomat, outgoing ambassador and India’s next foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has said the hiring of a second lobbying firm, is to engage a changed U.S. Congress, although it was apparently prompted by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ India-bashing over the humanitarian crisis and communications blockade in the aftermath of the Indian government’s repeal of Article 370 that provided special status to this only Muslim-majority state in the country.

Last month, the Indian government hired Cornerstone Government Affairs for an initial period of three months through end February to represent it in Washington for a contract worth $40,000 a month, for which Cornerstone — in a filing with the Department of Justice — said it would provide its client with “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.”

Shringla, told India Abroad that the rationale for hiring Cornerstone was consequent “to the nature of the House of Representatives changing and there are a lot of new members who have come — mainly Democrats — and we needed a firm that could provide us with the kind of background knowledge and ability to engage this group, which we didn’t have earlier.”

He said that the lobbyists at Cornerstone “are people who work closely with Democratic representatives and senators and they’ve worked in their offices and they have a good idea how to…and we need some good advice and guidance.

“And, at the end of the day,” Shringla added, “we are not people who are completely steeped in U.S. politics and traditions and so, we need that sort of guidance.”

The hiring of Cornerstone, comes about a month-and-a-half after the Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia led by its chairman Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) at a hearing titled “Human Rights in South Asia,” which focused largely on the situation in Kashmir raked India over the coals and pilloried India for human rights violations against minorities in an exercise of India bashing not seen since the Cold War days, when India was perceived as a surrogate of the erstwhile Soviet Union, or in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh pogroms in the late 1980s, following the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards incensed over her sanctioning of the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out pro-Khalistani militants.

What really stung India—which was caught napping — at that Oct. 22 hearing, was that the India-bashing was led by Sherman — co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans and over the years considered one of India’s closest friends on Capitol Hill — and also that he had allowed Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D.Wash.) — the first Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives — who, although not a member of the committee, the courtesy of questioning the witnesses and taking India to task for its actions in Kashmir.

At the hearing, after Sherman fired the first salvo, followed by Jayapal slamming New Delhi’s alleged draconian measures in the Kashmir, lawmaker after lawmaker, all of them Democrats, pilloried India’s actions in Kashmir with an intensity not seen in decades.

Interestingly, this India-bashing took place notwithstanding a rare briefing Shringla had held with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other concerned members in the U.S. Congress, on the eve of the hearing, to apprise and update them on the latest ground situation in Kashmir.

On Oct. 16, Shringla briefed these lawmakers on the tangible steps that the government had taken to alleviate the situation and withdraw some of the stringent measures that had been taken to preserve peace and security in the Valley after New Delhi had abrogated Article 370 and bifurcated the state into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

But apparently, after senior administration officials and diplomatic sources acknowledged that they found the strong criticism and pointed questions “quite jarring,” and many of them admitted to “ being surprised and shaken” by the “intensity” and the often “angry and pointed attacks” on the Indian government for its actions — including New Delhi’s prohibition on any U.S. embassy officials and international media to visit Kashmir, a decision had been taken to hire a lobbying firm with strong Democratic connections on Capitol Hill.

While the Indian government already has one lobbying firm working on its behalf on Capitol Hill, this outfit, BGR (Barbour, Griffith and Rogers) Government Affairs led by former Republican National Committee chairman and erstwhile Mississippi governor, is largely focused on the GOP members in the House and Senate and in working on the Trump administration vis-à-vis India’s interests and concerns.

With regard to working on the Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Indian government, in a parallel hiring engaged the Podesta Group, founded by brothers Tony Podesta and John Podesta (President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, then President Obama’s senior strategic advisor in the White House and thereafter head of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign). John Podesta was also the founding president and CEO of the D.C. progressive think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), which is now headed by Neera Tanden.

For years, the Podesta Group helped India with Democrats, particularly on Capitol Hill, when they were the minority in both the House and Senate, but the company shut down in 2017, when its work for the government of Ukraine also triggered much controversy when Special Counsel Robert Muller while he was investigating Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — who served for a time as the Trump campaign’s chairman and deputy chairman — also revealed that Ukraine was a client of the Podesta Group, igniting a scandal in the Democratic ranks too. But no charges were filed against the Podesta Group as were against Manafort and Gates.

Since Democrats have traditionally been strong supporters of India, after the Democrats regained control of the House in 2018, and Sherman took over the helm of the Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee — which has jurisdiction over foreign policy toward South Asia — India did not fill the void left by the Podesta group since the embassy felt there was no need since their staunch supporters and close friends like Sherman were now in charge.

But the Oct. 22, hearing and what was considered “a betrayal” by Sherman for allowing lawmakers like Jayapal and Ilhan Omar(D-Minn.) and several others to bash India, led to much brainstorming by Shringla and other senior embassy officials in concert with the Ministry of External Affairs, and the decision to hire a lobbying firm close to Democrats on the Hill, at least on a temporary basis to revive their earlier and traditional support for India.

Earlier this month, in an exclusive farewell interview with India Abroad — his first after being appointed India’s next foreign secretary — Shringla said that concern in some quarters of the U.S. Congress over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly with regard to humanitarian concerns and communications blockade, has been “constructively addressed,” thanks to the sustained engagement and constant updates provided to U.S. lawmakers by embassy officials.

He said, “We have been actively engaging the U.S. administration, Congress, the media, think tanks and so on. This is important, as we have found on several occasions that the coverage in the mainstream media has tended to project a biased viewpoint without presenting all the facts.”

Shringla acknowledged that the few U.S. lawmakers who continue to be critical of the Indian government’s actions and “are pushing on his issue, perhaps because they don’t have a full understanding of the situation or they don’t want to have that, but as I’ve said, we have fully engaged with Congress and will continue to do that.”

He said he had instructed “all my colleagues that this is the highest priority — not the other things you are doing — and whatever you have, you drop that and you go and meet people, meet Congressmen, meet staffers, but get our point of view across, so that they can take into account,” the efforts of the government of India to alleviate the situation in Kashmir.

“And, it’s not a one-off thing. You have to constantly go and update them on the situation,” Shringla said.

But he said, “There are some like Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Rashida Tlaib (D.-Mich.), and Ilhan Omar that are pushing a certain line that seems to be rigid. We’ve tried to engage them, we’ve tried to explain to them the situation, but despite that, the formulation they’ve come up with, as to how they would like Congress to look at it, is counter-productive, besides being factually incorrect and not reflective of the current situation.”

Shringla argued, “If you are not open-minded, if you are not objective on this issue, there is not much anyone can do.

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