WikiLeaks revelations about Ford Foundation, India and some important questions

Wikileaks last month released thousands of emails sent/received by John Podesta. He is the campaign head for Hillary Clinton, the Presidential Nominee in the upcoming elections in the US. had highlighted how Ford  Foundation had funded Teesta Setalvad’s NGO and Companies in the past. The leaked emails highlight how Ford Foundation got embroiled in the Controversy and was “rescued”  by John Podesta himself.

John Podesta, Center For American Progress & Ford Foundation India

John Podesta is considered very close to the Clintons. He served in the White House during Bill Clinton’s term. After that he founded the “Center For American Progress” (CAP) a “progressive” ‘think tank’ considered powerful enough to give recommendations on policy matters. In 2014 he quit CAP and joined the Obama Admin as a Counsellor on environmental issues. He quit this post and joined Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

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Ford Foundation entered India on an invitation by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. It was then their first office outside the USA. They had then signed an MoU and do not have any formal registration as an NGO in India. Since then they concentrate on funding projects ranging from Women & minority development, education, administration & planning.

Here it is pertinent to note that Center For American Progress received 8 grants totaling $2,565,000  from Ford Foundation in the year 2015.

The Present Case

In 2015 the Government of Gujarat while investigating Teesta Setalvad’s embezzlement case came across funding by Ford Foundation to her entities. Based on a letter by the Gujarat Police, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) intended to probe the activities of Ford Foundation as well. This probably set off a chain of events, most of which happened in the background and are now revealed by Wikileaks.

As per the leaked emails, Ford Foundation claims that they got embroiled into a controversy over its funding to Sabrang Trusts managed by Teesta Setalvad. The letter titled Ford Foundation in India: Notes to John Podesta dated May 26, 2015 also mentions their funding to Arvind Kejriwal’s NGO before he got into politics as a possible reason for Government’s action. This letter highlights that their activities were questioned on “CIA Links” in both “right wing press” and on Social Media. The Letter particularly mentions a news debate by TimesNow channel held on April 13th which set off the debate against Ford India’s activities.

Information Via a “Reporter” & Social Media Monitoring

The letter to John Podesta mentions that the Foundation received a letter effective 25th April via “a Reporter” indicating it was placed on a “watch list” by the MHA. Who was this reporter is not clear and why would they assist Ford Foundation too.

Ford also highlights in its letter that they have appointed an “international firm to assist with media monitoring” and a prominent Delhi-based law firm to assist them in responding to government requests. In a separate Email to John Podesta the President of Ford Foundation Darren Walker sends across tweets by Social Media users as well. It seems that Social Media activity was closely monitored by them. The tweets quoted in the Email are from Social Media users who generally seem to be supporting Modi Government. In one communication Darren Walker even calls a newspaper “mouthpiece of the Government.”

In the last week of May, frantic activities and movements seem to have happened as could be gauged from the emails. Ford India representatives met Richard Verma US Ambassdor. In an Email dated 27th May 2015 written to Darren Walker, it is specifically mentioned: “And Modi is no fan of Nehru. Invoking that personal invite (read: invite by Nehru in 1952) long ago is not our best card to play. Acting privileged is not our approach to this.”

The Breakthrough:


The Breakthrough seems to have happened around 1st week of July after “John Podesta’s “Magic Touch.” Ford Foundation agreed to get itself register under Indian laws and Modi Government even de-froze the bank accounts. The internal letter to Podesta quoted below was the analysis by the Foundation on happening which give an insight:

When the Gujarat police contacted Home Affairs, the Indian Intelligence Bureau also got involved and flagged Ford’s perceived transgressions in the Setalvad funding to the PM. It seems it was indeed the language accusing the state government and appearing to ‘take sides’that led the authorities to conclude there was political over-reach by the foundation. That and the fact that they had been eager to find something on Setalvad, one of Modi’s worst critics, for some time. So the powers that be were inclined to interpret our past actions in that negative light.

PM’s initial reaction seems to have been to send us packing, de-authorize us fully. IB warned that it did not have strong enough evidence to justify that. The political team then began to calculate the risks of, say, an embarrassing defeat for the government in court.

Thus the decision to place us on a watch list, a relatively standard move related to the treatment of Greenpeace and others.

It is very possible that the interventions by the USG did not go down well at all, especially those carried out in public. It was all delivered as very general concern, tied to respecting civil society and the usual American narrative about threats to democracy in other countries and how other governments should behave, not “we understand and respect your concerns about Ford, but it would be great to resolve this in ways that serve all our interests.” Lack of subtlety and nuance—or at least none perceived.

Bureaucratic over-reach is an important part of the current conundrum, too. Even senior bureaucrats tend not to be sure what the highest-ups want, what would suffice in the way of a resolution. So the bureaucrats who operate the machinery lean toward the most conservative course until given some clear, unambiguous direction.

There is no reason to think that the Modi administration, including the PM himself, know exactly what would satisfy them. And this is hardly their top priority. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that government will let the very vagueness of the MHA directive make us sweat on the financial-operational front, knowing we have limited time. Why not let us feel the squeeze some more?We need to change that calculus.

Some advisors, however, suggest that the worst – in the way of official action – has been done by now. The points have been made, the financial squeeze is in place. From the government’s perspective, why risk defeat through formal charges, for example.

The issue too seems to have settled as “elements of resolution” as highlighted by the letter.

What remains to be answered is Why did Nehru invite Ford Foundation to India? Why did no government before Modi’s question them for not registering under any laws in India? Who was the journalist who helped Ford India with information from the MHA? Why was Ford Foundation so desperate to retain its India offices if government was unwilling to let them continue? Why would they pull strings from powerful people to maintain their roots in India?

We might need some  more email leaks to answer these….

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