On December 14, 2009, public relations giant APCO Worldwide was hired to promote Narendra Modi's investment and development showpiece ‘Vibrant Gujarat’. In the four years since, its team of 45 experts in 20 countries has also given the Gujarat CM just the push he needed to open doors globally.
An RTI query shows Steven King as one of the members of APCO’s “global project management team” for Vibrant Gujarat. While APCO claims they don’t work for Modi, and that their brief is limited to promoting Gujarat as a destination for investors, King was named as an official spokesperson for the Chief Minister in a report by The New York Times.
For her report ‘A divisive Indian official is loved by businesses’ in February 2011, NYT correspondent Heather Timmons had sought Modi’s comments. “A spokesman for Mr Modi, Steven King, with the Washington public relations firm APCO Worldwide, wrote in an e-mail responding to questions: ‘The government has very highly developed grievance proceedings’,” said the NYT report.
The Modi government signed a deal of Rs 2.25 crore per year at the prevailing dollar rate in 2010 with APCO. An RTI query shows that APCO’s brief was not restricted to building Gujarat as an investment destination alone. “APCO will also gauge the tonality of coverage and identify journalists who can further be Media Ambassadors for Gujarat. The idea is to expand and build on the ‘Friends of Gujarat’ circle so as to have a sustained programme of endorsement and outreach,” the agreement stated.
A grouping of Gujaratis living abroad, Friends of Gujarat, didn’t exist incidentally at the time APCO signed the agreement. According to the filings with US tax authorities, which can be availed from the US Internal Revenue Service website, it was formed 10 months later, in September 2010.
Since then, Friends of Gujarat has often served as a platform to promote Modi and his government’s governance record. It was also used by the CM to reach out to the Gujarati community in the US.
The ‘Swarnim Gujarat’ function held by Friends of Gujarat in New Jersey, to mark 50 years of the state’s creation, was attended by a large delegation sent by Modi.
Last month, the ‘Global Gujarati Conference’ organised by Friends of Gujarat saw addresses by Modi at multiple venues through 3D projection. In 2011, the Canadian Friends of Gujarat sent one of the largest delegations to Vibrant Gujarat, including a few parliamentarians.
APCO was in similar controversy over promoting notorious Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev through a ‘Friends of Kazakhstan’ group earlier.
Lobbying disclosures made by APCO in the US show that it was in touch with Eni Falemavaga, a member of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and a member of the Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific, on deals with Kazakhstan as well as Malaysia.
In March this year, it was Falemavaga who strongly appealed to the Committee on Foreign Affairs to open dialogue with Modi. While commenting on the post-Godhra 2002 riots, Falemavaga said: “The fact remains that... India’s Supreme Court has not found any evidence against CM Modi... The US should shift its attitude and extend a hand of friendship to Modi, just as the European Union and the UK are doing, given that Modi is the frontrunner among the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidates.”
Despite emails and calls, APCO did not respond to specific queries sent by The Sunday Express, including on Friends of Gujarat.
Apart from King, the global project management team of APCO for Vibrant Gujarat includes Gad Ben Ari (former media advisor to ex-Israel PM Yitzhak Rabin and ex-director general of the most powerful Jewish fund-raising organisation, Keren Hayesod); Philippe Maze-Sencier (he earlier worked with the European defence firm EADS and with the European Commission in Washington); and Barry Schumacher (senior director, APCO Worldwide, and one of the foremost Washington lobbyists).
Recently, Labour Friends of India, an outfit of the Labour Party in the UK, invited Modi to address the House of Commons. One of the lobbyists for Vibrant Gujarat working in the UK is Alex Bigham, political advisor to the Labour Party.
The new work order issued to APCO in December 2011 stated that “APCO Worldwide will promote VG 2013 Summit only internationally.” Besides, APCO was given additional responsibility of “supporting Gujarat as tourist destination” and “attracting case-studies endorsements from learning institutions”.
In October 2012, the Gujarat Solar Park, about which Modi talks often, was awarded ‘Best Project of the Year — Medium Term Duration’ by Project Management Institute (PMI), a global organisation with presence in over 185 countries, in one such ‘case-study endorsement’. APCO is also a lobbyist for PMI.