By Sandhya Jain
The alacrity with which Russia has cracked down on non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funds has valuable lessons for India, where ideologically-driven NGOs use not only foreign but also Indian public funds to pursue a divisive non-national agenda. Many of these groups owe their high public profile less to grassroots activity in India than to their hectic lobbying on Capitol Hill. Given the fact that the funding of religious and supposedly secular NGOs is a major foreign policy instrument of Western nations, especially America, and more often than not these bodies work to embarrass the Indian State in international fora, New Delhi might do well to emulate the Russian example.
On December 23, 2005, the Russian Duma established the Federal Registration Service to oversee the registration, financing, and activities of Russian and foreign public organisations and foundations. The Kremlin was forced to ban any Russian organisation indulging in political activities for receiving foreign funds after Western-funded NGOs stage-managed the ?rose revolution? in Georgia; the ?orange revolution? in Ukraine, and the ?tulip revolution? in Kyrgyzstan, all of which were aimed at diminishing Moscow'sinfluence in the erstwhile Soviet republics. The new law empowers the Kremlin to shut down NGOs indulging in activity that threatens the nation's?sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and national interests?.
These wide-ranging powers have been necessitated by the fact that as many as 450,000 NGOs operate in Russia, a sizeable number of which receive foreign grants and donations. Recently, the American Congress allocated a princely sum of
US $ 85 million for just the year 2006, to support democracy in Russia (whatever that means, given that Mr. Putin is an elected leader). Anyone can see that what is intended is a major subversion of the Russian state. President Putin has rightly taken a dim view of American interference in the internal affairs of his country, and the thinly-veiled attempt to destabilise his regime.
Given the growing propensity to bank upon NGOs for all developmental activity, there is need for a national audit on their functioning and accountability. In the light of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi'sfamous 15 paise anecdote, we need to know how much money reaches the poor via the NGO network, as opposed to governmental institutions-the results might just surprise us.
It bears pointing out that wherever America, as leader of the Western world, has promoted democracy (so-called), the regimes thus spawned have proved unequal, if not outright subservient, to it. Somehow they can never mount a challenge to US hegemony, be it economic giants like Germany and Japan, or clients like the Philippines, Afghanistan or Egypt-all of which have elected governments. At the same time, given the high comfort levels Washington enjoys with dictatorial or non-democratic regimes like those of Pakistan, Iran under the Shah, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it bears emphasising that its concern for freedom and democracy in Russia is a sham.
Moscow has thus done well to point out that while the new law fills a necessary legal lacuna which allowed foreign organisations to operate in Russia without regulation, it is still much less restrictive than the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda. FARA provides jail terms of up to 10 years for anyone acting as a foreign agent without intimating the Attorney General; while the Russian legislation has no such criminal penalties, and basically aims only at creating a national database of foreign agents on its soil. This is unexceptionable.
What is truly laudable, however, is President Putin'stit-for-tat policy under which he has allocated $7.4 million to promote democracy in the ex-Soviet republics, to counter Washington'sinfluence. Kremlin is also planning to set up a Washington-based think tank to counter the distorted perceptions of Russia in America. India has much to learn in this department; as of today there is not a single think-tank in India that does not receive foreign funding, and this certainly impacts upon the nature of their investigations and reports. I do not know of a single independent study on the role played by foreign monies in evangelisation and subversive activities in the north-east, for instance. The role played by foreign money in providing logistical support to jehadi terrorists in India is similarly unexplored.
In contrast to Putin'sbelligerent confrontation of foreign-funded NGOs, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who controls the UPA government via the National Advisory Council (NAC) of which she is chairperson, has virtually placed all her eggs in the NGO basket. Since most of the successful NGOs in India are run by Leftists or missionaries, and both groups are adept at attracting funds from the public exchequer and foreign embassies, this raises serious questions about the private agenda Ms. Gandhi may be pursuing through the richly funded NGO network in the country.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme, which even Finance Ministry bureaucrats perceive as a gravy train for the cadres of the Leftist parties, was literally rammed down the nation'sthroat because of the Congress president'scommitment to this half-baked scheme. Given the bitter experience with the food-for-work and other rural schemes, there was little justice in deliberately extending the scope of official ?leaks? in welfare schemes; yet this was done to keep the communist parties and the NGO-politician-bureaucrat nexus happy. Given the growing propensity to bank upon NGOs for all developmental activity, there is need for a national audit on their functioning and accountability. In the light of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi'sfamous 15 paise anecdote, we need to know how much money reaches the poor via the NGO network, as opposed to governmental institutions-the results might just surprise us.
Schemes like the NREG will only create pockets of affluence based on ill-gained wealth that will aggravate tensions in the rural countryside, where debt-ridden farmers are committing suicide. It is inconceivable that Ms. Gandhi does not realise the pitfalls of this route to rural regeneration. Hence, the reasons for her adamant commitment to NGOs instead of institutional mechanisms of delivery must be found elsewhere.
An obvious answer is the increasingly belligerent evangelical offensive in large parts of the country, particularly the four southern states, the tribal belt of middle India, and the entire northeast. It is well known that the Church is behind the secessionist movements in the north-east, and its unhindered activities have long-term implications for India'ssovereignty and territorial integrity. The fact that Ms. Gandhi is non-Indian by birth while Mr. Putin is an ethnic Russian probably explains the difference in their approach towards countering the menace posed by foreign funding of non-accountable NGOs.