The citadel of the Clinton Foundation cannot be breached. The former President’s foundation settled on the 14th floor of an elegant building on 125th Street in Harlem, across the road, perhaps to Bill’s dismay, from a health food store. Flaxseed carrot juice is no substitute for a McDonalds’ milkshake, but fortunately for the former President there are many good West Indian take-aways just down the block. If Transparency International did a study of Foundations, Bill Clinton’s outfit wouldn’t do too well on the Global Corruption Barometer. What would trip it up is the exacting secrecy of the Foundation, which shies away from revelations about all aspects of its funding. When Hilary Clinton ran for president, the Foundation sniffed at calls to open up its list of donors. When President Obama appointed Hilary Clinton to be his Secretary of State, the curmudgeons of propriety asked the same questions again. This time it was harder to be a scofflaw. The Clinton Foundation sent two heavy hitters to meet with Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar of the Foreign Relations Committee to assuage them that no conflict of interest would exist: which is to say, that Bill Clinton would not actively raise money from those overseas whose interests might be in the diplomatic pouch of Secretary Clinton. The two senior people who went to see the Senators were Clinton Foundation CEO Bruce Lindsay (who has been called “Clinton’s consigliore”) and attorney Cheryl Mills (who is a member of “Hillaryland” and defended Bill Clinton in the impeachment trial). Kerry and Lugar could not shuck the two hard clams that sat before them. They didn’t get much, but at least it was something.
There was the symbolic gesture, which is that Bill Clinton agreed to step away from the day-to-day work of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Created in 2005, the CGI is a kind of Clintonian Davos, a high-level conference of the glitterati to discuss the world’s problems, and to commit to some kind of action. It is vintage Bill Clinton, reminiscent of that famous Transition Economic Summit in Little Rock (December 1992), with Clinton surrounded by four hundred intellectuals and politicians, and mountains of binders, with his glasses in hand, leaning into them, learning, pushing, prodding. Unlikely that Bill Clinton is involved in the “day-to-day” of anything, so this is hardly a concession.
Additionally, Lindsay-Mills agreed to release a list of the 205,000 donors to the Clinton Foundation. Most of the names are of those who gave less than $250 (there are pages and pages of Smiths, for instance). But the real names are at the front of the list, those who gave in the millions. Here there are many obvious names. Foundations that share the mission of the Clinton Foundation on issues such as AIDS and health-care are legion: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Princess Diana Memorial Fund and on. There are the wealthy moguls, whether lesser known American ones (real estate’s Stephen Bing and media’s Fred Eychaner) or better known foreign ones (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia’s richest man, Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi). There are some shadowy donors, such as the “Friends of Saudi Arabia,” but nothing extraordinary.
One name did raise serious questions in India, both within the parliament and in the media. Less attention has been paid to this name in the United States (except a brief mention in the New York Times, December 10, 2008). Amar Singh, an Indian politician, is said to have given the Clinton Foundation between $5 million and $1 million dollars. In India, the revelation created a modest firestorm. How did Amar Singh get the $1 million, let alone the $5 million? In an affidavit filed when he was nominated to the upper house of the Indian parliament, Mr. Singh said that his net worth totaled just over $7 million. This is not all liquid cash – most of it is in fixed assets such as property, jewelry, cars, and investments in mutual funds. It is plain that he does not have the means to release $1 to $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. When the pressure mounted on him, Mr. Singh told the press that he did not donate any money to the Clinton Foundation, and that his name might have appeared on the list because he had actively urged others to donate to the Foundation. In other words, he was being honored for his work to get people to donate, but not for his own donation. Who those people are who gave the millions in his name cannot be determined. The Clinton Foundation is silent, and so is Amar Singh.
Amar Singh is a member of the Samajwadi, or Socialist, Party, although its commitments to socialism ended a long time ago. It is now a populist party with a very close attachment to one or two major conglomerates (such as the Sahara Group). Pehle hum, samaj baad mein – first me, society afterwards. Clinton’s associate Bruce Lindsay does not like to be called his consigliore, but Amar Singh would welcome the title to define his relationship with the Samajwadi boss, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Yadav’s party remains a force in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where he has been the Chief Minister thrice (1989-1991, 1993-1995 and 2003-2007). During this third run, Amar Singh was the head of the Uttar Pradesh Development Council. From that perch, he reached out to Bill Clinton and his Foundation. Amar Singh wanted Clinton to come to Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, to inaugurate a Rural Health Mission. Clinton agreed to come in September 2005, although the terms of his four-day visit are not clear. The Uttar Pradesh government spent just short of $1 million on the Clinton trip (did they also donate funds to the Clinton Foundation in the name of Amar Singh?). The Chief Minister’s home, 5, Kalidas Marg, was converted into a palace, with wine in goblets and fish and kebabs on enormous trays, as well as Shaimak Davar’s dancers performing for the assembled glamor. Among the many famous guests (including industrialist Anil Ambani and Subroto Roy and actors Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan) was Sant Singh Chatwal. Boss of the Bombay Palace restaurant chain, and money-meister in general, Chatwal came under a cloud of suspicion in 1994 over the bilking of $9 million from Indian banks, and in more recent times he was chased by the IRS and the New York State government over unpaid taxes (to the tune of $10 or so million). Chatwal is a trustee of the Bill Clinton Foundation, and apparently was the man who brokered the friendship between the Clintons and Amar Singh. “I am very honored that I have been invited here to work for HIV/AIDS,” said Clinton to the gathering. “I am honored that I have the opportunity to work for the socio-economic development of this great state.” Mulayam Singh Yadav then thanked Clinton for bringing Amar Singh onto his Clinton Global Initiative.
Thus far, nothing seems amiss. But things take a peculiar turn in the Summer of 2008. In early July, a series of hastily organized meetings brought Amar Singh to the center of Indian politics. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was eager to ink a deal with the United States that, among other things, would almost bring India into the nuclear club. Not being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and of having tested nuclear bombs in 1998, India was a quasi-pariah state in the nuclear world. When the Bush administration sought an ally to help isolate Iran, it turned to India. If India set aside plans to create a “peace pipeline” from Iran through Pakistan to India, and if India took a “reasonable” (pro-US) position in the International Atomic Energy Agency, then the US would ensure that India gain access to nuclear fuel and technology, even as it was not part of the NPT regime. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance maintained its parliamentary majority through a unique mechanism, which is that the Communist parties supported it (although they did not join the Government), as long as the UPA followed through on a Common Minimum Program agreed upon by the Communists and the Congress-UPA. One of the elements in the Program is that India must follow an independent foreign policy. The nuclear deal was the dénouement, and the Communists threatened to withdraw their support. It was into this breach that Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav brought the thirty-nine Members of Parliament from the Samajwadi Party into the fray. With their support, and minus the Communists, the Congress-UPA would manage to squeak through a “trust vote” in the Indian Parliament. Amar Singh was the floor manager of the moment, ensuring the loyalty of most of his parliamentarians, striking the deal with the Congress, and pushing other independents to give their vote to the government in the name of “national interest” (at the same time as suitcases of cash found their way into the homes of dithering parliamentarians, or at least that is what some of them alleged on the floor of the Parliament during the trust vote on 22 July). Money might have changed hands. Rumor mills pointed to the Samajwadi Party as the bag carriers (and three members of the Hindu Right directly pointed their fingers at Amar Singh’s party). On a side note, it might not have been the money that sealed the deal: Samajwadi leader Kishore Samrite conducted a “sacrifice” (yagna), at which 319 animals were killed to appease Goddess Kamakhya, whose ministrations might have lead to a favorable trust vote.
The trust vote was not enough. Now the deal had to be passed by the US Congress. It is here that matters are murky. The long primary for the presidency and the rock-bottom support for Bush and his agenda meant that the US Congress had little incentive to do much of anything in the late Summer and Fall of 2008. Obama’s caution about the deal put the fear of failure through elite circles in New Delhi, and so pressure mounted to get Washington to act. Senator Hillary Clinton’s nod was considered to be essential. Amar Singh made a trip to Washington in mid-September 2008, and had a two hour dinner with Senator Clinton. When journalist Aziz Haniffa asked Singh if Senator Clinton “has promised and pledged to give all the support and try and pass [the deal] through in the Congress,” he said, “Yes…Because of the Clintons I am close to the Democrats and I had the occasion to meet people like (Congressman and India Caucus Chair) Gary Ackerman (chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on South Asian Affairs) and Hillary and Bill. They all have a good regard for me. So, I did talk about the Indo-US nuclear deal and I wanted to get [their] assured support [for] the Indian government and [for] the deal.” When pushed, Amar Singh told Haniffa that Senator Clinton “assured me [of] her full cooperation and Sant Chatwal has been actively associated with it [lobbying on behalf of the deal].” Another lobbyist on India’s behalf was the government-financed, AIG, which spent $2 million on Congress’s vacillators between July and September (while on the government’s bailout pipeline). On October 2, 2008, Gandhi’s birthday, the Senate passed the deal. Hillary Clinton played a central role in the effort.
One of the outstanding questions left at the door of the Clinton Foundation is when did the money come in from “Amar Singh”? The Foundation refuses to say when it got the money, which means it is impossible to tell if the money came in during the summer of 2008, when Amar Singh had begun to lobby on behalf of the nuclear deal (and so, on behalf of the vast business interests served by this deal). The implications are staggering: did the money from “Amar Singh” strengthen the resolve of the Clintons to lobby on behalf of the deal in a Congress otherwise incapable of pushing any significant legislation? Did Amar Singh’s good friend act on ideological grounds or did their friendship have to be greased with a few million dollars? If only the Clinton Foundation would return my phone calls and satisfy my annoying curiosity.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: email@example.com