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Billionaire philanthropist George Soros is a regular fixture in the political conversation of the West. Till last week, however, outside a small circle of investing geeks, he was unknown in India.

That changed when on Thursday, he commented on the Adani corruption scandal rocking the Indian markets. The investing legend pointed to the fact that Adani and Prime Minister Modi were frequently seen as longtime allies, arguing that the controversy would dent the Bharatiya Janata Party leader’s image. “Adani Enterprises tried to raise funds in the stock market, but he failed,” Soros said. “Adani is accused of stock manipulation and his stock collapsed like a house of cards. Modi is silent on the subject, but he will have to answer questions from foreign investors and in Parliament.”

Soros was hardly the first person to make this point. Links between the Adani group and the BJP have long been a part of the public conversation in India. However, Soros seemed to be the moment the ruling party was waiting for. For the first time since Hindenburg, the US short seller, made wide-ranging allegations of malfeasance against Adani, the BJP jumped publicly into the conversation – by attacking Soros.

The return of the ‘foreign hand’

On Friday, Union minister Smriti Irani castigated his comments as meant to “weaken Indian democracy”. Going even further, she characterised Soros as having “imperialistic designs”.

“India has defeated videshi taaqat – foreign forces – before and shall do so again,” she said in Hindi.

This wasn’t a one-off. On Saturday, the foreign minister chimed in with a very similar angle. “Mr Soros is an old, rich, opinionated person, sitting in New York, who still thinks that his views should determine how the entire world works,” S Jaishankar said, going on to criticise American foreign policy of attempting to undertake a “regime change”. He claimed the reason why the comments by Soros were worrying was “because we are a country which went through colonialism”.

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of Indian politics, the frame of the BJP’s strategy to counter the Adani fallout would be clear: blame the “foreign hand”. The phrase was made famous during the rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who skillfully used it to blame the West for all manner of ills in India, thus shielding her government from domestic criticism.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Credit: S Jaishankar/Twitter

Borrowing conspiracy theories

Till now, Adani has been a bit of a conundrum for the BJP. The fact that Adani’s astonishing rise has coincided almost completely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure means that Hindberberg’s allegations of corruption were tricky territory. In Modi’s first term, Rahul Gandhi’s attack on him for leading a “suit-boot ki sarkar”, a government for the well-heeled, hit home hard.

In response, Modi pulled off a remarkable U-turn. While he had run for office in 2014 on a libertarian, small government plank, by the next election, he was campaigning as a welfare populist. Clearly, being seen as backing an allegedly corrupt tycoon in the run up to 2024 could be risky territory at a time economic distress is rising for the common man.

Why did the Modi government wait till Soros to rise to Adani’s defence? Part of the reason is Soros’ role as a bogeyman for conservatives in the West. Using “barely coded anti-Semitism,” the New York Times wrote in 2018, a vast swathe of right-wing politicians and activists ”have built a warped portrayal of him as the mastermind of a ‘globalist’ movement, a left-wing radical who would undermine the established order and a proponent of diluting the white, Christian nature of their societies through immigration”.

While Soros has played no role in Indian politics till now, Hindutva’s admiration of White nationalist movements means that Soros is not unknown to its ideologues. Indeed, much of the BJP’s attack on Soros mimicked the language of Western conservatives. Shashi Shekhar Vempati, former CEO of Prasar Bharati, darkly described Soros as part of a “confluence of interests between activists and global media”. Jaishankar also spoke of a coordinated “agenda” driven by “globalisation”. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra used a graphic to depict Soros as a literal puppeteer controlling Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

Anti-colonial plank

While imitating Western conservative tropes and conspiracy theories about Soros might have little mass purchase in a country with no history of antisemitism, the overall point of a Western foreign hand has a solid record of success in India, given Indira Gandhi’s use of the rhetorical plank.

Of course, Modi is not Indira Gandhi and the BJP is not the Congress. Gandhi had the anti-colonial legacy of the Congress party behind her and a country where a significant number of people had seen the fight against colonialism themselves. In 2023, there are not many people alive in India who lived through British rule. Even more, India is now three decades into its programme of economic liberalisation, where globalisation, much of it in partnership with Western corporations and governments, is seen to have brought in significant wealth.

Indira Gandhi functioned at a time when India had serious foreign policy differences with the West. While officially non-aligned, Delhi leaned towards the Soviet bloc under Indira Gandhi, with the West supporting Pakistan. In fact, the 1971 Bangladesh war was a theatre of the Cold War, when Washington supplied arms and diplomatic cover to Pakistan.

Little of this order exists now. India is, on the other hand, a close US ally. In this situation, to try and copy Indira Gandhi’s rhetoric of the Western foreign hand would be tough to pull off with the Indian public.

Sub ‘Pakistan’ with the West?

Lastly, there is ideology. Indira Gandhi’s socialist rhetoric meant that attacking the West was a relatively good fit. Her left-wing populism sat easily in opposition to the Cold War’s capitalist bloc. Hindutva, of course, is a different animal. Ideologically, what works best for Hindutva is attacking Pakistan, allowing an easy merging of foreign policy and a domestic “other” in the form of Indian Muslims.

This is what Modi has skillfully done. In one remarkable instance in 2017, Modi even alleged that senior Congress leaders, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, were colluding with Pakistan. While this charge was never proved, the BJP’s tarring of the Congress was highly successful.

None of this is possible with the current “foreign hand” tactic in defence of Adani.

Of course, even as it goes with a weak public defence, the BJP is supported by powerful structural factors such as media control, deep pockets and a weak, underfunded opposition. So in spite of a sputtering “foreign hand” theory, it is difficult to predict how the Adani affair will play out for the BJP in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.