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Why Are India and the U.S. Sparring Over a $110 Million Mumbai Mansion?

Why Are India and the U.S. Sparring Over a 0 Million Mumbai Mansion?
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Why Are India and the U.S. Sparring Over a 0 Million Mumbai Mansion?

Why Are India and the U.S. Sparring Over a $110 Million Mumbai Mansion?

MUMBAI – Earlier this year, when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was awaiting confirmation in Washington, he was faced with a strange question regarding a property 8,000 miles from the Arabian Sea.

Lincoln House, the former palace of the Maharajah and the United States consulate in Mumbai, should have been sold six years ago for $ 110 million. Since then, the United States has attempted to transfer ownership to one of India’s wealthiest families, now among the major makers of Covid-19 vaccines, but for unknown reasons the Indian government has blocked it.

The dispute is “an unnecessary irritant in bilateral relations,” Senator James E. Risch said in a written question to Mr Blinken during the confirmation of charges hearing. “Do you commit to making solving the Lincoln House issue a priority with India and asking the US Ambassador to India to do the same?” “

“Yes,” Mr Blinken said, and this week he will have the opportunity to prove his word.

On Tuesday, he is expected to arrive in India for his first trip to the country as secretary of state, and congressional and administration officials have said he intends to publicize the decaying mansion which is becoming something of a diplomatic black hole.

Mr. Blinken has a full plate. He will try to cover everything quickly from cybersecurity, human rights and climate change to assistance from Covid, the looming peril in Afghanistan and an elusive trade deal that could mean billions of dollars in new business for the ‘India and America, if it is ever signed.

But Lincoln House has become an unexpected obstacle. High-level diplomatic correspondence reveals how much this unique property has consumed, exposing some of the torturous twists and turns in the US-India relationship, which many US officials hope will become their cornerstone in Asia.

The intended buyer is the Poonawalla family, Indian vaccine tycoons, who have been in the spotlight this year for producing hundreds of millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

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Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his frustration last year in a letter to India’s Foreign Minister, writing that “the Indian government has never provided us with a credible legal response or explanation as to why he blocked the transfer “.

“Unfortunately,” added Mr. Pompeo, “the Lincoln House saga falls short of the standards of our relationship.”

A year later, with the maintenance bills piling up, Lincoln House is still unsold, its high walls crumbling, paint peeling, streaks of rust down to the sidewalk, an eyesore belonging to Americans . A haunted-looking cream-colored building, it sits in one of Mumbai’s most desirable enclaves – Breach Candy – a short walk from where the gentle waves crash onto the shore.

Officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration responded to requests to discuss the matter in impenetrable silence.

More than half a dozen officials, from the chief spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Mumbai tax collector (involved in the registration of transfers of ownership) to the senior director general of the Press Information Office, who deals with questions regarding Mr. Modi’s office, declined to comment.

US officials are more than upset.

According to them, there is no legal reason to block the sale, and India and the United States are supposed to be friends. They point out that Washington rushed into intelligence services and cold weather gear last summer after Indian soldiers were beaten by Chinese troops along their disputed Himalayan border. Then, when Covid hit India hard, the United States sent medical aid totaling nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

US officials interviewed by the New York Times seemed puzzled by the hold-up. They suspect that Mr. Modi’s government does not like the idea of ​​the United States making so much money from the deal, which would be one of the biggest home sales in US history. India. Or maybe the Modi government wants to stop Lincoln House from going to the Poonawallas, who are not among the handful of Indian billionaires known to be Modi’s mainstays. Or maybe it’s a matter of pride, and officials feel uncomfortable with a foreign government simply selling an iconic piece of Indian history like any other property.

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The three-story mansion was built in the 1930s in an Indian-deco style (outline clean Art Deco lines, with rounded cupolas and ornate mesh windows) by Maharajah of Wakaner, one of hundreds of Princely states that existed under British rule.

MK Ranjitsinh was the grandson of the Maharajah who built it.

“It was very modern for the time,” he said of the house, which had a swimming pool, a cannon in the front, and a wooden dance floor (“not like we used a lot, “admitted Ranjitsinh).

But after independence in 1947, the Maharajahs lost their privileges. The upkeep of the house – then called Wakaner House – became too difficult for a minor aristocrat. So in 1959 the Wakaner family sold the rights to the property (Lincoln House is actually on a lease of over 900 years) to the US government for 1.65 million rupees, which would have been around 350,000. $ at the time.

Although New Delhi was the capital of India, the United States needed something big and impressive for a consulate in Mumbai and then in Bombay, the trading power of India.

Indians of a certain ilk have fond memories of the great evenings at Lincoln House.

“There were lovely terraces so you could see the garden below,” said Jeroo Mulla, a media professor who has visited the mansion on several occasions, starting in 1975. “It was so unusual. it’s not like the other ugly things around.

But in 2011, the United States opened a modern consulate in Mumbai. It was time to say goodbye to Lincoln House. A few years later, when it was released, the Poonawallas grabbed it.

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In October 2015, the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave the US government explicit authorization for the deal in a letter saying, “This ministry wishes to convey its approval for the sale.

But soon after, another branch of the Indian government, the Defense Estates Officer, objected, saying the Americans had failed to notify the sale and cessation of use of the property within 20 days. U.S. officials countered that they had not finalized the deal or stopped using the property and therefore did not break the rules.

After the Indian government continued to thwart the sale, many U.S. officials, including two ambassadors and Mr. Pompeo, spoke out, arguing the sale should go through and urging the Modi administration to help make it happen. US Senators sent two letters to Mr. Modi. They never received a response.

If the deal is not finalized by the end of August, the Poonawallas have the right to opt out, according to the contract. If they do, then the US government is faced with a costly question: what now?

There aren’t many other buyers who can lose $ 110 million on a home.

And because Lincoln House is a heritage property, it would be difficult under current zoning rules to demolish and redevelop it. US officials are starting to fear this will be a total loss.

Through a spokesperson, Adar Poonawalla, the descendant of the family, declined to comment. However, last summer, when the subject was brought up in an interview with The Times, he said the family still wanted him and didn’t know why the government was blocking the sale.

“I really hope before God that they decide one way or another,” he said.

Jeffrey Gettleman and Suhasini Raj reported from Mumbai and Lara Jakes from Washington

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