Just why was the government — actually, the Prime Minister’s Office — hell bent on awarding a Padma Bhushan to New York-based hotelier and Clinton-confidante Sant Singh Chatwal? The stated reason is that Chatwal played a major role in facilitating passage of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement — and something smells strongly of fish, here.
The Hindu has a report suggesting that Ronen Sen, who was ambassador at the time the nuclear deal was making its way through the Congressional approval process and who worked closely with various NRIs on the lobbying efforts, had turned down Chatwal’s name for even the lesser Padma Shri award:
But in 2008, the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, which had first-hand knowledge of the NRI community’s advocacy, declined to nominate Mr. Chatwal when asked by the Prime Minister’s Office to do so.
Speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, a highly placed source familiar with the exchange said India’s Ambassador at the time, Ronen Sen, had told the PMO it would not be appropriate to bestow a Padma award on Mr. Chatwal because of the controversy surrounding his financial dealings in India and America.
Ironically, Mr. Chatwal was being considered for the Padma Shri, a lower category of award than the Padma Bhushan he was given last week. And the compulsion then, according to sources, was the desire to do a favour to the Samajwadi Party, which was supporting the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi on the nuclear deal. The SP leaders, in turn, were grateful to Mr. Chatwal for bringing Bill Clinton to Lucknow for a function in 2005.
Asked whether a case could be made to honour Mr. Chatwal for his work on the nuclear deal, Mr. Sen told the PMO in 2008 that his contribution, though positive, was much less than that of other Indian-Americans. Awarding him would demoralise the others who had done much more, the PMO was told, besides creating the impression that India did not regard lack of transparency in financial dealings as a disqualification for its highest honours.
The Indian American community, through various bodies such as the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin and the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association, had been lobbying for the deal all along, but it was in 2008 that the community leadership, for perhaps the first time in its history, put aside its political and other differences and came together under one umbrella body to push, with one voice, for the nuclear deal’s passage through Congress.
That body was the US-India Friendship Council, and it was founded by the North Carolina-based entrepreneur and activist Swadesh Chatterjee [a Padma Bhushan winner in 2001, incidentally]. It was Swadesh who took the initiative to bring together on one platform the leading lights of the community from both the Democratic and Republican camps; he also roped in the likes of the AAPI and AAHOA leadership; networked this umbrella group into the US-India Business Council as well, and effectively created a strong, unified voice that could push hard for the deal.
In September 2008, the Council had perhaps its most high-profile event: a Day of Advocacy held in Washington DC as part of a larger ‘Washington Chalo’ campaign. Briefly, the campaign was intended to lobby the House of Representatives and the Senate ahead of the voting on the 123 Agreement to facilitate Indo-US nuclear commerce.
The various groups that came together under the Council’s umbrella took out a full page advertisement in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, urging the US Congress to vote for the deal; it sent out a draft letter to Indian American organizations around the country that individuals could print out, sign and fax to their area Congressmen and Senators to keep up the pressure and, finally, the leadership of the Council, numbering over 24, travelled to DC in the third week of September, at their own expense, for a series of events: a briefing on the deal; a concerted series of meetings with key Congressmen and their aides on Capitol Hill, a Congressional luncheon where the likes of former India Caucus heads like Gary Ackerman and Frank Pallone came together with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the Indian American leaders to persuade the naysayers, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman, to give up their opposition and help ensure the bill’s package. In passing, a week prior to this event an AAPI group under the Indian American Committee banner had powered a similar lobbying exercise.
Was Chatwal part of all this? Yes — once he came on board. He was not part of the core group that created the Council, and did the initial legwork to bring all stakeholders on one platform; he signed on as the momentum began building, and attended some of the Council events in DC, using his contacts when possible. You could, though, say that about over two dozen other folks; you could say, too, that if the work done on the nuclear deal is the criterion, then there are at least a dozen people who deserve the award ahead of Chatwal.
By way of disclosure, I am on fairly friendly terms with both Chatwal and Swadesh — but I don’t have a horse in this race. I understand the likes of Pritish Nandy and Vir Sanghvi are contemplating an RTI application to force the government to reveal just how Chatwal’s name made it to the honors list — more power to the two senior journalists; here’s hoping they manage to hold the PMO’s feet to the fire on this one.
Seriously — these are the highest civilian honors our nation confers on its citizens. It does not deserve to be devalued in this fashion.