Padma Bhushan Sant Singh Chatwal

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.

The brain drain

One part of the US response to recession has been to tighten the rules surrounding the H1B visa — and since the start of this year and this administration, the pages of India Abroad, the paper I help edit and produce, has featured a flat out debate on the topic.

Proponents have based their argument on the line that with unemployment rising across the US, there is no case to be made for bringing in guest workers, however skilled, from outside. Opponents have argued that (1) Guest workers fill a legitimate need in the workforce and (2) that absent the H1B program, bright students who come to the US to get an education and now find they cannot stay behind to join the workforce will go back to the country of origin — that is to say, the US will end up providing the education, only to create competition for itself. This segment of opinion makers has moreover repeatedly warned that unless rules in this regard are relaxed, there will be a drop in the number of enrollments in US universities.

The debate has been heated, but has largely taken place in a vacuum, with few if any facts to back the rival claims. Here’s the first real sighting of quantifiable stats:

U.S. grad school admissions for would-be international students plummeted this year, according to the Council of Graduate Schools—the first decline in five years.  The decline was 3% on average, thanks to increases from China and the Middle East, but some countries saw double-digit declines in interest in a U.S. education. Applicants from India and South Korea fell 12% and 9% respectively—with students turning their sights on schools in Asia and Europe instead.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Much of the world’s economic growth—hence, jobs—is in emerging markets, the schools are far cheaper and in many cases competitive academically, and then there’s the H-1B issue. If America won’t allow a PhD just trained in our top schools to work here and contribute to the economy—why come here and take on the student loans to begin with?

Read on — the debate below the post is interesting.

NRI, redux

Apropos the earlier post, Tunku Varadarajan just emailed me a link to a piece he has done in the Independence Day special issue of Outlook. The core of his argument:

India’s economy has emancipated the Indian abroad in other, smaller ways, too. Who has not travelled back to India recently—from New York, London, Vancouver or Dubai—and scratched his head over the question of what to take back to relatives in Delhi, or Chandigarh, or Thiruvananthapuram, or Nagpur. Once upon a time—and I speak from personal experience—one needed to do no more than go to the nearest supermarket and fill up a shopping cart with chocolate, cheese, ham and biscuits, all bought in bulk packs, to be lugged back home to people starved of exotic foreign food. The same was true of jeans and T-shirts, bras and sweaters. Not anymore. The clothes are now all made in India (or Mauritius, or Sri Lanka or Bangladesh—imagine taking home to your brother a shirt made in Bangladesh!). The foods are all available too—at a price, but available. No longer exotic, they’ve ceased to be gifts that enhance the status of the NRI giver.

In these ways—micro and macro—the Indian immigrant abroad no longer feels protective of, or patronising towards, the Hick at Home. This liberation has had intriguing consequences: it has allowed the unburdened immigrant to integrate himself more fully into the political life of his adoptive country (something Indian immigrants have been notoriously poor at doing). And in doing so, they have become—paradoxically—more effective in the service of their country of origin. Witness the role played by Indian-Americans in the lobbying for the recent US nuclear deal with India. American lawmakers (and an American president) paid them careful heed not because they were Indian, but because they were Americans who were pulling for India because the deal was good for America.

Comment, on this and the previous entry?

The devalued NRI

When Shatrughan Sinha was Minister for Health in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet, he had in course of an official tour landed up in New York. I got a call, asking if I was free to go across and meet him. ‘Shotgun’ is always great fun, so I landed up at the Waldorf on a Saturday morning — and was met by an apologetic minister who said his schedule had been shot to hell, he had a roomful of folks waiting to meet him, and would I be okay with coming back next day, for lunch.

So back I went, on Sunday — and in his typical style, he began talking nineteen to the dozen before I had even settled down. His grouse? Indian American ‘community leaders’ who take themselves too seriously. His words: “Arre, yahan to if three Indian Americans meet in a coffee shop they form an association; the man who is paying for the coffee becomes president, and his best friend becomes the secretary. And the next thing you know, they come to us demanding time, saying they are the president of this or that association, and then sit here taking up our time, talking endlessly about all sorts of irrelevant things…’

There was much more in that vein, all centered around the point that the ‘community leadership’ in the US comprised of first generation folks who, for all their success, found themselves little fish in a very large ocean and thus formed these associations in a bid to carve out some relevance for themselves. [He took pains to suggest that he held the second and third generations in far greater respect, because they pinned their identities on their achievements and not on various titles they had conferred on themselves].

Once he gets started on subject, he rarely lets go — through most of that lunch, he talked of how this was in fact detrimental to the community — too many voices, not enough sense, so the mainstream tends to tune out, was the thrust of his diatribe.

All of this came back to mind while systematically deleting Rajan Zed’s avalanche of emails, and while reading Swapan Dasgupta’s think piece in the ToI just now. Here’s the crux:

The average NRI’s fall from grace in India has been precipitate. The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere. The big NRI players have no problem — they have seen their social worth in the West keep pace with India’s soaring reputation as a rising power. But the small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.

To the NRI confronted with a precarious descent into obscurity, there is only a small solace: interventions on the net. Taking advantage of a more connected world, the professional NRI (who knows no other identity) has stepped up his battles to cast India in his own confused image. No Indian website is free from the voluminous but pernicious comments of the know-all, ultra-nationalist NRI banging away on the computer in splendid isolation. From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.

Lots of NRIs among the Smoke Signals regulars — curious to know what you think, of the leadership, the spokesmen who profess to speak for you, and related issues.

PS: I could inflict on you another flood of Flintoff stories — which seems to be all that the British media can talk about, a day ahead of the final Ashes Test. But I won’t — too boring. And not much happening in the cricket world otherwise [plus another episode to write for tomorrow], so blogging apt to be sporadic today. Later, folks…

From the desk of…

Historic Bollywood-Hollywood pact signals India’s emergence in world cinema

Bollywood emerged as a major player in Hollywood on August 17 as Oscar winner Steven Spielberg finalized his funding deal of $825 million, with major chunk coming from India’s Reliance.

Anil Dhirubhai Ambani, chairman of Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, wrote the biggest check of $325 million in equity, for new DreamWorks Studios operated by principal partners Spielberg and Stacey Snider after about 14 months of financial alliance. Various banks, including Bank of America, provided final leg of financing. The Studios will make up to 21 movies over next four years.

Acclaimed Indo-American statesman Rajan Zed, welcoming this new India-Hollywood partnership, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that this pact signaled India’s emergence as a rising force in Hollywood. It clearly exhibited that India was evolving as a pivotal player in international film arena.

DreamWorks will keep creative control over productions. Walt Disney Company will handle distribution and marketing for its films around the world, except in India where Reliance retains distribution. Amitabh Jhunjhunwala, vice chairman of Reliance Capital, will join Spielberg and Snider on DreamWorks’ board of directors. Under the agreement, Reliance will reportedly match funds in future also.

Funding battle was tough for Spielberg because of evaporation of Wall Street financing in Hollywood, thus opening doors to foreign investment. To raise finance, Spielberg had to sell a half interest in the company to Reliance who was eager to get a toehold in Hollywood, according to reports.

Spielberg and Snider, in a statement, thanked “Anil personally for his foresight and fortitude over the past months”. Ambani said, “Our partnership with Stacey and Steven is the cornerstone of our Hollywood strategy as we grow our film interests across the globe.” For Reliance, the venture is also “a step in the direction of trying to do something on a global scale that appeals to global audiences” and an attempt to accelerate the development of India’s film industry.

DreamWorks’ “Dinner for Schmucks” (Jay Roach), a French comedy remake, will begin shooting in October. Spielberg will start making “Harvey”, remake of a 1950 classic about a man and his friendship with imaginary six-foot-tall rabbit, in January. Both will be released in 2010. Studio will shoot about six films annually.

DreamWorks’ other projects include family film “Real Steel” showing boxing between humans and robots; children’s “The 39 Clues”; an adaptation of the comic book “Cowboys and Aliens”; and action thriller “Motorcade” about terrorists attacking president’s motorcade. It also has over a dozen other movies in development that Spielberg bought from Paramount as part of his company’s separation settlement. He recently completed directing a 3-D film “Tintin” on the classic Belgian comic strip, which will be released in 2011. Spielberg has also reportedly obtained movie rights regarding the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reliance, among India’s top three business houses with a market capitalization of $81 billion and the largest shareholder base in the world, has built a formidable film production slate in English, Hindi and various regional languages of India, and also has development silos with other Hollywood production companies, including those run by actors George Clooney, Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts, Jay Roach, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Chris Columbus, and Brett Ratner.

Rajan Zed, who is chairperson of Indo-American Leadership Confederation, further said that though Hollywood kept the creative control over the productions in this deal, it still would stretch India’s global presence and showed Bollywood’s international expansion. Zed argued that Indo-Americans would like to see more such Bollywood-Hollywood deals where Bollywood would also have command on the creative aspects also.

Ambani is said to be a film buff who hosts screenings of the latest Hollywood blockbusters at his house. Spielberg first went to India over 30 years ago to film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. About four billion movie tickets are sold in India annually.

Offered up strictly without comment — beyond pointing out that the acclaimed Hindu spokesman is also, by self-definition, an acclaimed Indian American statesman.

Ganesh a burglar magnet?

In Fairfax County, Ganesh has become a signal to robbers — and how weird is that?

Since January of this year, someone has been targeting homes in Fairfax County based on their ethnic and religious affiliations.

Police say the thief or thieves has been breaking in during the day while the residents are away in the Reston, Sully, McLean and Fair Oaks sections of the county. In each case, the burglar has been going after very specific items…..

Fairfax County Police say the homes favored by the burglar or burglars are in neighborhoods heavily populated by people of Middle Eastern or Asian descent. They say they’ve been looking for homes with religious symbols.

“It’s a Hindu symbol, I believe it’s called a Ganesh—I hope I am saying it right,” said Officer Tawny Wright of the Fairfax County Police Department. “But they hang it, some of them hang it above their garages or in a window, next to their doors, and like I said, and of the 16, a significant number have had this symbol displayed around their house.”

The report suggests the thieves are making the connection between the religious icon with the chance of finding gold jewelry and electronics. Passports and other personal documents are also being targeted, per the report.

Earlier interactions indicate that there are readers of this blog from that part of the world — anyone have anything to contribute, any experiences to share?