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.

Vicco vajradanti, and all that

The most amusing video you will see this year:

And just to prove that he is yet to reach the heights he is capable of, he later addressed the media on the issue:

“I shouldn’t have done it. It just happened. I was trying to help my bowlers and win a match, one match,” he told Geo TV, a Pakistan-based news channel. “There is no team in the world that doesn’t tamper with the ball. My methods were wrong. I am embarrassed, I shouldn’t have done it. I just wanted to win us a game but this was the wrong way to do it.”

In other words, it was clear and deliberate ball-tampering. So why, since the ICC is so big on escalating punishments for repeat offenses, is Afridi getting away with a two-match ban, considering what he has done before? Like, so?:

Making haste slowly

There are times when I despair of our sportspersons — don’t they get it?!

Backtracking for a bit, the ToI reported Sunday that with the clock ticking down to the Commonwealth Games and other competitions [I cannot at the moment tell you what other competitions we are entered in this year — the National Rifle Association of India website says that list is ‘coming soon’], they can’t wait forever for a coach. So the shooters, shelling out Rs 50,000 per head per month out of their own pockets, have hired a coach for themselves.

“How long should we wait? The authorities can take their own time but the competition dates won’t change. Now, we’re spending from our pockets to pay renowned coach Anatoli Poddubni of Ukraine for his expertise,” Samaresh Jung aka Goldfinger for his medal haul in the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, told STOI.

After having suffered without a coach for 18 months, Jung, Ronak Pandit, Amanpreet Singh, Heena Sidhu, Ruchit Kapadia and Upasana Parasrampuria started training under the Ukrainian earlier this month. Poddubni was the USSR coach when the Soviets dominated and earlier worked with Pandit, has been roped in for a six-month term.

When I read this story over my Sunday morning coffee I was quite frankly appalled — such reckless ad hoc-ism! Such disregard for the conventions!! Such blatant flouting of procedural norms!!! I mean, if every citizen with a grievance, real or imagined, against the government and its procedures decide to take matters into his own hands, where would we be?!!!

Err… on second thoughts, don’t answer that.

It took Federal Sports Minister MS Gill to put my thoughts into words:

“I wish people would have showed more patience. I have given direction to SAI Joint Secretary Pravir Krishn to sort the coach’s matter as early as possible,” the Sports Minister said.

See? That’s the thing — and this is merely a symptom of a larger malaise. We, the people of this country, are determined to move into the 21st century — and so is the government. Where we disagree is on the matter of timing — while we insist, unreasonably, on getting there right now or at least some time this century, the government believes the goal itself is important, not the ‘when’ — so if we get there sometime in the 24th century should be good enough, no?

What’s with this breakneck rush?

The NRAI is an interesting body. On its website, there is this grandiose introduction, listing all the wonderful things the body is doing. Contained therein is this bit:

The NRAI has always strived to rope in international coaches for Trap, Skeet, Rifle & Pistol events. The services of Mr. Laszlo Szucsak (Rifle), Marcello Dradi (Trap & Double Trap) and Ms Shan (Skeet) are being provided to shooters.

That list is in and of itself indicative of how the NRAI operates — Marcello Dradi, whose case I recall reading about at the time, was sacked way back in July 2002. Almost eight years later, lo, you find his name on the NRAI’s list of coaches it is providing to the shooters. While on Dradi, the reason he got sacked is equally interesting.

It was at the end of the 48th World Shooting Championship in Finland that year that Dradi, who had gone there under the impression that his tenure extended to the Commonwealth Games to follow [in Bisley, England], was arbitrarily told that he had been let go.

The Italian had been coaching the Indian trap and double trap shooters for an extended period, and when during one of its periodic cock-ups the NRAI omitted to provide a skeet coach, Dradi voluntarily worked with the skeet shooters, going over and above the call of duty.

So what happened? As happens with this body, the NRAI realized somewhat late in the day that a world shooting competition was approaching, and arbitrarily announced selection criteria so ridiculous it would have kept most top shooters in the country from qualifying. Dradi loudly, repeatedly critiqued the selection criteria and pointed out that while B grade shooters were busy playing the ‘selection’ game, top shooters such as Mansher Singh [who a year earlier had defeated Olympic silver medallist Ian Peel at Bisley] had been busy training for the Worlds, and were in their best form. To make matters worse, Dradi pointed out that third-rate shooters had been approaching the sports minister and getting him to use his influence to have them included in the team.

The NRAI owes its existence to the government; its money comes from the sports ministry’s budget, so what was it going to do? Simple — sack the pesky Italian.

But getting back to the issue du jour — why do the shooters need a coach, when the NRAI has been so generous with institutional support? For instance, the shooters have at their disposal one president, one ‘senior’ vice presidents, five vice presidents, a secretary general, two joint secretaries-general, one treasurer, five secretaries, and a laundry list of ‘members’. Here, check them out.

Related reading: A recent piece in Open magazine about the Bindra fiasco — which too, you will recall, began with the NRAI arbitrarily deciding to fiddle around with selection criteria. The payoff of the Akshay Sawai article:

The job of officials is to handle the administrative and organisational aspects of sports. In most cases, though, they are more interested in abusing power. Their insecurity makes them find pleasure in controlling players, a breed that is more talented and valuable. It happens in all countries and across all sports. Lionel Messi, the world’s best club footballer, will not want to get on the wrong side of Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president. In India, the problem is worse. Before the Bindra issue, the hockey federation had the gall to contemplate fielding a second string side in the forthcoming World Cup rather than pay the main team its dues. It is a new year, but it has begun on the same frustrating note.