The controversy over Sonal Shah’s appointment by Barack Obama
The Indian media has widely reported the accusations made against Sonal Shah (appointed as an advisor in the Transition Team by Barack Obama), accusations of dealings with right wing Hindu groups such as the VHP and the RSS. Shah has been in the United States since she was four, and has an impressive resume, but is being trashed for having been a member of the VHPA (the U. S. branch of VHP) and of being (till 2001) the National Coordinator of the VHPA.
There hasn’t been much of this (if any) in the American media. In fact this is what a friend of mine wrote to me in response to an email in which I asked her what her opinion was about the Sonal Shah issue:
Who is Sonal Shah and what is the controversy? Those are the questions that came to my mind when I saw your email. I am a news junkie. So if I had not heard about her, I doubt the janta here has.
The Indian media though has gone overboard even though till now there is no evidence that Shah is linked with the political idealogy of the VHP. In fact she has denied it quite vociferously, saying that she has never been involved in Indian politics and that has nothing in common with VHP/RSS views. She insists that all she has done is relief work for the Gujarat earthquake victims of 2001. There are those who feel she should have condemned the Gujarat violence as well. Well, she didn’t, and I feel that if she were guilty she would have, just to ensure that people believed her.
So is Sonal Shah a right wing Hindutva person? There are two issues here. One, whether Shah is actually guilty of right wing Hindu beliefs, and two, whether her past association with such organisations, even if not actually involved in their politics, is bad enough to damn her. Let me tackle the first point first.
On the face of it it seems difficult to believe that someone who has been in the United States since she was a toddler would have a strong Hindutva idealogy, particularly an economist with a track record such as her. Before her current appointment on the Obama-Biden Transition Project Advisory Board, Shah headed a department at Google, and before that was Vice President at Goldman Sachs. She was also the co-founder of Indicorps (a US-based non-profit organisation) and has worked at the Department of Treasury from 1995-2002 on various economic issues.
A strongly worded editorial in the Indian Express, one of the few newspapers to support Shah, talked about this “utterly indefensible web and print media campaign in India and the US over the appointment of Sonal Shah in Barack Obama’s transition team”. It said:
[That] Shah has been repeatedly endorsed by the Obama transition camp is an irony [which has] escaped those who sought to destroy a person’s reputation by applying standards of proof that, if employed by a student in an American university, would fetch him a failing grade even in these times of grade inflation…
in diverse, robust democracies like India and America, judgment calls, especially about potential holders of public office, require a real appreciation of what it means to be a liberal: oppose all witch-hunts…
But coming to the second issue, politics is often about witch-hunts. And politics, certainly politics as we know it in India, is not all about academic credentials and capability, or even about the truth. It’s about credibility. Shah’s association with the VHP in the past, even if she did not share their political idealogy, is a black mark of sorts. It was enough for three Indian American organisations (Indian Coalition Against Genocide, Indian American Coalition for Pluralism, and Non Resident Indians for a Secular and Harmonious India) to protest and warn “against Hindutva infiltration into the power centres of the US society.” Those with leftist views in America also saw this as an opportunity to tear down Obama’s secular credentials.
Well, if Shah actually shares the idealogy of VHP or RSS, her appointment can be questioned, but if not, can she be held guilty by association? To me this seems unfair, but then I am not political. I am only thinking as to why a professional should be condemned because of her past association with the VHP, and that too when it was purely for relief work. Specially when she has publicly declared that she has nothing to do with their political idealogy. There is no reason to believe that she is lying. But then I wonder if it is the truth that people want. Or is it plain cynicism at work here? Do people feel that she is a secret agent of the VHP?
Barack Obama certainly doesn’t think so. Despite criticism he has gone ahead and appointed her to his team. Maybe he did it because he doesn’t really care about her political leanings, just her competence, or maybe he did it because he was sure that she was not guilty. Whatever his reasons, I think it’s a little too soon to start to question his judgment.
(Photo is from rediff.com)
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