Sunday, November 9, 2008
Sonal Shah to Help Divide Obama's Victory Spoils
President-elect Barack Obama has picked Indian-American Sonal Shah, a University of Chicago graduate who heads Google’s philanthropic arm, as one of the top advisers to help him assemble his team. This announcement comes on the heels of the controversial appointment of Rahm Israel Emanuel as Obama's White House chief of staff.
There are well over a thousand government secretaries with various prefixes, including deputy, under, assistant, deputy assistant, and assistant deputy to appoint by the incoming Obama administration. On top of that, there are several thousand more political appointees, such as ambassadors and diplomats, who don’t have the word secretary in their title. This ritual, often called "dividing the spoils of victory", is carried out each time a new president takes office in Washington. As expected, the loyal campaign workers and supporters get the lion's share of the plum jobs. Readers of this blog can try their luck by applying for these most-sought-after jobs here.
The first thing the president-elect has to do is build a transition team to recruit and fill these positions. Obama's point man for the job is John Podesta, a Jewish-American from Chicago and former Clinton aide, assisted by a team of advisers. In addition to the Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Sonal Shah will help Mr. Podesta in this task. Other members include Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett and Obama's Senate chief of staff Pete Rouse.
According to the Washingtonian, Podesta has the dubious distinction of having been ranked the third most powerful lobbyist. According to the newspaper, BP, whose "pipeline problems and refinery fires have created regulatory and public relations issues," has turned to Podesta, who "has quietly been guiding BP through congressional hearings."
The members of the advisory group will have considerable influence in selecting people to fill several thousand positions that will help define and implement US policy for the next four years.
According to Vijay Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, Sonal Shah has been actively involved with India's right-wing Hindu organizations accused of Gujarat massacre of thousands of Muslims in 2002.
Here's what Mr. Prashad says about Sonal Shah's past: But there is a less typical side to the Shah story. Born in Gujarat, India, Shah came to the United States as a two-year old. Her father, a chemical engineer, first worked in New York before moving to Houston, and then moving away from his education toward the stock market. The Shahs remain active in Houston’s Indian community, not only in the ecumenical Gujarati Samaj (a society for people from Gujarat), but also in the far more cruel organizations of the Hindu Right, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Overseas Friends of the BJP (the main political party of the Hindu Right) and the Ekal Vidyalaya. Shah’s parents, Ramesh and Kokila, not only work as volunteers for these outfits, but they also held positions of authority in them. Their daughter was not far behind. She was an active member of the VHPA, the U. S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India. The VHP’s head, Ashok Singhal, believes that his organization should “inculcate a fear psychosis among [India’s] Muslim community.” This was Shah’s boss. Till 2001, Shah was the National Coordinator of the VHPA.
In 2004, the BJP government in Gujarat honored Sonal Shah with the Pride of Gujarat (Gujarat Garima) award. Sonal Shah could not attend, but her brother Anand was there, to get the award from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the presence of the "venomous" Narendra Modi, according to Prashad.
Indian Muslims have not been the only victims of violence perpetrated by RSS and VHP. Christians have suffered, too. According to All India Christian Council, the 2008 violence affected in 14 districts out of of 30 and 300 Villages in the Indian state of Orissa, 4,400 houses burnt, 50,000 homeless, 59 killed including at least 2 pastors, 10 priests/pastors/nuns injured, 18,000 men, women, children injured, 2 women gang-raped including a nun, 151 churches destroyed and 13 schools and colleges damaged. The violence targeted Christians in 310 villages, with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced and homes continued to burn in many villages. Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in refugee camps.
A South Indian newspaper Deccan Herald is reporting that Sonal Shah has been invited by the RSS, another Hindu militant outfit, to a reception in her honor.
According to a report in Times of India, several Indian groups have protested the appointment of Sonal Shah in American President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, claiming that she is closely associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. They warned against Hindutva “infiltration” into the power centers of the US society. The protesting groups include Indian Coalition Against Genocide, Indian American Coalition for Pluralism and Non Resident Indians for a Secular and Harmonious India.
Sonal Shah's brother Anand Shah has denied his sister's links with VHP or Gujarat riots of 2002. As a “coordinator” of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America (VHPA), Anand claims Sonal Shah helped raise funds for victims of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat. This denial seems hollow because Anand has not denied the specific allegations of Sonal's and his family's active participation as VHP activists in America before, during, and after the 2002 Gujarat riots widely blamed on Hindutva groups, including the VHP.
Rahm Emanuel's appointment as White of House Chief of Staff has also drawn widespread criticism from those who want real change. Emanuel, with close connections to AIPAC, was a leading supporter of Bush's Iraq invasion. In Congress, Emanuel has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner, sometimes more so than President Bush. He has strongly reacted to the mildest of criticism of Israel. In June 2003, for example, he signed a letter criticizing Bush for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. "We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror," Emanuel, along with 33 other Democrats wrote to Bush. The letter said that Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders "was clearly justified as an application of Israel's right to self-defense".
Emanuel's father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, was a member of the Irgun, a Jewish terrorist group responsible for many massacres of Palestinian villagers to drive them out of their homes in 1948. In an interview with Ma'ariv, Dr. Emanuel, said he was convinced that his son's appointment would be good for Israel. "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel," he was quoted as saying. "Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House." The Ma'ariv article also quoted Dr. Emanuel as saying that his son spends most summers visiting in Tel Aviv, and that he speaks Hebrew, but not fluently. Ma'ariv calls Emanuel "our man in the White House".
It is ironic that both Emanuel and Shah, with close ties to the far-right politics in Israel and India, have become part of the supposedly liberal elite assembled by the Obama campaign to pick the top political appointees in the incoming administration. This choice of people with extreme rather than mainstream records is clearly a disappointment to those of us looking for the change Mr. Obama has promised.
Given their questionable affiliations, the early appointments of Rahm Emanuel and Sonal Shah raise serious doubts about President-elect Obama's judgment and intentions. The people these advisers select to work in the incoming administration will likely not be helpful in developing an objective US policy in the Middle East and South Asia, two very critical regions of the world.