When Sonal Shah was appointed to US President-elect Barack Obama's transition team shortly after his historic election victory, there were initially loud cheers from many sections of US society.
For Americans invested in minority representation, the presence of the Indian-born American woman on the first black US president's team was further proof that the times had changed.
For the fast-growing Asian Indian community in the US, Shah's rise was testament to the strides the community had taken.
More than 7,000 miles away, in Indian living rooms, Shah's presence on a team that could help design the future of the world somehow brought the prevailing Obamamania closer home.
But within days, Shah was dogged by a controversy that roiled the Indian-American community, sparked a media debate back in India and now threatens to cast a pall over a sizeable number of progressive voters who backed Obama. As the new US President-elect prepares for his Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration, it puts the spotlight on the complex business of governance that Obama now has to face after a groundswell of support delivered him the top spot in the White House.
And it also brings to the fore the issue of India's increasingly international Hindu extremist groups, a phenomenon largely overlooked by the international community.
At the heart of the latest fracas are Shah's contested links with a hard-line Hindu organisation that international rights groups, as well as the US State Department, have implicated in deadly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence in India.
Born in India, but raised in the US, where her parents moved when she was a toddler, Shah's credentials are impeccable. The head of Google's Global Development Initiatives, Shah's past posts include vice president of Goldman Sachs. As an economist, she has also served in the US Treasury Department and the National Security Council.
But it's in her do-gooder role as co-founder of Indicorps, a Texas-based NGO that encourages Indians abroad to participate in development work back home in India, that Shah has sparked the latest spat.
An anti-Shah salvo is fired
The first salvo was fired by Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, Connecticut, who charged that Shah was an active member of the VHPA.
The VHPA (Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America) is the US branch of the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council), a Hindu extremist group accused of involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in which more than 850 people were brutally killed.
The VHP ideology views India as a Hindu state and regards the country’s multi-religious diversity as a result of historic "foreign invasions" by Muslims as well as Christian missionaries and colonisers.
In recent months, the VHP has been implicated in the deadly anti-Christian violence in the eastern Indian state of Orissa which claimed about 60 lives, destroyed more than 4,000 houses and left as many as 50,000 Christians homeless.
While the VHP's virulent Islamophobia has been largely overlooked by a US administration consumed by its "war on terror", the organisation's anti-Christian campaign has been officially noted and condemned by the US State Department.
The VHP is part of a network of extremist Hindu groups – including the Bajrang Dal and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) – that has ties to the BJP, India’s main opposition party. Together, these organisations, along with a host of others, form the sangh parivar (or "family" of Hindu nationalist groups).
In an article published in a US biweekly, Prashad raised Shah's involvement in relief and charity operations by the VHPA - which play an important role in the organisation's global outreach – to question Shah's suitability in Obama's transition team.
‘Factually inaccurate internet rumours’
Within days, the Indian media as well as the blogosphere erupted in a tidal wave of acrimonious debate.
Reacting to the charges, Shah issued a statement denouncing the "factually inaccurate internet rumours" linking her to "Hindu nationalist groups." She stressed that her "personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or any such organisation."
FRANCE 24 tried to contact Shah as well as representatives of the Obama transition team, but neither responded.
For its part, the VHPA mirrored Shah's written statement. "All I will say is Sonal Shah is not associated with the VHPA. She has not been in any office in any capacity with the organisation," said VHPA spokesman Shyam Tiwari in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. In a statement subsequently emailed to FRANCE 24, he reiterated that "Sonal is not associated with the VHP of America in any capacity whatsoever."
But a 2001 VHPA press release appears to undercut Tiwari's claims.
The release, issued shortly after the Jan. 2001 Gujarat earthquake, lists VHPA relief efforts – including wiring $50,000 for "immediate rescue and relief efforts" - and lists Sonal Shah as a "National Coordinator" for the relief effort, above Tiwari's contact information.
When confronted with this evidence by the press, Tiwari subsequently said, "Sonal was a member of the VHP of America at the time of the earthquake. Her membership has expired."
She's not 'an insular child of American suburbia'
The controversy has put the spotlight on the shadowy route of international funds pouring into sangh parivar coffers from a network of charity and relief organisations. Gujarat, the state from where Shah's parents hail, is often at the heart of the international money trail since the western Indian state has an extensive diaspora, with more than a million people of Gujarati origins living in the US and the UK alone.
Following the VHP money trail in Gujarat though is particularly difficult since funds – often in cash - are frequently transferred within the extended business family structure.
In her statement denying links to the VHPA, Shah states, "I'm proud to have helped coordinate relief work following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, or cultural and religious affiliations of some of my family members, or apolitical humanitarian work I've been privileged to do as a founder of the NGO Indicorps and as the director of global development for Google.org."
But in a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Prasad said Shah's statement denouncing the politics of division and religious hatred was "gratifying, but unpersuasive." He added that he found her denial was irresolute. "It's okay to say she doesn't share the philosophy of the group,' he said. "But she didn't take the opportunity to question, if not condemn, the role these groups played in the violence in Gujarat."
Shah's supporters though note that even if there were tenuous links between the Indicorps co-founder and the VHPA, Shah herself was merely aiding relief efforts during a natural disaster. "It would be deeply wrong if participation in collecting earthquake relief… would be considered enough to disqualify her for office," reads a letter of support by a handful of prominent Indians printed in “Outlook”, a New Delhi-based weekly.
Indeed the blogosphere is awash with Shah's defenders, ranging from Hindu right wing sympathisers to secular progressives. While the latter admit that Shah probably made an "error of judgment," they note that as an Indian American, she may not have been aware of the VHP's nefarious nature.
It's an argument that cuts little ground with Naresh Fernandes, editor-in-chief of TimeOut India, who has extensively covered communal violence in India. "A woman as smart as Shah would have to have blocked out all media reports for her not to know what the VHP represents in India," he said. "Besides, she also runs an NGO in India so it isn't as if she's some insular child of American suburbia."
In the Modi mode
Another troubling issue is Shah's failure to denounce Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial Hindu right wing politician who was denied a US diplomatic visa in 2005.
Modi’s existing tourist/business US visa was also revoked under a US rule that makes any foreign government official who "was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom" ineligible for a visa to the United States.
Prashad notes that despite Modi's well documented complicity in the horrific 2002 Gujarat riots, Shah accepted a 2004 Gujarat state award, which her brother accepted on her behalf in Modi's presence.
Shortly after Obama's victory, the Indian press was speculating about whether the new US administration would finally grant Modi a US visa.
Shah's defenders note that her Modi links are hazy and she can hardly be faulted for an innocuous award acceptance for her commendable relief work in Gujarat.
Prashad however rejects the argument. "It's like if someone received an award from [former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic and said 'I just did charity work for victims of the war,'" said Prashad.
The Milosevic analogy is guaranteed to spark another furious roar in a bitter blogosphere battle that shows no sign of dying and is a warning for the new US president-elect as he prepares to take over the White House come Jan. 20, 2009.