Sunday, November 09, 2008

In Defence of Sonal Shah 

The term "crab mentality" is generally used to describe behaviour where one pulls down one's own if he/she is seen to be getting ahead in life. This may not be unique to us South Asians, but I have seen it often among South Asians. Apparently, the behaviour is named for the way crabs in a bucket pull down a crab that might actually be escaping the bucket/dinner table.

Sonal Shah was recently appointed to the Obama transition team as an adviser. As is always the case, the first reports from the Indian media were euphoric. It did not take much time for the storyline to change, with the flimsiest of evidence and fact check. The Hindustan Times and the Times of India were the first to allege that Sonal Shah was linked to the RSS and the extreme right-wing of the hindu fundamentalist movement. The Daily Times of Pakistan upped the ante by stating that she has been "part of a group believed to have been involved in the massacre of muslims in Gujarat." Apparently, all of these stories have been drawing inspiration from a Counterpunch article by Vijay Prashad titled "Obama's Indian: The Many Faces of Sonal Shah."

Now, I don't know Vijay Prashad, so I will not go there. However, unlike Mr Prashad, I actually know Sonal Shah. Very well. In fact, Sonal is a very dear friend of mine. To put it in the simplest terms, these allegations about her being communal are the most vile trash I have heard in recent times. Under normal circumstances, one would just ignore these stories since they typically die in less than one news cycle. Unfortunately, these allegations have been timed to cynical perfection with the aim to maximally embarrass her, and by extension, the transition team. So, I believe it is important for those of us who know her well to speak up for her.

I met Sonal about 4-5 years ago in New York. We first worked closely together when the 2004 tsunami struck. She and her organization, Indicorps, were doing remarkable work in the tsunami zone and I was coordinating some web-based relief efforts, including on this blog. Our professional collaboration continued, given our common interest in market-based solutions to promote economic development, something I have learnt a lot from her about. She moved from Goldman Sachs to Google.org to lead the global development team there. While at Google, she and I along with colleagues at the Soros Economic Development Fund and the Omidyar Network worked closely to put together an SME fund for India, aimed to provide early stage finance for SMEs in India. Our philosophy was that SMEs create huge amounts of employment at the bottom of the pyramid and therefore are vital to the economic development process. Given all of our belief in inclusive economic growth, we were betting that the promotion of the SME sector was one way to extend the growth miracle to India's excluded millions. Besides the SME fund, Sonal's focus at Google has been on the Inform and Empower initiative, giving people the information necessary to hold their governments accountable for their actions.

Let's also look at her track record before I knew her. While she was at Clinton's treasury department, she worked actively in Kosovo and Bosnia in setting up the central banking system and refloating the currency, both measures vital to the stability of the new states, and especially in preventing hyper-inflation. She also worked in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis with Robert Rubin's team. Lest the irony be lost, all three countries are predominantly muslim, not exactly the natural home of the anti-muslim fundamentalist some of these news reports imply Sonal is.

For better or for worse, I was born an Indian Christian. Long-time readers of this blog know that nothing gets my goat more than religious fundamentalism and intolerance, be it Hindu, Christian, Muslim or whatever else in origin. I abhor fundamentalists and I abhor people who have anything to do with these lunatics. They are responsible for a great majority of the world's problems today. Given that I am an atheist and what I think of religious fundamentalism, does anyone think I would call Sonal a close friend if I had detected even the slightest amount of communalism in her? So, as I pointed out in a post to a mailing list, if Sonal is communal, then I am the Pope.

As a friend of mine said at the time, these people are doing to Sonal exactly what the right-wing loonies tried to do to Barack Obama with the Bill Ayers story, i.e., guilt by association. If you have made the mistake of being somewhere near Bill Ayers, by definition, you're "palling with the terrorists." This is vile. This is wrong. This is destructive. This is disgusting. And this is precisely the sort of vile politics that the United States needs a break from; the sort of politics the average person is tired of, if Obama's mandate is anything to go by. And if nothing else, I would expect so-called Obama supporters of the left to understand this.

And it's not just me who is willing to stand up for Sonal Shah. Here is what Fawzia Naqvi, Sonal's close friend, colleague, and a Pakistani muslim had to say:
I met Sonal in early 2006, we were on a panel together at a south asia women's conference. It took us all of 5 minutes to hit it off and we have become very close friends since then. Sonal is one of the most solid, level headed and intellectually sharp individuals I know. I have turned to her many times for personal and professional guidance and she has stood by me through all of it. Her integrity and honesty are her greatest assets. I am really horrified by the smear campaign which is being activated against her and it hurts to see her being dragged through this nonsense at a time when all of us South Asians should be celebrating her success and a recognition that one of us is indeed reaching for the stars. Sonal is an inspiration to me and to countless many other women I know. I am proud of her and proud to be her friend. As for the garbage being spread about her, I have not once experienced any word, any action from Sonal which would make me think for a second that she had any "right wing hindu" leanings or any extremist thinking whatsoever. If these allegations werent so serious and insidious they would be laughable.
In this post you have an Indian Christian and a Pakistani Muslim standing up for Sonal Shah. I hope that will give the practitioners of the politics of destruction some pause.

For newcomers to this blog, I am a professor at an Indian business school and my full bio is here.

MAJOR UPDATE: The following is a statement by Sonal Shah, Transition Board Member, for President-elect Barack Obama.
As an Indian-American who has lived in this country since the age of four, serving on the Obama-Biden transition team is a unique privilege for me. A presidential transition is always a time of excitement and, in some cases, of rumors and unfounded gossip. I'd like to set to rest a few baseless and silly reports that have been circulating on the Internet. First, my personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organization. I've never been involved in Indian politics, and never intend to do so. Second, I've always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool. Some factually inaccurate internet rumors have attempted to link me to Hindu Nationalist groups through a variety of tenuous connections: Relief work I'm proud to have helped coordinate following the Gujarati 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. Finally, I do not subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups, and never have. Ridiculous tactics of guilt by association have been decisively repudiated by the American people. I am delighted with what the victory on November 4 says about my country, and about our place in the world. I look forward to serving our President-elect in this time of transition.

Sonal's denial of any links with the VHP/RSS is now appearing across multiple news outlets: Indian Express, Indiainfo, Outlook, Hindustan Times, NDTV, Sify, Deccan Herald, Rediff, MSN India. Most of them are carrying the PTI wire story, but at least they're carrying it.

Prem Panicker is a name most of you are familiar with. One of India's best known journalists, Prem was also one of the founders of Rediff.com. Here is a fabulously well written piece on Sonal Shah and the politics of defamation. Prem's article was followed by this piece by Arun Venugopal of National Public Radio (NPR), and one of the mainstays of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA). It is titled Sonal Shah Joins the White House Transition Team, and Gets Smeared. Arun provides some history as well. Salil Tripathi writes in Mint that Sonal Shah should be judged by her resume and her deeds.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, several people have started coming out to defend Sonal and I am going to post them here.

Dr. Larry Brilliant needs no introduction, really. He ran the WHO team that eradicated small pox from the planet. He founded the Seva Foundation, which along with Aravind Eye Hospitals have given eye sight back to millions. With Stewart Brand, Dr Brilliant founded The Well. A TED Prize winner, he is now the Exec Director of Google.org, where he was responsible for hiring Sonal Shah. This is his take on Sonal:
I hired Sonal Shah at Google, actually Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google after an exhaustive search to find someone with the sharpest mind and purest heart to help bring resources and technology to the poorest of the poor. She has done that magnificently and she has become a leader of Google.org and an inspiration to us.

For background: I'm a sort of wannabe Desi, having lived in India for more than 10 years working all over India as a medical officer on the WHO campaign which eradicated smallpox from India and all of South Asia, and later working on polio eradication in Uttar Pradesh. I started the Seva Foundation and along with our partner, Aravind Eye Hospital, we have been giving back sight to millions of blind people in India. Because of that background, I've had the honor of working with some of the best sons and daughters that India has given life to----J R D Tata was my mentor for many years; Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy my teacher and partner in conquering blindness, India's Commissioner of Health, MID Sharma called me "son" until his death, and Karan Singh invited me to become an honorary Indian. Most important of all, Neem Karoli Baba became my guru in 1972 and I've been a chela ever since. Let me tell you straight away that as many wonderful people that the good Lord has allowed me to meet and work with, there is no finer person I have met than Sonal Shah. I've read the comments about her -- alleging "communal hatred" and they are beyond absurd. Sonal has not a bone, not a muscle, not a cell, not a strand of DNA with bigotry. She is one of the best, the brightest, the kindest, open minded and inclusive souls, and one of the most talented that my beloved India, my adopted homeland, has produced.

Please help stop the real bigots who are maligning her, stop circulating their venom. Remind them, please, that the path to heaven is closed for those who bear false witness against their neighbors. When I was working in India to eradicate smallpox, my associate Zafar Hussain and an imam in Lucknow "took me under their wings" and helped me study the Koran, to understand Islam better. I remember so vividly when they taught me about pul-e-sirat, the bridge from this world to heaven. The soul must cross this bridge, as narrow as a knife's edge, constantly pulled down by the sins of a lifetime. One of the worst sins, the worst obstacles to crossing pul-e-sirat into Heaven or Paradise was the sin of bearing false witness against a good person.

Sonal Shah is a credit to India, a credit to the Obama transition, a credit to America and a friend to all who know her. Let's rally around this remarkable woman and support her against false accusations and innuendos and let's pray for her success in helping create an Obama Administration that can help heal this broken and divided world. The stakes are too high for false divisiveness and petty fabrications. Sonal will help make "Hindi-Yankee bhai bhai" stronger and better and we all need to support her in building this friendship.

Larry Brilliant MD MPH FACPM D.Sc (hon) D.LH (hon)

UPDATE: This is from Manjeet Kripalani, veteran award-winning (Gerald Loeb, George Polk, Daniel Pearl awards) journalist and former Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations.
Sonal Shah is one of the most dedicated human beings I have met. She is super-bright, dedicated, kind, honest. We need more Indians like her to serve as role models for the world, not just for other Indians. India is proud of this daughter, and so is the US. Sonal is an advisor on the Obama team now, and for good reason - she has the abilities and the human qualities that the new administration is looking for. To those who seek to malign people like Sonal, I say - go find another target, you're wasting your time.

UPDATE: Here is Vishal Vasishth, MD of Clean Partners who was a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute with Sonal.
I met Sonal in early 2006, when we were both selected to be part of the 2006 Henry Crown emerging leaders program at the Aspen Institute. During the last couple of years, I have come to know Sonal better, by working closely with her on two projects. The first project that we worked together was on launching an energy and environment innovation award in conjunction with the Aspen Institute and the National Geographic magazine. The second project is where I have signed up to lead an India-focused SME advisory firm Sonal helped put together. Through these experiences and other conversation, I find Sonal to be a smart, personable, level-headed, generous and a kind person. She is committed to making a difference in the world and helping others. I am shocked at all this propaganda and request people spreading it to do some homework. Instead of writing this nonsense, they should celebrate a fellow Indian/South Asian who through her dedication, hard work and intellect has been chosen to be part of Obama's transition team. This is a historic election that seems to show that a world beyond divisions is possible. Let's build on it and work together on solving critical problems that face our planet instead of propagating the age-old politics of division.
UPDATE: This is from Andrew McLaughlin, the head of global public policy and government affairs at Google, and Emeritus Fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard.
Having seen Sonal in action at Google.org, I can confirm that she is a person of unmatched integrity, intelligence, and dedication to the public good. In her work to foster global economic development, she has been an inspiring leader with a clear vision, a tireless work ethic, and a pragmatist's devotion to data and real-world implementation. A widely-celebrated social entrepreneur, Sonal has never shown a shred of favor toward, or bias against, any religion or ethnic group. Sonal and her achievements merit recognition and applause, not fabricated insinuations of guilt-by-association.

UPDATE: Former U.S. congressional staffer, Kapil Sharma.
Professionally, I did not work with Sonal while she served in the Dept. of Treasury as I served in the US Congress for Congressman Frank Pallone and Senator Robert Torricelli. I did know her socially as we had many, many, common friends. We also shared a common interest - helping and supporting the Indian American community. Without question, Sonal is deeply committed to the betterment of the Indian American community - both politically and socially.

I had served on the selection committee that awarded Sonal the "India Abroad Person of the Year." As you know, Sonal beat Bobby Jindal that year (Gov. Jindal had narrowly lost his race for Louisiana governership, but had helped changed the perception of Indian Americans and public service to mainstream Americans). While reviewing the nominees, it was clear that Sonal and her family had started something special with Indicorps - and that Sonal's commitment to helping Indians in both India and the US was a selfless endeveavor. It was that selfless commitment to the community that the selection committee wanted to reward and quite frankly promote. We felt that Sonal (and Indicorps) would be a wonderful role model for community service - not only for the US but for the Indian diaspora worldwide. And if you go buy the feedback we received - we made the right choice! ;-)

UPDATE: Here is a blog post by Rish Sanghvi, who was an Indicorps fellow, in defence of Sonal.

UPDATE: From Ankur Shukla, an Indicorps fellow who now works with the Lok Satta movement in India.
As an Indicorps Fellow I worked with Sonal, as well as her siblings Roopal and Anand. I found each to be highly dedicated to service to the community, both in India and the US, and each has inspired me at different times in my work, which has involved empowering some of the most oppressed communities in India, as well as building an inclusive political culture in India.

During my Fellowship year, my colleagues and I worked to empower some of the poorest communities in the world, regardless of religion or caste. I personally spent a year in my native city, Kanpur, UP, teaching young men from slums how to start businesses, financial management skills, teamwork and community building through sports, and also worked with the local leaders to bring vocational training and sanitation infrastructure to the communities. My colleagues' projects were in the fields of communal harmony, empowering women, mentoring children, sanitation and so on. The communities we worked in included Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, remote Tribals and so on. The cadre of Indicorps Fellows has included members of various faiths, including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, non-believers, and so on.

My experience in Indicorps was a stepping stone for my subsequent work in a grass roots movement for a new political culture and improved governance in India -- Lok Satta (www.loksattamovement.org and www.loksatta.org). We at Lok Satta strive to provide dignity, opportunity and justice to ALL Indians. My Indicorps colleagues have gone on to serve society (both in India and in the US), to study at premier institutes for graduate/professional education, and to be outstanding professionals in various fields.

In response to:

"[Vijaya Prashad] asked people to be wary about [Sonal Shah's] organization, Indicorps."

I think it is critical that people know what Indicorps and its fellows do, and who we are.

I can personally attest to Sonal's (as well as Roopal's and Anand's) dedication to service to the community, irrespective of caste/creed, etc. My colleagues and I would not have been inspired by anything less.

UPDATE: Sonal's friend, Salim Ismail, who is an angel investor in the Valley and former VP of Yahoo, blogs about her appointment to the transition team.

Sepia Mutiny now has a post titled, what else, In Defense of Sonal Shah.

Bilaal Ahmed, the founder of IMPAK spoke up for Sonal today.
Pakistan Has a Friend in Sonal Shah.
Back in 2004, it was Sonal Shah who was my inspiration for starting a Pakistan volunteer program, later mentoring me to help make that vision a reality. Impak is now an active service corps program that addresses some of Pakistan's most pressing challenges, including relief following the 2005 South Asia earthquake.

Sonal, along with her brother Anand and sister Roopal, have always been available when we've had a question or requested a meeting. I remember her making time at cafe at midnight in Manhattan when a colleague and I were in driving from DC to Connecticut. When I would catch her in DC, often unannounced, she would take time out to listen to my challenges and concerns and consistently offer solid advice. She always gave more than I expected and encouraged me to tap into Indicorps's resources.

There has already been an outpouring of support from people of all backgrounds in support of Sonal. It is clear that the smears against her are baseless and contradict everything that she has worked for and believed in. As a Pakistani-American who has been dedicated to promoting development in Pakistan, I have always found a stalwart supporter in Sonal.

Let me be absolutely clear: Sonal Shah has wanted nothing but the best for Pakistan and its Muslims.

Her ideas and vision go beyond ethnic and religious divisions and instead puts emphasis on progress, development, and the power of the individual. The fact that President-Elect Obama has selected her speaks to his campaign of change, inclusiveness, and community. I believe that Sonal is a fantastic addition to the Obama transition team and someone that all South Asians can be especially proud of.

Congratulations, Sonal. We at Impak will support you as you have always supported us.