Pravasi Bharatiya Friends of Modi prize

Six of 30 winners have a common factor

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 10.01.17
Modi. (Reuters)

New Delhi, Jan. 9: Officially, India's top diaspora awards need the nominees to meet one of eight eligibility criteria.

On Monday, six of the 30 winners of the 2017 Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards also ticked a ninth box: direct ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government.

Among them were three Indian Americans whom Modi had handpicked to organise his September 2014 show at New York's Madison Square Garden.

All three -- oncologist Bharati Barai, financial consultant Ramesh Shah and scientist Mahesh Mehta --- have close public affiliations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.

The winners also included an Indian American leader of the Republican Hindu Coalition, which had lobbied with the US to revive ties with Modi before 2014, and a Thailand-based businessman associated with Sangh-run schools in India.

An Indian Canadian businessman who had coaxed lawmakers in Ottawa to visit Gujarat in 2009 to meet Modi, then the state's chief minister, at a time he was a pariah in the West following the 2002 riots was also among the winners.

Senior Indian officials confirmed to The Telegraph that at least some of these six awardees had been nominated by the final selection panel itself -- and not by the Indian missions abroad, which recommend the bulk of the nominations.

The choice of these awardees comes at a time the foreign office is trying to quell frequent criticism from within the Indian diaspora that lobbying counts more than merit in the selection of winners.

"We have a committee," Dnyaneshwar Mulay, secretary (overseas Indian affairs) in the foreign ministry, had said last week when asked how the awardees are selected. "The committee is of eminent people."

Vice-President Hamid Ansari heads the selection panel, which includes foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta, Modi's principal secretary Nripendra Misra, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, former diplomat Satish Chandra, UAE businessman Yusuf Ali, Mulay, Pepsi chief Indra Nooyi and Shyam Parande of Sangh-leaning think tank Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad.

The foreign office today said it had considered 178 nominations for the 30 awards and that the final selections had been unanimous. It said six of the final nominations were picked "suo motu" (on their own) by the final selection panel.

The awards, instituted in 2003, mean to recognise contributions by Indian diaspora leaders. The criteria for selection include professional excellence that has elevated India's stature abroad, social work or philanthropic investments in India, philanthropic work abroad, welfare of the Indian community overseas, work to improve an understanding of India globally, work to improve ties between India and a foreign nation, and work to tangibly serve India's "causes" abroad.

Some among the awardees were clear choices, officials said. Libya-based community leader Ariful Islam braved the prospect of death to help Indian diplomats quietly pluck out hundreds of Indians from the war-torn nation in 2013.

The outgoing US undersecretary of state for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal, British minister Priti Patel, European Union legislator Nina Gill, Portuguese Premier Antonio Costa and Mauritius finance minister Pravind Jugnauth were awarded in keeping with a tradition of acknowledging foreign leaders of Indian origin for their contribution to better bilateral ties.

But while veteran diplomats said that lobbying for the Pravasi awards wasn't new, they added that they couldn't recall such a clear political slant in the selection of so many winners in the past.

One of the winners, mental health specialist Sampathkumar Shivangi, based out of Mississippi, had helped Chicago businessman Shalabh Kumar found the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) only last fall.

Kumar, one of US President-elect Donald Trump's top funders, had in 2012 shepherded a group of senior US Congressmen to Gandhinagar for a meeting with Modi, who was at the time forbidden by America from travelling to the country. Trump had in October addressed a gathering of the RHC in New Jersey.

Canadian businessman Mukund Purohit's ties with Modi go back even farther. In January 2009, he had cajoled a group of Canadian MPs to attend the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, Modi's showpiece investors' meeting, when it was taboo for western politicians to be seen with the then chief minister.

In 2011, Purohit led another delegation of Canadian parliamentarians to Gandhinagar, where they handed Modi a cheque for 21,000 Canadian dollars for a girl-child project he was running. Purohit today won the award in the "business" category.

Diamond businessman Susheel Kumar Saraff from Thailand is listed on the website of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the biennial diaspora convention where the awards were given, as a member of the Ekal Vidyalaya movement. The Ekal Vidyalayas are part of a network of schools the Sangh runs across the country.

The Antwerp Indian Association, a group of diamond traders that had hosted a public extravaganza for Modi when the Prime Minister visited Belgium in March, also won a Samman. It was one of three organisations among the awardees.

But few within the Indian diaspora are known to enjoy Modi's trust more than Barai, Shah and Mehta, the brains behind the success of his Madison Square Garden address.

Modi has known Barai since at least the 1990s, when the then BJP office-bearer travelled frequently to the US to cultivate a lobby supportive of the party.

Mehta founded the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the US. Shah is vice-president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the party's diaspora arm.