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Chatwal controversy created to embarrass PM

Last updated on: February 07, 2010 17:32 IST
As the controversy over the Indian government's decision to award the prestigious Padma Bhushan honor to New York-based hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal rages on, Chatwal slammed the allegations hurled against him saying he had been cleared of all charges both in India and the US.

Meanwhile, diplomatic and political observers in Washington said that the controversy had now moved beyond simply targeting Chatwal and a deliberate effort to embarrass Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his Principal Secretary T K A Nair by not just the saffron lobby but by vested interests within the Congress.

Chatwal, told rediff.com that in 2007, besides the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, he had made political contributions to the campaign of Vice President Joe Biden as well as Senator Christopher Dodd, now co-chair of the Senate India Caucus."To all these leading Democrats and presidential candidates, I gave my personal checks, my wife's checks, my children's checks, and none of them were returned by any of them," he said.

Chatwal said he had also over the years, and particularly during the run-up to the Congressional vote on the US-India nuclear deal over three years ago, contributed to the campaigns of senior Democratic leaders like US Senator Charles Schumer of New York, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and US Congressman Gary Ackerman, Joe Crowley, Nita Lowey, Anthony Weiner, and several others "to help get all the votes to get the nuclear deal done," and argued that all these donations that are governed by strict rules and regulations by the Federal Election Commission and ethics rules of the US Congress itself, would have been returned "if there had been any blemish against me and my contributions considered tainted."

Chatwal also took on a media report that quoted an unnamed member of the finance committee of then Obama presidential campaign, who had said the Obama campaign did not accept any contribution from Chatwal 'because of his background and baggage.' "I did not send a single penny to the Obama campaign," he asserted, and added, "I challenge this so-called finance committee member to come forward and show any proof, any evidence, that I contributed or offered to contribute to the campaign."

He acknowledged that when Hillary Clinton had conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama after being defeated in the primaries, and told all her supporters to strongly back her campaign, he had made a public declaration that he was ready to raise millions of dollars for the Obama campaign. But Chatwal said he had never contacted anyone in the Obama campaign because the opportunity never presented itself because the latter was all booked up with events across the country and a time and date could not be nailed down.

However, he argued that if he had all this "background and baggage," as the member of the Obama campaign finance committee member had alleged, "How come I was invited for all the events  President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary (of State) Hillary Clinton hosted for the Prime Minister (Dr Singh during his State visit in November)."

"There is no way the White House and the State Department would have had me over for the State Dinner at the White House and the luncheon at the State Department given by Vice President Biden and Hillary, if there was any thing shady about me," Chatwal said. "Do you think I would have been invited? Don't you think I would have been fully checked out? As you know the Secret Service here and the intelligence agencies before such a high level visit always check with the CBI and Indian intelligence and everybody."

Chatwal also said, just prior to the visit by the Prime Minister, he had also attended a fund-raiser for Senator Dodd in Connecticut, where Obama was the main draw to attract the maximum number of high-rollers, "and I briefly spoke to the President about the Prime Minister's upcoming visit."

Diplomatic and political observers, who have closely followed this controversy--which has continued to persist—said that "this issue has now gone way beyond just Chatwal."

"It has now become clearly and effort to embarrass the PM –they want to defame him and also (the Prime Minister's principal Secretary) T K A Nair," one observer said." And, this is not just a BJP campaign, but I believe certain people within the Congress Party itself who want to embarrass the PM and show the PMO in bad light."

According to the observer, "Let's not forget that it was the Home Ministry who kept leaking that Chatwal's name was not on the list, and that it was included on the urging of the PMO."The observers said reports that Nair was the chief guest and opened Chatwal's Dream Hotel in Kochi in April 2009, "are all part of this effort to embarrass the PM and his office, and now it's not just the controversy of the charges against Chatwal."

Earlier, a defiant Chatwal, vowed he will not succumb to any pressure to not accept the award, slated to be presented at a ceremony in New Delhi next month."I have absolutely no intention of not accepting the award," he asserted. "Never, never, never in my life. People like the Prime Minister of India, they've recognized my work, I worked for over 30 years promoting US-India relations. So, why in the world will I give up this award," he told rediff.com. Chatwal blasted the BJP for demanding that the award to him be withdrawn because of his questionable financial dealings and pointed out that he was quite pained to see this kind of a campaign from a party whose leaders he had introduced to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Image: (Above) Chatwal with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crawley.(Below) With US president Barack Obama.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC