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More Indian Americans quit Obama administration

August 12, 2011 08:28 IST

Two more senior Indian American Obama administration officials have flown the coop.

Ro Khanna, deputy assistant secretary for domestic operations at the department of commerce's international trade administration and Sonal Shah, director of the White House office of social innovation, quit the administration, joining more than the half-a dozen other senior Indian American Obama faithful who have departed more than 15 months before the President completes his term.

Last month, Preeta Bansal, counsel and senior policy adviser, White House office of management and budget, Vivek Kundra, chief information office, and Neal Katyal, principal deputy solicitor general resigned their positions, and Kal Penn Modi, associate director, White House office of public engagement is scheduled to leave August 31.

Earlier, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Rahul 'Richard' Verma and Neera Tanden, senior policy adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had also left the administration.

Khanna is mulling a run for the US Congress from California's District 13, which includes his home town of Fremont, which is now the constituency of 20-term Congressman Fortney 'Pete' Stark, who may retire next year since he is getting on in years, turning 80 in November.

At the urging of the Democratic Party leadership like House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with the blessing of Stark, Khanna told rediff.com that he was hoping to launch an exploratory committee soon so that he would be prepared to jump into the fray if Stark decides to throw in the towel after nearly four decades on Capitol Hill.

The constituency has a 30 percent Asian American population and apparently offers one of the best chances for an Indian American to win, Khanna said.

Pelosi speaking at a recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fund-raiser, where the majority of the guests were South Asian Americans, and obviously cognizant of Khanna's decision to leave the administration and make a run for Congress, remarked, "Ro has completed two years in the administration and he is now going to go back home to serve his community."

"I know, he has a public service ambition and he embodies the entrepreneurial spirit in this room," the influential lawmaker, who can be a major boost to Khanna's campaign if he decides to run, said.

Shah, acknowledged to rediff.com that she quit essentially because of 'burn-out,' and would spend the next few months traveling.

"I am taking a few months off and I am going to India for one month and then I am going to other places in Southeast Asia, just for travel," she said. "I want to take a time-out, reboot, but also to just have some time to think about what next for me because it's really hard to look for a job when you are in a job, especially in the White House because there's a lot of conflict of interest and so I want to keep some distance from what I was doing to think about where I can have the best impact and to be able to just step back and think about what I should do from the outside."

Shah said working in the White House was no picnic and "it was pretty hard work all the time -- it's a constant, it just doesn't stop. It was a hectic two-and-a-half years working on all of the issues that we've been working on."

Both Khanna and Shah said working in the Obama administration were the best job experience they had had in their lives thus far.

"It was the best job I've had in my life and an absolute honour to serve the President and (Commerce) Secretary (Gary) Locke (who was last week confirmed as the new US ambassador to China)," Khanna said.

"I've learned about what it is going to take to make America competitive, about how we are going to create jobs and build a manufacturing capability, and how we are going to continue innovation."

Khanna, just a few weeks into his appointment over two years ago, at the time was the first Indian American senior Commerce Department official to lead a trade delegation to India.

He said, during his tenure, "I traveled across the US and helped businesses with increasing their exports, helping to build their manufacturing capacity."

"I was part of the White House Business Council, so I advocated for policies that would improve innovation that would create the right environment for businesses, including investment from India, to locate jobs here and that would also help prepare a skilled workforce," Khanna added.

Shah said, "I honestly have loved every moment of what I have been able to do in the job that I've done. It's been great. I have no regrets. Honestly, it's been one of the best jobs that I've had ever. It was an awesome experience."

She joined the White House after stints with the Department of Treasury in the Clinton administration, Center for American Progress, Goldman Sachs and as the head of Global Development at google.org, the search engine company's philanthropic arm.

Speaking to some of the highlights of what she was able to achieve as the first head of an office created by the Obama White House, Shah said, "When I first got there and when we talked about innovation, it was still a new concept. And now, when you think about the fact how many people talk about innovation, and especially social innovation, it's pretty amazing." She spoke of what "a sense of fulfillment" she felt, particularly since she was the first director of the office that used the White House bully pulpit to push for social innovation "and now they are going to hire someone to follow up on all of the programs we started. So, it's not going to be just a one-time deal."

Interestingly, even before Shah was appointed the first director of this office, and hardly 48 hours into the news that she had been named to the 15-member transition board that would oversee then President-elect Obama's move to the White House January 20, 2009, unsubstantiated rumour and innuendo of her alleged links to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, reluctantly prompted her to issue a statement to set the record straight.

Even before the news of her appointment to this high-powered board could be celebrated, and a White House position seemed such a far way off, these insinuations against Shah were posted in a left-oriented online magazine and quickly found itself into several newspapers in India.

Consequently, even though initially neither the Obama team nor Shah felt any compulsion to address what was dismissed as disinformation directly, in the wake of some Indian American groups representing minorities seeking clarification, Shah, in a statement released by the Obama campaign, said that her "personal politics has nothing in common with the views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or any such organisation."

Shah,  at the outset of her statement, declared, "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."

She said, "A presidential transition is always a time of excitement and, in some cases, of rumors and unfounded gossip."

In this regard, Shah said, "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 Parishah, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or any such organisation."

"I've never been involved in Indian politics, and never intend to do so," she said. "Second, I've always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool."

Shah lamented that "some factually inaccurate internet rumours have attempted to link me to Hindu nationalist groups through a variety of tenuous connections: 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."

"Finally, I do not subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups, and never have," she said, and pointed out that "ridiculous tactics of guilt by association have been decisively repudiated by the American people."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC