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Green Vs Saffron

The choice before ambassador-at-large Bhishma Agnihotri is pretty cut and dried: his US toehold or his badge of patriotism

Green Vs Saffron
Green Vs Saffron
When Bhishma K. Agnihotri was appointed ambassador-at-large for non-resident Indians (NRIs) and People of Indian Origin as well as advisor to the Indian embassy in Washington, he waxed eloquent on his burning desire to serve the motherland. Destiny has now subjected him to a gruelling test: either he surrenders his precious green card or abandons his dream to serve his matrubhoomi in this decidedly grand but vague avatar.

Agnihotri was suddenly asked to undergo the 'test of loyalty' when the US state department rejected his application seeking diplomatic accreditation. The arguments proffered were that the US government did not recognise the rank of advisor to a foreign ambassador nor considered it an embassy post in New York, where Agnihotri is posted. The department also pointed to the rule book saying a green card-holder could not represent a foreign government in the US.

At one stroke was shattered the dream of the man who isn't embarrassed about his Sangh parivar background, nor conceals his proximity to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. His background was what had persuaded the NDA government to appoint Agnihotri as ambassador-at-large, sweeping aside the fears that he could become a parallel power centre to Indian ambassador Lalit Mansingh in the embassy in Washington.

For 26 long years, Agnihotri had been working at the Southwestern University Law Centre at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and resigned as dean to take the post of ambassador-at-large created for him. His supporters had then cited his flourishing career to claim that neither personal glory nor glamour, let alone power and pelf, had guided Agnihotri's ambassadorial aspirations. Cynics in the Indian community now smirk and ask: will he as a votary of the Sangh, which believes it's a paragon of Indian patriotism, make the supreme sacrifice of surrendering the green card in the service of Mother India?

But the choice before Agnihotri is piquant—and perilous. Were he to surrender the green card, Agnihotri could obviously continue in office until New Delhi decides to replace him or abolishes the post altogether. Considering his palpable proximity to the BJP, there's a certain inevitability about him getting the axe in the event of a change in government in Delhi. In such a scenario, Agnihotri would have no choice but to pack his bags and return to India. "This man wants to have his cake and eat it too," jokes one community leader. "He wants to keep his green card and yet says he is a saffron man."

His continuation in office, sources say, is also a violation of US laws, which require lobbyists to register with the department of justice. Agnihotri says he hasn't registered because he isn't a lobbyist. (In the US, though, anyone pushing his country's case with Congressmen is considered a lobbyist.) "Post-September 11, in the scenario of heightened security and tougher visa laws, the last thing the Indian government wants is an embarrassing disclosure that its envoy has been violating the laws of the land," cautions a source.

Agnihotri is hopeful that the US government could waive its rule disallowing green card-holders from lobbying for foreign governments, insisting his job description doesn't involve lobbying. But a state department official says, "Giving exception is the sole right of the government of the United States. Agnihotri has to have diplomatic accreditation to be a representative of the government of India. How the Indian government tackles this issue is its problem."

Diplomatic sources are also worried about a turf war breaking out between Indian consulates in the US and Agnihotri's Manhattan office. This is because the primary task of Indian consulates here is the same as Agnihotri's, to deal with NRIs and their activities across the US.In Washington, besides the obvious encroachment on ambassador Mansingh's territory, there is concern of an "overlap" between Agnihotri and minister for community affairs Anil Chowdhry's department, which coordinates the embassy's interaction with community organisations in the US.

This situation, say diplomatic sources, is now a nuisance. Says an Indian embassy source, "Agnihotri's been asking every Tom, Dick and Harry who is a leader of any association in the US to organise a felicitation for him. He has used his connections to be invited to major Indian American events and conventions at Mansingh's cost."

This has embarrassed the Indian American diaspora, compelled as it is to choose between him or working with a team of career diplomats. And these overlaps and embarrassments have come at the expense of the Indian taxpayer, who foots Agnihotri's bill of Rs 2 crore a year and the $14,000-a-month rent for his office in Manhattan. Since last October, he has travelled across 10 states in the US and has also been to Canada, Guyana and, more recently, to Trinidad. It pays to be a saffron man with the green card.
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