I don't think I had ever heard of Sonal Shah before this month. She is, of course, the (now) best-known Indian-American on Barack Obama's transition team. I heard about her because soon after she was named onto that team, people found out about her family's links to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
I will admit, those links unsettle me. I mean, among many other things, I have had this unpleasant personal encounter with VHP men. Why would I not find the Shah news unsettling? I tried to think of it like this: how would I feel if my kids' school appointed to its board a person whose brother was in the VHP? Or if a close friend turned out to have a relative there?
In fact, I've had experiences like those. (Hasn't everyone?) A good friend has an uncle in the VHP. Someone else I knew well started an organization to fight corruption where I was an on-and-off participant, and it turned out his brother was a VHP office-bearer.
In both cases, nothing much happened. One person I respect a great deal (and with whom I still work on other things from time to time) resigned from the organization on hearing the news about the brother. But it carried on nevertheless for some years, with its quiet but effective work. I asked my friend to introduce me to the uncle, but the uncle (I heard) politely declined. And because of our years of friendship, I never had any questions about my friend's feelings about the VHP or its politics.
So, about Sonal Shah again.
First, I don't believe it amounts to guilt by association to find the news of her family's links to the VHP unsettling, especially for people who don't know her from Eve. (Like me). I think it is understandable that those who don't know her have questions about her, and legitimate that they voice them. This seems obvious to me.
Second, those who know Ms Shah well must speak in her defence, and many have. This seems obvious to me too. Though I don't know why some of them seem so outraged by the questions ("disgusting" and "garbage" are just two of the words I've seen used to refer to them). My friend with the VHP uncle was hardly outraged by my concerns, and instead patiently explained that the uncle was a reasonable man -- which is why I asked to meet him.
But let's also remember that such defence is not, by itself, enough. If you whom I don't know from Adam say excellent things about Ms X whom I don't know from Eve but have worries about, that's good -- but why should that alone allay my worries? If guilt by association is a hollow tactic, what should we think of innocence by association?
Third, and therefore far more important to me than #2, Ms Shah has explained her stand and views in what are, to me, clear terms: "[M]y 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 always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool ... I do not subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups, and never have."
Given that, I don't believe Ms Shah should be asked more and more questions. I think what she has said answers the concerns about her in full. With her words, and with what others whom I know and respect have said about her, I'm entirely satisfied about Sonal Shah's credentials and record.
I wish her and Barack Obama only the best on their hard road out of a disastrous eight years.