The government moved swiftly on Wednesday to cap the controversy over conferring Padma Bhushan on US-based hotelier and lobbyist Sant Singh Chatwal, saying he had been cleared in all the five cases lodged against him.
“A tireless advocate of India’s interests in the US”, Chatwal deserved the honour and there was “nothing adverse on record against him”, the government said.
Padma Bhushan is country’s third highest civilian award.
Between 1992 and 1994, the CBI had registered five cases against Chatwal and some bank officials for “defrauding” the Bank of Baroda and Bank of India. The agency closed three cases and filed two chargesheets in a Mumbai court. Chatwal was, however, discharged, the home ministry said.
The clarification comes at a time when the BJP has launched a shrill campaign against the award for the lobbyist.
“They have given Padma Bhushan to Chatwal, who had earlier declared himself bankrupt. Who can be more politically bankrupt,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said on Wednesday.
The party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Gopinath Munde, has already written to President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demanding the award be withdrawn. The Congress, too, distanced from the decision.
The Wednesday’s statement referred to Chatwal’s role in securing support for the nuclear deal.
It also mentioned other honours bestowed on him, including the Rajiv Gandhi Award in 2005. But the award, said sources, was instituted by a Maharashtra Legislative Council member, Charanjit Sapra, on his own. Seven months back, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation told Sapra not to use the former PM’s name.
A trustee of the William J. Clinton Foundation, Chatwal is known to be close to former US president Bill Clinton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His links in the US administration could be one of the reasons for the awards committee recommending his name, said a government official, who didn’t wish to be identified.
It was, however, not clear who recommended the name to the committee.
The official indicated that the names of prominent Indians living abroad were usually recommended by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The awards committee, headed by Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, considered nearly 1,200 names and chose 130.
Apart from senior officials, playwright Girish Karnad, founder-director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts Kapila Vatsayan and former CII chief mentor Tarun Das were also on the panel.
“Due diligence” before finalising the names involved clearance from agencies such as the CBI, Securities and Exchange Board of India, Intelligence Bureau, and income tax authorities, the official said.