Two Indian American men with exactly the same name — same spelling, inflection and intonation — grabbed the hot-new-hires limelight on Wednesday in diametrically different spheres, each no less influential than the other.
Raj Shah, in the order of announcements, was named by President-elect Donald Trump as his deputy assistant and deputy communications director and research director, a role that will have him dig dirt on his boss’s opponents.
The other Raj Shah, according to the more recent announcement, will head the Rockefeller Foundation, one of America’s largest and most influential philanthropies, becoming its youngest, at 43, and first Indian American CEO.
He is the better known Raj Shah as you can tell from his pictures that were published with news articles about the other Raj Shah’s appointment in Indian media outlets. Full disclosure: Hindustan Times made the same mistake a few weeks ago.
They are nothing alike — one is 43, the other is 31; and, in a country still recovering from a bruising electoral fight, they come from opposite sides of the political divide.
The Raj Shah named to the Trump administration is, no surprises, Republican and the other Raj Shah is Democratic, who served as administrator of the US agency for international development (USAID) in the Obama administration.
Raj Shah will be Trump’s fourth Indian American in his administration — Nikki Haley, nominee as ambassador to UN; Seema Verma, head of medicare and medicaid services, and Preet Bharara as US prosecutor on Wall Street are the others.
Shah, the Republican, is a long time operative of the party and serving in a senior position under the chairmanship of, and considered close to, Reince Priebus, who will take charge later this month as chief of staff to President Trump.
Priebus is expected to be a powerful player in the Trump White House because of his control over access to the president that comes with the job and he has been staffing the administration with people he believes can insulate him from challengers.
Priebus’s spokesman from his days at the Republican National Committee chairman, Sean Spicer, was recently named as the White House spokesperson, and will be Trump’s voice, outside the president-elect’s preferred media outlet, Twitter.
As research director and deputy communications director at the Republican National Committee, Raj Shah was charged with collecting dirt on rivals — called Opposition research in US politics — a task that took him to Philadelphia last July.
He was there to keep an eye on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and her convention, for the Republican party and facilitate rapid response to emerging challenges and allegations. The young Shah spoke to some Indian reporters on the sidelines.
A graduate of Cornell, he co-founded right-leaning opposition research firm America Rising LLC, where he developed the organisation’s Hillary Clinton opposition research book, which is essentially all the dirt that could be used against her.
The older Raj Shah, who is a Democrat as mentioned before, had a meteoric rise on the other side of the political divide that made him the senior-most Indian American in the Obama administration for many years, as USAID chief.
That post, which took Shah to trouble spots of all kinds around the world from natural catastrophes to man-made disasters requiring humanitarian aid, is equal in protocol to the position of US ambassador to the United Nation, a cabinet-rank position.
In Trump administration’s org-chart rolled out so far, Nikki Haley, as the president-elect’s nominee as ambassador to the UN, is the senior-most Indian American in the administration. Raj Shah held that rank — not position — for almost six years.
As head of Rockefeller Foundation, Raj Shah will have $200 million a year to spend on health, hunger and social justice, issues close to his heart, around the world. And he knows that world well, having seen it first hand as USAID administrator.