March 30, 2001
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The Rediff US Interview/ Mike Patel

 'Clinton says the people of India are very special to him'

Mukesh 'Mike' Patel first came to America to play soccer in Atlanta. Today, with his brother R C Patel, he owns the successful Diplomat hospitality group.
Mike Patel
Mike showed his leadership qualities when he headed the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, AAHOA. Last May, President Bill Clinton appointed Patel to serve on the advisory commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A founder-member of the American Indian Foundation, Mike is in India to make the final arrangements for Clinton's visit to the earthquake-ravaged Kutch region of Gujarat next week.

In an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, late on Thursday night, he discussed how the former US president will provide impetus to the relief operations in Gujarat.

What's the background to Mr Clinton's visit?

The American Indian Foundation was formed 10 days after the earthquake. After stepping down from office, Mr Clinton wanted to enjoy life. But the earthquake was an emergency. It touched his heart. He agreed to become chairman of the Foundation. (The Indus Entrepreneurs president) Kailash Joshi, (Managing Director, Bears Sterns) Anil Bhandari and myself were speaking with him about the earthquake and relief measures.

Does he know about the extent of the devastation?

Deepak Chopra
He knows all about it. He has offered all help to us. He joined the dinner in San Jose. Deepak Chopra also joined the meeting without charging anything.

We are very clear in our objectives. Three years down the line, we want the Foundation to work in other parts of India. We want it to develop it on the line of the Jewish American Foundation.

Some believe the Foundation will become a launch pad for Mr Clinton's post-presidency career.

It is a humanitarian act. Sometimes you mellow down in life. He is the most popular person (in America) and very much in demand on the lecture circuit. He can get anything upwards of $ 150,000 to deliver a lecture. But he is coming to Gujarat because it is a matter of his heart.

Mr Clinton says the people of India are very special to him. He has a passion for India. I speak to him regularly. He said he was impressed by the hotels here, the doctors and other professionals. He also remembers dancing with the women in Rajasthan. His tour to Gujarat was overdue, purely for humanitarian reasons.

How do you feel about this trip?

Fabulous! I am feeling good. Being a Gujarati, I feel very proud that Gujarat is getting the benefits of the Foundation's first-ever service project. Let me tell you, to pursue a President's visit is not easy. I feel Mr Clinton should have come to Gujarat a long time ago. Now that the Foundation is able to work out this visit, I feel good. I will intensify efforts to raise money. I also plan to go to England to get funds for Kutch. Being a Gujarati, I feel it is my duty.

What will he do besides visiting the earthquake-hit areas?

He will meet NGOs. They are doing quite good work. We are looking for partners in relief work. He has an articulate brain and picks up issues very fast. He will meet the Gujarat government too. In turn he will advise trustees in planning and funding of the relief work in Kutch.

We are planning to open an office in Ahmedabad. He will help us select the NGOs. McKinsey will help screen the NGOs.

How much money do you have to start with?

Ten million dollars. We raised it in four weeks. We hope to raise another $ 30 million in one year's time. The AIF's fund raising efforts will be kept alive.

People are skeptical about such huge, much publicized "shows".

I don't care. I care to help. How the money comes, from whom it comes, I don't care. I don't want kids to sleep on the streets. I want homes for poor people. This project is above politics. The AIF is setting a footprint for relief work which will extend to other parts of India.

How did you convince Mr Clinton to make the tour?
Bill Clinton
There was no need to convince him. Ramesh Kapoor, Anil Bhandari, Rajat Kapoor, myself, Kailash Joshi talked to him. For him it was a matter of the heart. He was convinced himself.

How will you ensure that the funds are utilized properly?

Lata Krishnan, a member of our team, will monitor it. She will approve the sanctions, she will deal with the NGOs. Let me tell you, we are more concerned with credibility. At the end of the day, Gujarat should appreciate that people from different states of India are pulling together to help Gujarat.

I think it is fabulous. Let some people be sarcastic. We are not here to listen to critics. Deepak Chopra and others like him care for credibility.

It is not a question of $ 7 million or $ 8 million, even a donation of $ 100 is important. We are not here to impress anyone. I don't care what critics feel. We have a commitment to the poor. We don't want them to suffer more. Money is not going into our pockets, the money is for the poor people. We have nothing to hide.

What is Mr Clinton's itinerary like?

He will come to New Delhi on April 3. He will visit Gujarat on April 4. He will visit Bhuj on April 5. From Ahmedabad he will fly to Mumbai and from there again to New Delhi. He is planning a short trip to Calcutta. On Friday, I expect to meet (India's) Home Minister L K Advani to discuss plans for the visit. You can say that Mr Clinton is on a fact finding mission.

Design:Lynette Menezes

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