Sri Preston Kulkarni’s campaign for US Congress is floated by the RSS.
I say that not simply because Ramesh Bhutada, Vice-President of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA — the American wing of India’s fascist RSS paramilitary — as well as President of the HSS’s Southwest Division, is a key donor, fundraiser, and campaigner for Kulkarni. Certainly it raises eyebrows — or, more accurately, causes the hair to stand up on the backs of our necks — when we hear Kulkarni describe one of the RSS’s top men in America as “like my father.” And the $50,000+ donated to his campaign by the Bhutada family over two election cycles obviously indicates that they have a huge financial interest in seeing him elected.
No, I say that Kulkarni’s campaign is floated by the RSS because, beyond his association with Bhutada, the data demonstrates that the Sangh in Houston — which is one of the heartlands of Hindutva in America — threw its financial weight behind him from the very beginning of his very first attempt to secure a seat in Congress.
I mean that, in the first 70 days, the first ten weeks, the first two and a half months of Kulkarni’s campaign in 2018, forty percent of his donations came from 23 individuals who are clearly identifiable as affiliated with the American Sangh. Accounting for individuals who have not yet been investigated but who appear to be associates of Bhutada and his Hindutva in Houston circle, that figure rises to fifty percent.
The Bhutadas were the first Sangh affiliates to donate. And they did it early.
Kulkarni had only been raising funds for a month and he had only collected approximately $19,000 for his campaign when the Bhutada family first began donating. Ramesh, his wife, and his son, and his son’s wife gave nearly $11,000 over less than two weeks. They were among the first 40 people who donated to the campaign.
Their wide circle of Houstonian Sangh associates swiftly followed suit.
Ramesh Bhutada’s brother-in-law, Jugal Malani, and his wife both gave. Bhutada’s cousin-in-law, Vijay Pallod, and his wife, and son all gave. Subhash Gupta, President of the Houston chapter of HSS, gave.
Dev Mahajan and his wife gave. Dev Mahajan is a long-time associate of the Bhutadas and their extended family. Among other things, Mahajan was involved in a 2014 celebration of Modi’s election which was hosted Global Indians for Bharat Vikas, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A) vehicle set up in September 2013 to organize Non-Resident Indian support for Modi’s election.
In total, since 2018, the Mahajans have donated nearly $15,000.
Amit Bhandari and his wife also gave. Bhandari is a prominent businessman who provided much funding for the $2.4 million “Howdy Modi” bonanza which was primarily organized by the Bhutadas and their extended family. He is also a heavy financier of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation. Developed by the VHP, Ekal is a controversial “single-teacher school” project in which the teachers are, reportedly, “selected only if they subscribe to the RSS way of thought.” In total, since 2018, the Bhandaris have donated nearly $14,000.
Vivek Kavadi, a prominent local doctor and apologist for the BJP, donated.
Also donating was Subroto Gangopadhyay. He is an activist with Overseas Friends of the BJP who, at a 2017 event celebrating the BJP’s victory in Indian state elections, praised newly-appointed Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as a positive example of “monumental changes.” Notably, at almost exactly the same time, Amnesty International issued a statement warning that Adityanath is “given to hateful rhetoric that incites discrimination and hostility against minority groups, particularly Muslims.” Adityanath is particularly infamous for declaring: “If they kill one Hindu, we’ll kill 100 Muslims.”
Just eight months after Gangopadhyay donated to Kulkarni’s campaign, he helped organize an event in Texas’s 22nd congressional district featuring Subramanian Swamy. For those who don’t know, Swamy is a prominent BJP politician who — shortly before he joined the BJP — was fired from Harvard University after writing an essay in which he said that Indians who refuse to acknowledge that their “ancestors were Hindus” should lose their voting rights, demanded “a national law prohibiting conversion from Hinduism to any other religion,” and called for the mass destruction of mosques in India. More recently, in 2020, he declared that there is “no such thing as equal rights” for Muslims.
Others donating in those first two and a half months included Ashok Danda. He is former national president of Ekal Vidyalaya — and sits on the board of the Houston chapter along with Subhash Gupta, Jugal Malani, and Ramesh Bhutada. Danda was also a key organizer for “Howdy Modi.” Aside from donating to Kulkarni, he has helped “coordinate outreach to the district’s Telugu speakers.”
Yet another donor was Aseem Shukla. A co-founder of Hindu American Foundation, which is infamous for its pro-Modi slant, Shukla is less well-known for his apologetics for Modi after the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom.
In essays written after the pogrom, he claimed that “Muslim provocateurs had instigated communal conflagrations before” and, referring to the 1992 Babri Masjid destruction, said the result was that “a match was handed to the always flammable votaries of the Indian Muslim psyche.” After Human Rights Watch released its report indicting Modi for the 2002 pogrom, he lamented, “Yet another round of killing has begun…. Call it a character assassination — for [it is] nothing less than the humiliation, disintegration and disembowelment of a Chief Minister.” Shukla also complained that “a pathetic NRI Muslim group in West Yorkshire, England is shopping around Europe for a makeshift international court to hang Modi.”
Rounding out the donors whom I will discuss here was Mihir Meghani.
A former Governing Council member for the American wing of the VHP, Meghani has a long track-record of association with the HSS in America as well as with the RSS in India. He is also known for an essay he wrote in the 1990s which was featured on the BJP’s official website. Entitled “Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology,” Meghani’s essay describes Islam as an “invader,” calls the Babri Masjid a “dilapidated symbol of foreign dominance,” and praises the mob that destroyed it for releasing “thousands of years of anger and shame, so diligently bottled up.”
In total, since 2018, Meghani has donated nearly $12,000 to Kulkarni.
Kulkarni began raising funds on 20 December 2017. By 1 March 2018, he had collected about $95,000 from individuals. Twenty-three of those individuals gave $38,000 — or forty percent — of those initial donations.
All 23 (when including direct family members) are clearly identifiable as affiliated with the RSS in one way or another.
That’s from individuals.
In the same time frame, however, Kulkarni also received a $2,500 donation, from the Hindu American Political Action Committee. The PAC is almost exclusively funded by Ramesh Bhutada and Mihir Meghani. And ever since 2018, it has donated over $22,000 to Kulkarni.
The Sangh in America laid the financial foundation that allowed Sri Preston Kulkarni to launch his first bid for US Congress.
I’ve just identified a huge amount of financing provided to Kulkarni by RSS affiliates in the very earliest days of his first campaign for Congress. It’s important to remember, however, that these individuals have done more than just donate from their own pockets. As Vijay Pallod has said, Ramesh Bhutada was instrumental in reaching out to “community stalwarts… to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.” Ashok Danda has organized fundraisers. And then there are key campaign volunteers like Thara Narasimhan.
Thara Narasimhan has only donated a few thousand dollars to Kulkarni’s campaign. She first began donating in May 2018. But she apparently quickly became a core member of Kulkarni’s volunteer team.
Pictures from that same month show her standing with Kulkarni’s mother at the center of a group of volunteers as well as hovering over Kulkarni while his mother feeds him cake. The host of a local radio show, Narasimhan interviewed Kulkarni in June 2018.
Three months later, she was in Chicago to attend the World Hindu Congress. The WHC, notably, was an event organized by the VHP and featuring RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as its keynote speaker. Narasimhan was pictured there posing with Abhaya Asthana, the president of VHP-America.
Eight months after that, she was organizing “NaMo Again” events — apparently in her own home — to support Modi’s re-election.
She, apparently, continues to volunteer for Kulkarni’s campaign.
As the race in the 22nd congressional district heats up, Kulkarni and his Republican opponent are neck-and-neck. It is now the sixth most competitive race in the country. The outcome is one of only 31 nationwide which is considered a toss-up.
Democrats, especially those from minority backgrounds, are understandably concerned about ensuring that a member of their party wins election in the district. Unfortunately, the nominee from the Democratic Party is a man who is indisputably propped up by the RSS. And, should he win, that bodes badly for minorities in India.
Kulkarni boasts a 14-year career in the Foreign Service. It’s his top qualification for the job. And he’s also reportedly interested in serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
However, despite Kulkarni’s lengthy career in the Foreign Service, he has failed to issue a statement on his foreign policy. Considering his professional qualifications, as well as that he is of Indian-American origin and a self-proclaimed progressive, his specific opinion on Modi and the RSS would be particularly relevant. Especially so considering that other progressive Indian-Americans serving in Congress such as Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal have stepped out in vocal opposition to the Hindu nationalist agenda.
His silence is worrisome, particularly in light of the way that other RSS-backed politicians like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard used their positions on the Foreign Affairs Committee to help derail criticism of Hindu nationalism and whitewash the atrocities of the Modi regime.
From my perspective, it’s far more crucial to ensure that Kulkarni loses this election than it is to ensure that a Democrat wins Texas’s 22nd congressional district in November 2020.
For one thing, in the big picture of American politics, it won’t matter much if a Democrat doesn’t win the seat this election cycle. Currently, Democrats are predicted to win 214 seats in the House while Republicans are predicted to win only 190. There are another 31 seats which are toss-ups, but only 12 of them are considered likely wins for the Republicans. Even if the Republican Party wins all of those 12 seats, they would still be outnumbered 233 to 202 by the Democrats.
Furthermore, just as everything is bigger in Texas, this issue of Kulkarni’s RSS ties is far bigger than one of partisan politics. It’s an issue of targeted foreign interference in US elections by leaders of organizations whose purpose is to keep the Islamophobic — and generally fascistic — BJP in power in India. That purpose, I would argue, is exactly why they want to get Kulkarni in office.
From the perspective of the Democratic Party, if Kulkarni wins, they don’t actually gain much — just one extra seat in a House of Representatives that they will already control anyways. That’s probably one reason why a prominent Indian-American congressional representative has privately informed me that — despite being requested to assist Kulkarni’s campaign by the party — they will have nothing to do with him after seeing the revelations about his RSS ties.
However, if Kulkarni loses, it has positive global ramifications.
In America, it sends a message to the Democratic Party that not only should they not take the Muslim vote for granted but also that the issue of human rights in India and the growing power of the RSS/BJP is one they must not ignore. It also sends a message to the RSS/BJP that their candidates will be identified, will be called out, and will not be tolerated.
Furthermore, it has the potential to send a message to the broader American public that these issues — both of foreign interference in US politics by the RSS/BJP as well as of the ideology of Hindutva — need to be taken seriously.
And, finally, should Kulkarni lose after his RSS ties have been exposed, it can send a badly needed message of hope to the suffering and persecuted minorities of India.
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Pieter Friedrich is a US-based South Asian expert and observer. He has been tracking the rise of right-wing extremism and Hindutwa in South Asia as well as in the United States. He has co-authored ‘Captivating the Simple Hearted; A struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Sub-Continent’.
This article was first published in the Medium and republished here with permission.