A Reckoning for the Modi Democrats

A Reckoning for the Modi Democrats

Liberal Indian American politicians who have received donations from Hindu nationalists are facing new pressure to denounce the Modi government.

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi at the "Howdy, Modi!" event in Houston, Texas, on September 22, 2019 (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Few places better demonstrate the ongoing demographic and political transformation of Texas than Fort Bend County. Located right outside of Houston, it is one of the most diverse parts of the country, with burgeoning immigrant communities and a population that is one quarter Hispanic and one fifth Asian. Churches sit next to synagogues, and mosques next to mandirs. And if there were a prototype for the Trump-era Democrat, it would have been Sri Preston Kulkarni, who ran for Congress in 2018 and 2020 for Texas’s Twenty-second District, which includes the vast majority of Fort Bend County.

A telegenic ex-foreign service officer of Indian and European descent, Kulkarni was a highly qualified candidate who simultaneously invigorated grassroots supporters and charmed the leaders of liberal institutions. His 2018 campaign built an operation that garnered national praise for its unprecedented voter contact program, and he exceeded all expectations when he came within just a few points of flipping a historically deep-red district.

Several months after his 2018 loss, Kulkarni announced his intention to run for the same seat once again in 2020. But the second time around, his campaign was plagued by controversy. Kulkarni, like many Indian Americans in politics, espoused liberal attitudes while also soliciting support from people affiliated with hardline right-wing Hindu nationalist (or Hindutva) movements. This contradiction was on full display when Kulkarni attended the Howdy Modi spectacle, a surreal marriage of Hindutva and Trumpism that took place just a few miles outside the Twenty-second District in September 2019. Then, in the final weeks leading up to Election Day, national outlets like Slate and the Intercept published reports on Kulkarni’s affiliation with Hindutva-aligned donors. It proved to be an explosive story in the district, alienating many Muslims, especially Pakistani Americans, who had supported Kulkarni.

The meteoric rise of the Indian American political class has captured the attention of observers across the country. Dozens of Indian American and other South Asian American candidates ran for office this election cycle, at all levels of government and in nearly all parts of the United States, while more than twenty Indian Americans bundled over $100,000 each in donations for the Joe Biden campaign. With Kamala Harris’s election to the vice president’s office, it appears that the community will remain a critical element of the Democratic Party’s base for the foreseeable future. Yet the extremist undercurrent of the Hindu nationalist agenda assumes a prominent—and until recently, underappreciated—role in shaping priorities among Indian American politicians and institutions. After the Kulkarni controversy, the fascist trajectory of the Indian state and the rising stature of the liberal Indian American community are bound for a reckoning.

Hindutva, a breed of far-right religious nationalism, is characterized by the belief that the Indian subcontinent should be ruled by Hindus who can purify the nation of the perceived moral, social, and cultural pollution brought on by non-Hindu “outsiders” and reshape the country’s secular institutions. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary group with a civic presence in communities throughout India is perhaps the institution most responsible for fueling the ascendance of hardline Hindu nationalism. It boasts over 55,000 branches and over 500,000 members, with millions more affiliated. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the RSS, has been the ruling party of India since 2014. Together, the leaders of the BJP and RSS have backed discriminatory laws and vigilante violence targeting minorities in order to achieve their ends of a Hindu polity. Since the BJP won power, hate crimes have skyrocketed, including an epidemic of Hindutva-inspired mob lynchings. Year by year, the BJP has edged India closer to theocratic fascism. Despite all this, a critical mass of influential Indian Americans across the political spectrum stand in support of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Yet the Indian American political community is far from a monolith. On the conservative side, there is a natural kinship between Hindu nationalists and the contemporary Republican Party: both are virulently Islamophobic; both espouse conservative social beliefs, including the model minority myth; and both are invested in slashing taxes for the wealthy and corporations. Back in 2016, less than a month before the November general election, Donald Trump attended an event hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) in Edison, New Jersey, where he commended Modi’s leadership and declared, “I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India.” The RHC decided against formally supporting Trump this cycle, because its founder was unconvinced of Trump’s support for the Modi government on two cornerstone issues: the Kashmir crisis and the Citizenship Amendment Act. Still, in 2020 the Trump campaign actively courted Modi supporters in swing states with sizable Indian populations, and Trump himself made an appearance at the Howdy Modi event.

Conservatives are a small minority of Indian Americans, however. Last month, the Carnegie Endowment published a study detailing the political attitudes of Indian Americans: 56 percent of Indian Americans self-identified as Democrats, 22 percent as independents, and 15 percent as Republicans; 72 percent of Indian Americans planned on voting for Biden this election, while 22 percent responded with support for Trump. The same survey found that while Indian American Trump voters and Republicans were much more enthusiastic about Modi, a majority of all Indian Americans supported the prime minister.

The Kulkarni controversy, which brought the “Modi Democrat” phenomenon into the spotlight, was spurred by the contributions of one of the largest donors to his campaign: the Bhutada family. Ramesh Bhutada serves as a vice president in the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the international wing of the RSS. In August, an investigation found that the Bhutada family donated over $50,000 across Kulkarni’s 2018 and 2020 campaigns. Between Ramesh and his son Rishi, the Bhutadas have made hundreds of political contributions over the last two decades, primarily to Democratic candidates. Others affiliated with Sangh Parivar—the international network of Hindutva-aligned organizations—contributed to Kulkarni’s campaign as well, in addition to over forty individuals who helped organize Howdy Modi. By late October, the campaign was scrambling to address this fiasco. It created a page on its website entitled “Resisting Nationalism and Fascism,” which affirmed that the campaign “does not accept support from any foreign entities, nor is it connected to or influenced by any foreign organizations.” It is unlikely that this episode alone played the deciding role in Kulkarni’s defeat in November; Texas Democrats across the state suffered major losses up and down the ballot. Nevertheless, this episode attracted some of the first mainstream media coverage of the tensions between the anti-racist and secular values of the Democratic Party and sympathy for Hindutva, which had until then had been mostly contained within Indian American political communities.

Still, Kulkarni was hardly the first Democratic politician with Hindu nationalist ties. Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, while not of Indian descent, is a practicing Hindu, and she leveraged that identity to make extraordinary inroads within the global network of Hindutva; according to one analysis she has received donations from over 100 individuals affiliated with the Sangh Parivar. In 2015, an Indian newspaper deemed her the mascot of the Sangh. Gabbard’s reputation as a contrarian, enigmatic political figure in the Democratic Party served as cover for the far wider phenomenon of Hindutva influence in American politics. During her presidential run, she received widespread support from Indian Americans, more than tripling Kamala Harris’s fundraising totals among the community by the end of the first fiscal quarter of 2019.

With Gabbard’s decision to retire from Congress after this year, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois will likely claim the mantle of the top Democratic ally to Hindu nationalists. He attracted criticism for speaking at the 2018 World Hindu Congress in Chicago, which featured Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, among other Hindutva leaders. Last November he took his commitment to Hindutva even further when he made the audacious decision to keynote an HSS event in Chicago. In a surreal photograph captured at the event, Krishnamoorthi delivers a speech surrounded by HSS chiefs and garland-framed photos of RSS leaders (including M.S. Golwalkar, a mid-twentieth-century Nazi-inspired Hindutva ideologue). Krishnamoorthi was the only Indian American member of Congress to go to Howdy Modi; the other three Indian Americans in Congress—Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna—decided not to attend in light of the Modi regime’s human rights atrocities in Kashmir.

This past presidential cycle surfaced another important connection between Hindutva and the Democratic Party. In September 2019, the Biden campaign named political operative Amit Jani its Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Outreach Director and Muslim Outreach Coordinator. Jani’s late father, Suresh, helped found the Overseas Friends of the BJP, an organization that mobilizes Indians in the diaspora to provide critical support in electing Hindu nationalist candidates. While Amit Jani does not appear to hold any institutional role with a Hindutva-aligned organization, he has repeatedly demonstrated his allegiances to Modi and the BJP. In fact, the Indian prime minister is a family friend, dating back to when Suresh met him at an RSS event in Gujarat over twenty-five years ago. In March, a coalition of dozens of groups, activists, and intellectuals signed onto a letter calling on the Biden campaign to fire Jani given his apparent sympathies for Hindutva. While he was never terminated from the campaign, the Biden team quietly reassigned the role of Muslim Outreach Coordinator. That Jani held the position in the first place reveals the extent to which figures even at the highest rungs of the Democratic Party are ignorant of these pernicious political dynamics.

Activists are increasingly calling on liberal Indian American organizations, elected officials, candidates, and staffers to name the threat to democracy presented by the RSS, BJP, and Modi, and to refuse all contributions from individuals affiliated with Hindutva and Sangh Parivar organizations. This strategy is guided and supported by organizations such as South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Hindus for Human Rights, Equality Labs, and the Polis Project. By investing in these grassroots efforts and groups, progressive Indian Americans are building up a parallel ecosystem to challenge Hindutva at the institutional level. 

These organizers face criticism that their advocacy could repel some Indian Americans from the Democratic Party. But it is likely that the anti-Hindutva stance will become more politically feasible and prudent in the years to come. Modi support remains much stronger among naturalized Indians than U.S.-born Indian Americans, an unsurprising fact given that the characteristics most commonly found in the Indian American diaspora (high levels of education, middle to upper socioeconomic class, and high-caste Hindu background) are aligned with BJP support in India. But the children and grandchildren of immigrants, a growing population, are less likely to carry the same ideological commitments.

And there are promising signs of resistance to Hindutva from some prominent Indian American political leaders, especially Jayapal and Khanna. In August 2019, Khanna tweeted, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist(s) and Christians.” This drew backlash from BJP supporters in the United States and India and served as the springboard for an Indian American Republican (and open Hindu nationalist) to challenge Khanna for his congressional seat. Khanna easily defeated him and emerged with his reputation relatively unscathed among the broader Indian American community. Jayapal, who serves as chair of the powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus, alienated Hindutva elements when she presented a resolution last December drawing attention to the Indian state’s widespread human rights abuses in Kashmir. The week after the resolution was presented to Congress, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar canceled a meeting with Eliot Engel, then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, because Jayapal was scheduled to attend.

Perhaps the most glaring liability to Hindutva’s prominence in the United States is the BJP itself. Over the last six years, the Modi government has worked to dismantle Indian democracy by jailing opposition leaders, arresting activists, enabling the murder of journalists, defanging and reforming the judiciary, installing crucial Modi allies as agency heads and regulators, and capturing virtually unilateral control over the nation’s mainstream media. Modi’s landslide re-election victory in May 2019 only catalyzed the BJP’s commitment to theocratic rule. Mere months after the election, the BJP revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which abrogated the special, semi-autonomous status that Kashmir nominally possessed for the last seventy years of Indian independence. This led to severe repression across the region, which was already the most militarized place on earth. While the Indian military imposed crushing lockdowns, months-long communications blackouts, and wanton arrests and torture of Kashmiris, the Chief Minister of the BJP-ruled state of Haryana celebrated the government’s decision, fantasizing at the possibility of bringing “Kashmiri girls for marriage.”

Over the last year, there have been two waves of popular uprisings across India against the Modi government that attracted global attention. The first came in response to the openly discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, which sought to strip Muslims of a path to citizenship and other crucial rights. The other mobilization, currently ongoing, is in protest of the BJP’s decision to pass a series of bills corporatizing and privatizing the agricultural sector and removing safeguards that protect small, independent farmers. Hundreds of millions of people, in India and across the Indian diaspora, have come out in response, in what some commentators are calling the largest protest in human history.

Despite all this, the BJP government will likely remain in power for some time to come. At the federal level, opposition parties are getting eviscerated, and Modi remains popular throughout the country. But as the BJP’s anti-democratic ambitions become more grotesque and overt, the distance between American liberal political culture and the Indian governing regime grows ever wider. Activists and organizers can use this distance to challenge the Hindutva narrative, and to hold American political figures accountable for legitimizing Hindu nationalist organizations. If more Indian American politicians and leaders follow the lead of Jayapal and Khanna, they could help undermine the Modi government’s international reputation. If they choose to remain silent instead, the Indian American coalition that has propelled the community to political relevance risks splintering beyond repair.

Arvin Alaigh is a progressive activist, campaigner, and digital organizer. He is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge studying radical Black and Indian intellectual history.

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