Two US congressional candidates in California’s San Francisco Bay Area — Republican Ritesh Tandon and Democrat Rishi Kumar — exemplify the pragmatically transpartisan attitude of India’s Hindu nationalist lobby as it seeks to place its preferred candidates in positions of power in America.
When he met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, Saratoga City Councillor Rishi Kumar says it was “the first time ever that I conversed with a world leader — who I seek to emulate in my governance on the city council.” Seeking to emulate the governance style of the head of state of a country of nearly 1.4 billion people is certainly ambitious, but it becomes ominous considering Modi was once banned from entering the US due to his involvement in an anti-Muslim pogrom.
In 2002, while Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi was accused of sanctioning three days of slaughter by members of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — of which Modi has been a member since childhood — as well as the RSS’s militant religious wing, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That, however, didn’t stop Kumar from attending a 27 September 2015 mega-reception for Modi in San Jose, CA, and even joining the event’s organizing team. At the inaugural planning meet, raved Kumar, “Many of the leadership were RSS, BJP and VHP folks who had incredible energy.”
“Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley had the Indian-American community buzzing for months,” wrote Kumar. “The man, the myth, the legend was being eagerly awaited.” Kumar was so head-over-heels for Modi that — whatever may have been his previous involvement other than helping to organize the pogrom-tainted Hindu nationalist politician’s CA extravaganza — he later became involved in actually campaigning for the BJP.
At least as early as January 2017, Kumar joined a meeting of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) — the BJP’s international wing which was later registered as a foreign agent in the US — to support the party in state legislature elections in India’s state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
In March 2017, when the BJP won power in UP, Yogi Adityanath — the “firebrand Hindu priest who praised Donald Trump’s Muslim ban” — was appointed as the state’s Chief Minister. His appointment prompted Amnesty International to take the exceptional step of issuing a statement directly condemning Adityanath and calling on him to retract outrageously Islamophobic statements. One of the most notorious they cited was his August 2014 declaration: “If [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, we’ll kill 100 Muslims.”
Nonetheless, at the January 2017 OFBJP event, Kumar noted that “amongst all Indian political parties, BJP was the one he liked.” His fascination with the Hindu nationalist party was on full display again just two years later. In March 2019, Modi was up for re-election and Kumar again took the stage at an OFBJP event. Wearing a scarf emblazoned with the BJP’s logo, he insisted that Indian history will be written as “before Modi” and “after Modi,” declaring, “The dynamic leadership of Modi has sparked a huge sense of pride in being Indian that was hitherto missing.”
The event was inaugurated by Chandru Bhambhra, a former OFBJP president who is currently the coordinator of the group’s Northern California chapter as well as president of the Bay Area chapter of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the international wing of the RSS. Also speaking was Khanderao Kand, who has been both HSS-US’s West Coast coordinator as well as its public relations coordinator. Yet another speaker was Romesh Japra, publisher of Indian diaspora newspaper India Post, who wore a BJP scarf at the event as he spoke about how bringing Modi back to power would usher in a “glorious India.”
All three — Bhambhra, Kand, and Japra — have donated generously to Kumar’s campaign for Congress.
Bhambhra and Kand were apparently some of the RSS and BJP leaders whom Kumar praised for organizing Modi’s San Jose reception in 2015. As board members of the Indo-American Community of West Coast — which, Kumar notes, “was formed with the explicit purpose” of hosting the event — they were joined on the board by others like Avadhesh Agarwal, who was then listed as an executive in OFBJP’s Los Angeles chapter.
Agarwal, who is quite the prolific political campaign donor, is known for making sizable contributions to congressional candidates accused of ties with the RSS-BJP, such as Raja Krishnamoorthi, Sri Preston Kulkarni, and Tulsi Gabbard. Although he has not donated to Kumar’s campaign, he has donated to Ritesh Tandon.
While Kumar is challenging incumbent Congresswoman Anna Eshoo in CA’s 18th congressional district, Tandon, in the neighboring 17th district, is challenging incumbent Congressman Ro Khanna.
In August 2019, Khanna created a stir after issuing a statement calling it “the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith” to “reject Hindutva,” a reference to the religious-nationalist political ideology of the RSS-BJP. His statement created outrage among Amerian supporters of Modi, who has labeled himself a Hindutvawadi (an advocate of Hindutva). In early October, around 25 protestors gathered outside one of Khanna’s constituent events in Cupertino. “They told me they belong to the HSS,” said one of the Khanna supporters who attended the event.
Within a few weeks, Tandon announced he would challenge Khanna. The Hindu nationalist lobby swiftly rallied around him. By October’s end, Tandon was a speaker at an event co-hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) — the US wing of VHP — and co-chaired by OFBJP’s Agarwal.
“My father was a strong RSS person,” said Tandon in an interview about his candidacy. He also declared, as reported by India Abroad, that “he was motivated to run by Khanna’s alleged anti-Hindutva comments.” From the start, he faced rumors that “he was recruited by and being promoted by” HSS. His “top-notch supporters,” he admitted, included people like HSS’s Kand and pro-BJP publisher Japra. Other key supporters included OFBJP’s Bhambhra who, in late November, arranged for Tandon to meet the BJP’s official spokesperson, Sambit Patra.
Ritesh Tandon (left) with BJP’s Sambit Patra (center) and OFBJP’s Chandru Bhambhra (right)
Although Kand hasn’t donated to Tandon, both Japra and Bhambhra have done so — just as they have to Kumar. Between the two of them, they’ve given a combined $8,700 to support Democrat Kumar and Republican Tandon.
Other OFBJP and HSS leaders have also stepped forward to help finance the campaigns of both candidates.
Gaurang Desai, Tandon’s very first donor, is a long-time organizer for HSS events — including a conference featuring former RSS Chief KS Sudarshan. A frequent associate of Bhambhra, he joined the OFBJP leader in hosting controversial Hindu nationalist politician Subramanian Swamy, who has called for razing hundreds of Indian mosques and stripping Indian Muslims of voting rights. Desai has donated over $2,200 to Tandon. Meanwhile, Atri Macherla, recently listed as an OFBJP National Councillor, has donated $2,800 to Kumar.
Partisan lines once again blurred and the donor base for Kumar and Tandon once more merged when they both pocketed hefty donations from Mihir Meghani.
Meghani, reports anthropologist Dr. Angana Chatterji, “has been a member of both the HSS and VHPA.” A medical doctor, his association with RSS traces back at least to the mid-1990s when he joined a tour in India arranged by the paramilitary. Mirroring the writings of RSS founders who claimed that non-Hindus in India are members of “foreign races,” Meghani has described a 15th-century Indian mosque as a “dilapidated symbol of foreign dominance” and praised its mob destruction in 1992 — which was followed by anti-Muslim pogroms across northern India — as a sign that “Hindutva is here to stay.”
In 2013, reported journalist Yasha Levine, then aspiring congressman Ro Khanna got Meghani’s “full-throated endorsement.” Meghani “sent out an email to members and supporters, asking them to donate to Ro Khanna’s campaign, and inviting them to a fundraiser he was holding at his own house” and, as Levine notes, he “repeatedly stressed Ro’s pro-Modi stance… as a reason why the Hindu community should support his candidacy.” After Khanna won office, however, and began distancing himself from Modi to the extent that he even denounced Hindutva, Meghani has switched camps.
Meghani has donated $2,800 to Tandon’s bid to unseat Khanna; meanwhile, apparently continuing to select congressional candidates based on their allegiance to Modi, he (along with his wife Tanvi) has poured $8,400 into Kumar’s campaign.
Ritesh Tandon with Mihir Meghani
Both candidates face uphill battles against entrenched incumbents. Khanna is running for a third term and Tandon’s campaign platform is severely self-limiting (as Khanna noted after the March 2020 primary, his opponent is running “on Islamophobia and right-wing nationalism in India”). Eshoo, for her part, has been in office since 1993. In the primaries, Kumar only secured 16.3 percent of the vote to her 61.7 percent. However, Kumar is more heavily funded than Tandon — having raised $430,000 compared to $85,000 — and already holds elected office, so he promises, as noted by local media, to be a greater “source of aggravation for Eshoo” than Tandon will be for Khanna.
Yet, regardless of their electoral prospects, Tandon and Kumar stand out as premier examples of how partisanship is irrelevant to the RSS in America’s goal of fielding sympathetic candidates for elected office. “It doesn’t matter to me, whether it is a Republican or Democrat,” Bharat Barai, a VHPA-Chicago executive and champion of Modi, told me about the candidates he chooses to support. Describing how he worked with HSS Vice-President Ramesh Bhutada to back Sri Preston Kulkarni, Vijay Pallod — an OFBJP activist and former VHPA executive – noted, “Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation, to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”
Most likely, Tandon — a paper tiger who was propped up for no other purpose than making toothless snarls in Khanna’s direction — will fade away after experiencing a categorical defeat in the November 2020 election. Yet Kumar, though he will not win, will likely attempt to use his candidacy to springboard a future campaign and thus ought to be particularly remembered as the starry-eyed Modi fan-boy as which he has presented himself.
Modi, who wrote Kumar, is “definitely an inspiration” and a “phenomenal leader” who is “the wizard of oratory” in whose ability he has “complete faith.” Before meeting Modi, Kumar struggled over what to wear, ultimately settling on his “wedding day” outfit. Modi’s visit, declared Kumar, left Silicon Valley “basking in Modi-fever” and, he concludes, “I salute PM Modi.”
America is currently dealing with legitimate concerns over potential foreign interference by Russia and even China. Such interference, however, is concealed by subterfuge. Meanwhile, US congressional candidates like Kumar have publicly tripped over themselves to play the toady to an authoritarian and pogrom-tainted foreign leader, openly campaigned for his election, and lined their own campaign coffers with funds from his US supporters.
Aside from the cross-party support for Kumar and Tandon, their candidacies deserve to be examined from the perspective of foreign interference. One thing is clear. The leadership of the OFBJP — a group which, after 29 years in operation in the US, finally registered as a foreign agent in August 2020 — has not banked on Kumar and Tandon for no reason.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.