Indian Americans are crucial voting bloc in Houston's hotly contested House race

Nov 3, 2020

In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the autonomy of the contested region of Kashmir, and issued a controversial law that could effectively strip Indian citizenship from millions of Muslims.

A year later, ripples of these policies are being felt in the US, particularly in a hotly contested race in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse in the US

Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni and his Republican challenger, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, have raised a flood of outside money — more than $12 million altogether. That sum makes their historically red district one of the nation’s most expensive House battlegrounds in 2020.

Related: How Indian Americans are reacting to Kamala Harris as Joe Biden's VP pick

Kulkarni, a 14-year veteran of the Foreign Service, became a star early on for his unconventional campaign. He has said he microtargeted communities with a low voter turnout — places that other candidates “simply didn’t care much about.” And he has done outreach in 27 languages.

“We’ve broken all records of turnout here, and the most important thing is that now, every uncle or every auntie knows that their son or daughter can grow up to be whatever they want in the United States of America.”

Sri Preston Kulkarni, running for Texas' 22nd congressional district seat 

“We’ve broken all records of turnout here, and the most important thing is that now, every uncle or every auntie knows that their son or daughter can grow up to be whatever they want in the United States of America,” Kulkarni said.

But Kulkarni has recently come under fire for taking campaign contributions from Hindu nationalists and Modi supporters.

Last year, Kulkarni attended a rally called, “Howdy Modi,” organized by Modi’s US fans after he was reelected prime minister in India. Modi was welcomed by 50,000 Indian American fans in an event headlined by President Donald Trump.

Recent revelations show that Kulkarni received funds from Modi supporters and other Hindu nationalists, including US functionaries of the 100-year-old, Indian RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations.

The RSS, greatly considered to be the force behind Modi and his ruling party, the right-wing BJP, seeks to make India a “Hindu nation” and reduce Muslims to second-class citizens.

Ramesh Bhutada is the US vice president of the HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh), the RSS’ foreign arm, and a businessman who seeded Kulkarni’s 2018 campaign and mobilized Indian American voters.

In a video posted online, Kulkarni appears to thank Ramesh Bhutada's family for their support.

Rishi Bhutada, Ramesh Bhutada’s son, has himself donated about $20,000 to Kulkarni. The younger Bhutada sits on the boards of the Hindu American Foundation and the Hindu American PAC, groups that claim to represent the interest of Hindu Americans.

Rishi Bhutada told The World that he contributed to Kulkarni’s campaign because of his Hindu faith. He also said that Kulkarni is a family friend.

“The fact that he's Hindu means a lot to us because there aren't that many Hindus in government,” said Rishi Bhutada, who has funded other Hindus like Tulsi Gabbard and Raja Krishnamoorthy, who are also seen as sympathetic to Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism.

“And we think that by having a Hindu elected official, especially here from Texas, it's a signal to future generations that, you know, you can do anything,” Rishi Butada added.

Related: A Black radio host calls on South Asian Americans to reject racism

But not all Hindus are impressed with Kulkarni.

Raju Rajagopal, with Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based advocacy organization, is concerned about Kulkarni’s RSS ties.

“I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, but I oppose the candidacy of Sri on the grounds that he has been prevaricating about his strong ties to Hindu nationalists in the US and in India.”

Raju Rajagopal, Hindus for Human Rights

“I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, but I oppose the candidacy of Sri on the grounds that he has been prevaricating about his strong ties to Hindu nationalists in the US and in India,” Rajagopal said.

If elected, Rajagopal said, he will be beholden to right-wing Hindus who are fans of Modi — “and will likely oppose any efforts in the US Congress to censure India’s worsening human rights record.”

American Muslims divided 

American Muslims are another key voting bloc for the Democrats.

But Emgage — a prominent Muslim PAC — recently withdrew support from Kulkarni, citing his refusal to publically condemn extremist Hindu groups like the RSS.

Kulkarni responded with a letter pledging he would oppose any efforts on part of the Indian government to strip citizenship from Indian Muslims and will speak out against human rights abuse in Kashmir.

Shakeib Mashhood, an Indian American and Muslim, voted and canvassed for Kulkarni when the candidate first ran in 2018 and narrowly lost to Republican Pete Olson.

“I was not the only one; I think about 90% of the Muslim community voted for him in 2018,” he said.

But this election cycle, “I decided not to vote for him because of his suspected links to RSS,” Mashhood said. “Like many others, [I am] concerned with the heavy funding Kulkarni has received from individuals connected to the RSS.”

Mashhood said he feels his assurances are too little, too late.

“It is being perceived by many in the community as an attempt to get lost votes,” he said. “If Kulkarni really isn’t Islamopobhic, he should condemn RSS and its action in India and distance himself from its supporters in the US.”

Kulkarni’s Republican opponents have joined the fray.

Allen West, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, recently tweeted: “It appears the Texas Democrat Party not only embraces rule of mob/chaos/violence here & abroad. Imagine the outrage if it was a GOP candidate supported by a violent, racist, extremist group? Hypocrisy is the calling card of the Democrat (Socialist) Party.”

Rishi Bhutada said he expects Kulkarni to view all sides of the debate before taking a position on matters of the subcontinent.

“So, I think that that's the expectation we would have from Sri,” he said. “It's not [that] in any way, we would expect him to only have one viewpoint or the other.”

Kulkarni declined an interview with The World but sent a voice memo, saying: “Unfortunately, our opponent’s campaign has attempted to sow division in our district by inflaming tension across our faith communities including our Hindu and Muslim communities. We absolutely reject such tactics … Our campaign will continue to promote unity and division as an antidote to division and hate.”  

Varun Nikore, an Indian American whose AAPI Victory Fund pledged $1 million to increase Asian American voter turnout in Texas, agrees with Kulkarni.

“I think the Republican Party sees what's at stake, knowing that we could add to another Indian American person in Congress. They don't want that,” Nikore said.

Currently, there are four Indian Americans in Congress, all Democrats.

Nikore believes the Republicans want to “claim the mantelpiece that Republicans and Donald Trump are somehow stronger on Indian Americans and on India-US issues.” 

Indian Americans are a crucial voting bloc

Donald Trump’s campaign has been trying to lure Indian American voters by releasing a video that shows the president’s bonhomie with Modi. Eric Trump has also addressed Indian Americans in key swing states, promising his father will represent their interests.

In the meantime, Democrats have been fiercely trying to flip Texas, and in suburban counties like Kulkarni’s, the Indian American vote could make a huge difference, according to Nikore.

Texas will “change the face of politics and South Asians are 50% of all of the Asians in Texas.”

Varun Nikore, AAPI Victory Fund

“So it is, as they like to say in Texas, the ‘big enchilada,’ I’ve been calling Texas the 'big dosa,'” Nikore said. Texas will “change the face of politics, and South Asians are 50% of all of the Asians in Texas.”

Nikore says he expects the South Asian community to deliver the vote in the important, suburban counties of Texas, adding up to being a crucial voting bloc in the state.

Given the community’s rising political status, both parties have tried to increase their outreach to them this election season.

Studies and surveys usually suggest that Indian Americans tend to side with Democrats on immigration and various “kitchen table issues” such as health care and education but not so much on India's politics.

Pawan Dhingra is a professor of American Studies at Amherst College and has authored three books on Indian Americans. He says that going forward, the community will probably still favor Democratic stances on kitchen table issues — but that’s not the whole story.

“But if we see Indian Americans shying away from Kulkarni despite agreeing with his general politics, it shows he’s lost trust of those Indian Americans who are concerned about his funding from Hindu nationalist entities,” Dhingra said. “In that sense, internationalization is impacting your relationship to a candidate. It’s not affecting your politics in terms of what your priorities are domestically. But it does affect who you think is most apt to carry out your domestic priorities.”

For all the talk about India’s internal politics spilling over into the important Texas race, it seems likely that if elected, Kulkarni would make his voice heard on foreign policy issues facing Congress. 


From The World ©2019