How Hindu Nationalism Could Shape the Election – POLITICO

Posted: October 31, 2020 at 6:28 pm


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Standing before a podium at his town hall last year, a portrait of Gandhi resting on a table to his left (a celebration for Gandhis 150th birthday had preceded the event), Khanna acknowledged that fringe groups were upset with him. But he defended his position. I certainly will never bow my convictions because of a special interest lobby, he said. I have no tolerance for right-wing nationalists who are affiliated with Donald Trump. Applause thundered over his voice. They are maybe 2 to 3 percent in an echo chamber in this district, Khanna continued. But they will see that our values, our district, is pluralistic.

Groups that embrace and advocate for some form of Hindutva have existed in the United States for decades, operating as nonprofits for immigrant communities wanting to retain Indian culture.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, which have nationalist counterparts in India, were founded in 1970 and 1989, respectively, after a wave of Indian immigration to the United States in the post-civil rights era. The organizations sought to instill their vision of Hindu values and culture through heritage camps, temple conferences and other events. The Overseas Friends of the BJP, which registered as a foreign agent this past August despite launching in 1992, was founded as a public relations project of Indias Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to correct what members argued were distorted views of India and the BJP and promote the political partys platform.

The founding of the nonprofit Hindu American Foundation (HAF) the most active Hindu group in U.S. politics, coincided with the emergence of South Asian American civil rights groups in the post-9/11 era. HAF has long denied charges of Hindu nationalism, labeling them Hinduphobia or anti-Hindu bias. But the group also has pushed, for example, a revisionist version of ancient Indian history in American textbooks that downplays the role of the caste system in Hinduism and insists on referring to all of South Asia as India, in addition to defending Indias moves in Kashmir and a citizenship law that excludes Muslims, both of which are seen as part of the Indian governments nationalist agenda.

Since the mid-2000s, PACs organized around Hindu identity have become involved in U.S. electoral politics as well. The most influential is the Hindu American PAC (HAPAC). According to Rishi Bhutada, a board member of both HAF and HAPAC, the latter was founded in 2012 to support Hindu candidates and those who advocate Hindu-friendly policies, such as streamlining the immigration process and combating bullying and hate crimes against Hindu Americans. In the 2016 campaign, a PAC called the Republican Hindu Coalition, whose founder, Shalabh Kumar, was a megadonor to Trump, argued that conservative values were Hindu values and pushed for a stronger alliance between the GOP and Hindu groupsincluding with a Bollywood-Tollywood-themed concert where candidate Trump spoke. While that group largely has gone dormant, Trumps 2020 campaign has run ads targeting Indian American voters.

Now, another Hindu PACofficially nonpartisan but currently throwing its weight only behind Republicanshas emerged.

The evening after Khannas October town hall, a group of Indian Americans assembled for one of their routine (pre-Covid) gatherings to talk about politics and community issues. They met at the hilltop mansion of a wealthy and well-connected doctor, Romesh Japra, in Fremont, California, part of Khannas district. According to Japra, among those gathered at Japra Mahal, as he calls his home, were members of Hindu nationalist-aligned organizations in the Bay Area, groups he does not view in any negative light. To me, nationalism, or Hinduism, or Hindutva, or Hindu Dharmathey are all the same thing, he said in an interview.

These friends, mostly men, were irritated at their congressman. Since Khanna had posted his Hindutva tweet, they had begun discussing an idea for a movement to safeguard their ideology and to support a challenger to Khanna. With his friends encouragement, Ritesh Tandon, an Indian-born Hindu Republican and tech entrepreneur, announced his intent to compete against Khanna that night, Japra told me. The casual gathering spontaneously morphed into a political launch; about 75 people listened to Tandons stump speech at the mansions banquet room while dining on a vegetarian Indian dinner prepared by local chefs.

By early December, Japra, once a Khanna ally and now a Trump supporter, had registered a new super PAC, Americans for Hindus, to codify their cause. Among the groups donors are the co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, the coordinator for the Northern California chapter of the OFBJP and the chair of a 2014 Madison Square Garden celebration for Modi. As of October 14, the group had raised more than $225,000, a small figure in the campaign finance world, but significant compared with other PACs positioned around Hindu identity.

Americans for Hindus, Japra says, aims to promote pro-Hindu politicians who steer clear of criticizing India, distance themselves from what he calls the socialist policies of the Democratic Party, and who Japra hopes will help rid Congress of what he terms anti-Hindu elementsprogressives like Khanna and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, another Indian American politician. Americans for Hindus is not backing a challenger to Jayapal, but the congresswoman has attracted the ire of the Indian government, as well as some in the Indian diaspora, for criticizing Indias treatment of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, the focus of a bipartisan resolution she introduced to the House of Representatives. (Jayapal told me in an interview earlier this year, before the bill was stymied, that more representatives than appeared supported the bill, but that they feared the potential loss of support from their Indian American constituents. They dont want to be attacked, she said).

The politics of Americas Hindu PACs are not uniform. HAPAC has predominantly donated to Democrats over the years and is currently endorsing both Republicans and Democrats, while Americans for Hindus is backing only Republicans. We think the Hindus, our values and philosophy they align more with staying in the middle, Japra told me, explaining that that has translated to moving basically more towards the Republicans. But in February, Americans for Hindus collaborated with HAPAC on phone calls to introduce select pro-Hindu candidatesthree Democrats and one Republicanto Hindu American voters. Mihir Meghani, chair of HAPAC and a donor of Americans for Hindus, as well as the co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, wrote in a public Facebook post that Hindu candidates for office and elected officials are under attack right now in America, and that if we want a strong Hindu voice, our community needs to support these candidates.

Americans for Hindus has funded candidates that range from a few longshots to a couple of likely victors to several running in battleground districts. Kumar, the Trump donor who also encouraged another Hindu Republican to challenge Khanna in 2014, told me he believes Tandonone of the long shotscould have done more to tap Hindu American donors in Khannas district since its so rich in Hindu Americans. In a statement, Tandon blamed Covid for his struggle to reach more Americans but said he has attracted funding from people of all faiths. Japra, meanwhile, has a long-term vision for his PAC. These races are just the beginning, he says. Overall, nationwide, our movement is taking off.

During a Zoom meeting in late September (which I attended as a reporter), Japra and a few dozen of the PACs supporters in the Bay Area, Texas, New York and elsewhere convened to offer updates on their organizing. The Silicon Valley race was the most consequential in their minds. This is our current bhoomi, Japra said, using the Hindi word for land. And we want to make sure our ideology, our civilization, our culture, the Hindu culture which we are so, so proud of, is taken care of.

Addressing Tandon, Japra added, Its a transnational movement that is going on, and your local election battle is a microcosm of what is happening in the world.

Even as Americans for Hindus has challenged politicians like Khanna for what the group sees as insufficient support for Hindutva, progressive South Asian voters and advocacy groups have been vocal in urging politicians to speak out against Hindu nationalism. They want Indian American politicians, including some on the left, to openly reject Hindutva, condemn human rights abuses in India, and turn away financial support from Americans who are affiliated with organizations that promote Hindutva.

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How Hindu Nationalism Could Shape the Election - POLITICO

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