Modi’s point people in the US are desperate to get their people in control of the US Congress’s foreign policy towards India so they can derail any attempt to hold the RSS and BJP accountable
Pieter Friedrich | Clarion India
OVER the past three weeks, it has been heavily documented how top leadership of the US wing of India’s Nazi-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is heavily financing Sri Preston Kulkarni’s campaign for US Congress in Houston, Texas.
This is Kulkarni’s second campaign after a failed attempt in 2018. Of particular note is that these American RSS leaders were key to helping him win the Democratic Party’s nomination in March 2018.
They provided at least 40% of his total campaign donations leading up to the March primary, and ultimately helped him clinch the nomination by beating out a black Muslim woman in a May run-off election.
The question arises, however — why is the RSS backing Kulkarni? To answer that question, let’s step back in time for a little while. Dr Bharat Barai is a former member of the Governing Council of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America — the US wing of India’s VHP, which is the religious wing of the RSS. He’s currently an advisory board member of VHP of America’s Chicago branch.
In the 1990s, while he was a VHP of America Governing Council member, Barai repeatedly hosted Narendra Modi in his Chicago region home as the future prime minister visited on tours organised by the RSS in America. After 2002, however, Modi was banned from entering the country due to his involvement in the Gujarat pogrom. So Barai took steps to keep Modi connected with the diaspora.
From 2007 onwards, Barai began organising regular video conferences with Modi. The events were huge. Barai rented out halls and packed them out with sometimes as many as 1000 audience members plus hundreds in overflow facilities — and even beamed the live video conferences to audiences at events in 20 other cities around the country.
In the years before Modi became prime minister, Barai worked extensively to rehabilitate his image in the US.
“I think the US did not recognise the importance of Mr. Modi until 2014,” he told me. “This was a tactical mistake. … Somebody in the State Department should have realized that he is the rising son.”
So Barai worked to place a person in the US Congress who would treat Modi as “the rising son.” In 2010, Barai and other leaders in Chicago’s RSS circles threw their weight behind Congressman Joe Walsh, a Republican.
“I was the first member of Congress to advocate for Modi,” says Walsh. He began his advocacy in 2012 by writing a letter to the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which he declared: “It is time the State Department reconsiders permitting Mr. Modi into the United States.”
Later that year, Barai organised a press conference for Walsh, where he announced: “I am here because Chief Minister Modi has become a hero of mine.” He further pledged that there would be “no music until Modi is here” and stated, “It is an outrage that our government has not issued Mr Modi a visa.”
In return for his services, the RSS in America ran newspaper ads reading, “If you love Modi, send Walsh back to Congress.” Walsh, however, lost his campaign for re-election and left office in January 2013.
Yet at the same time that Walsh was leaving office, Tulsi Gabbard was entering office after having won her first election with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations by groups like the HSS (the international wing of the RSS), the VHP of America, and the OFBJP.
Tulsi Gabbard wasted no time in going to work for Modi.
In July 2013, then BJP President Rajnath Singh visited Washington, DC to, in his words, “appeal to the US government to clear the US visa” for Modi. Gabbard was among the few representatives who met with him on Capitol Hill — a meeting where they were joined by Vijay Jolly (then chief of the BJP’s Foreign Affairs Cell), Ram Madhav (then the spokesperson of the RSS), and Sanjay Puri (the founder of the US-India Political Action Committee, a pro-Modi group formed in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom).
Three months later, in October 2013, the VHP of America hosted Gabbard at an Atlanta event where Gokul Kunnath, a former RSS member, appealed to her “to initiate efforts to have a bipartisan resolution” inviting Modi to address a joint session of Congress.
The following month, in November 2013, members of Congress introduced House Resolution 417. The resolution was a last-ditch attempt by representatives concerned about human rights in India to warn that — to quote the resolution — “strands of the Hindu nationalist movement have advanced a divisive and violent agenda that has harmed the social fabric of India.” Most importantly, the resolution praised the US government for denying Modi a visa and urged it to continue doing so.
The resolution had potential. It gained over 50 co-sponsors. It also had full, bi-partisan support.
Tulsi Gabbard, however, was ready to step in and do her part to sabotage the resolution. As one of only a handful of Congressional representatives to criticise it, she announced: “It is critically important that we focus on strengthening the ties between the two nations, and I do not believe that H. Res. 417 accomplishes this.”
In April 2014, there was one last attempt in Congress to raise concerns about Modi and the Hindu nationalist agenda he would push if he became prime minister. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the House of Representatives, held a hearing to discuss the plight of religious minorities in India.
One of the speakers was Katrina Lantos Swett, the vice-chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who warned, “Many religious minority communities fear religious freedom will be jeopardised if the BJP wins and the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, becomes Prime Minister.”
But Gabbard once again did her part.
Speaking at the hearing, she was one of the only people to raise her voice against it. “I have grave concerns about the timing of this hearing,” she said. “ I am concerned that an outcome or effect of this hearing could begin to foment fear and loathing used for political purposes.”
Later, Gabbard discussed the significance of her protest. Calling herself the “lone dissenting voice,” she said that she played a crucial role in correcting “misperceptions that were being furthered about India and about … Modi,” and concluded: “My taking five minutes out of my day to go there and speak on this was a very small thing when you look at the impact that it had.”
Her contributions to whitewashing Modi’s internationally tarnished reputation did not go unnoticed.
All along the way, the RSS in America — including Bharat Barai as well as HSS Vice-President Ramesh Bhutada — continued to build a secure financial foundation for her congressional campaign.
After Modi was elected in May 2014, there were at least three separate OFBJP victory parties for Modi where organisers, speaking from the stage, praised her for standing against both House Resolution 417 and the human rights hearing and urged the audience to donate to her in gratitude for her stance.
Gabbard continued offering apologetics for Modi. When she travelled to India in December 2014, she spoke at an RSS forum where called Modi a “man on a mission,” assured her audience that “the past is buried,” and concluded, “There was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002.”
Justifying Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that killed more than 2000 people, the majority of them Muslims, is something she continued to do even during her presidential campaign.
Now, however, Gabbard is out of the picture. She lost her campaign for president. She did not run for re-election to Congress.
She will be out of office in January 2021.
Meanwhile, however, there is growing pressure in the US on Modi’s regime in India, including from prominent Indian-American members of Congress.
In August 2019, Congressman Ro Khanna declared: “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, Buddhists, and Christians.”
In December 2019, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced a resolution which urges India “to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents.” Much to the anger of the RSS — both in India and America — Jayapal has also engaged directly with groups like Indian American Muslim Council.
Since December 2019, the US has also seen a wave of large protests against the Modi regime’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. And multiple cities around the country — including major cities like Seattle and San Francisco — have passed resolutions denouncing the CAA, the NRC, and the Hindu nationalist agenda.
Moreover, the number of pro-Modi and RSS-backed members of US Congress is, currently, on a decline.
Congressman Ed Royce, who was formerly the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was described by The Times of India as “a strong supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” But he left office in January 2019.
Congressman Eliot Engel, the new chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has squashed Pramila Jayapal’s resolution on Kashmir and refused to bring it to the committee. But he is playing both sides of the fence. Just this month, he wrote a letter to India’s external affairs minister expressing concern over the failure to “normalise” conditions in Kashmir.
The RSS in America — including people like Barai and Bhutada — have heavily backed Congressman Brad Sherman, who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee. The same people are also helping to finance Congressman Ami Bera, who is also a member o the committee as well as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, which deals with foreign policy towards India. And they are backing Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi — but he’s not on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Why is the RSS backing Kulkarni?
The RSS in America is starting to feel its need for more politicians in their pocket who have influence over America’s foreign policy towards India — like Sri Preston Kulkarni.
In the words of Dr Ashok Swain, Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, “After the Tulsi Gabbard project failed, the fascist RSS promotes Sri Preston Kulkarni as a candidate for the US Congress.”
Why? Dr Swain explains, “He comes from a foreign policy background, a foreign diplomatic background…. If he gets elected, he will be more likely to be in the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US, and that will help them to somehow minimise the kind of challenges which will come to RSS and the Hindu fundamentalists groups from the US administration and the US as a country. It’s a smart move from their side; because they expect that if they can really do it, if they can bring Sri Preston Kulkarni to the US Congress, then they will somehow be able to withstand certain kinds of pressures.“
A smart move, indeed. Kulkarni came out of nowhere. He has no baggage. He has no political reputation. He is a clean slate. He does, however, have sterling credentials from his 14-year career in the US Foreign Service. And, if he gets elected, he’s a top contender for a Foreign Affairs Committee appointment.
As Modi’s regime faces growing pressure from the US, Modi’s point people in America are desperate to once again get their people in control of the US Congress’s foreign policy towards India so they can derail any attempt to hold the RSS, the BJP, and Modi accountable for their ongoing and increasing violations of religious freedom and basic human rights.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs analyst who resides in California. He is the author of Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers and co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. www.pieterfriedrich.net. The views expressed are personal and ‘Clarion India’ does not necessarily share or subscribe to them.