Politics

Why Are Democrats Backing a House Candidate With Reportedly Shady Foreign Ties?

Sri Preston Kulkarni looks likely to win a toss-up Texas district, but some voters aren’t thrilled.

Sri Preston Kulkarni sits in front of a Macbook while talking and gesturing with his hands.
Some of the most prominent people in Sri Preston Kulkarni’s orbit have connections to a Hindu nationalist group. Sri for Congress

There’s a lot of hope, and pressure, resting on Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democratic candidate for Texas’ 22nd Congressional District. The area, which encompasses the south-central suburbs of Greater Houston, has long been a conservative stronghold whose notorious alumni include Ron Paul and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. For the past decade, the region has been repped by popular Republican Pete Olson, who is not seeking reelection. With his departure and the district’s minority-majority voting base, the seat is now another pickup target for House Democrats. A recent internal poll from Kulkarni’s campaign showed him leading his opponent, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, by about 5 points.

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Kulkarni has a record seemingly tailor-made to appeal to Democratic politics, having served for years in the U.S. Foreign Service and advised Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on foreign policy and defense. He has deep Texas ties; his mother is a descendant of historical state legend Sam Houston, and his father was a Rice University professor and India-born novelist. Kulkarni’s motivation for running, as he tells it, was spurred by President Donald Trump’s comments following the 2017 Unite the Right rally—he quit the State Department shortly after and ran for the 22nd District’s seat in 2018, out-raising Olson and coming closer than any previous challenger to unseating him.

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But this is a complicated candidacy. For months, journalist and South Asia expert Pieter Friedrich has been reporting on the candidate’s public ties to figures associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the militant Hindu supremacist organization that has been influencing India’s politics for 95 years. RSS, as it’s most commonly known, has a sordid history, with documented ties to Nazism and white supremacists as well as a membership that has produced several notorious figures, from Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the Islamophobic far-right has increased its power and influence in India, RSS has played a prominent role in the subcontinent’s foreign affairs through its international affiliate, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. The role of HSS, which is active in nearly 40 countries, is to soften the image of Modi and his fellow Hindu nationalists abroad, by lobbying for policy and organizing supporters that will favor their agendas.

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Kulkarni’s connections begin with HSS’ U.S. vice president, businessman Ramesh Bhutada, who also established the group’s Houston outpost in the ’70s. During Kulkarni’s 2018 campaign, Bhutada contributed early funds, helped mobilize Indian American voters, and established close ties with the candidate. (When Kulkarni won the district’s Democratic primary that year, he said Bhutada had “become like a father.”) Bhutada has long been an advocate not only for Hindu nationalist rule in India but also for promoting Hindutva, an ideology most easily summarized as representing Hindu nationalism, in the U.S. As reported in the Intercept, he organized large phone-banking campaigns to help get Modi elected during his first national race and donated to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has often expressed support for Modi. He also served on the Texas India Forum, which organized the 2019 “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston. Bhutada joined Kulkarni when he announced his second congressional bid in early 2019, and he and his family have donated almost $50,000. Bhutada is also far from the only Hindu nationalist sympathizer or RSS/HSS affiliate who’s either donated to, stumped for, or has significant personal connections with Kulkarni, as documented by Friedrich.

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When Friedrich noted all this in early August, Kulkarni dismissed the reports, calling them “absurd” and saying he has often spoken out against Islamophobia. At a recent campaign event, audio of which was leaked to Friedrich, Kulkarni claimed he “didn’t know about all this RSS stuff.” This is highly unlikely, considering that he has relatives who have served as ministers of India’s ruling, xenophobic Bharatiya Janata Party—which arose out of RSS—and attended multiple events with several RSS-linked politicos in 2018.

If Kulkarni were elected, he could potentially be another key ally of Modi’s government on legislation pertaining to some of its more controversial actions, which are often the subject of intense lobbying. To take one recent example, outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel originally worked with Democrats to write a strongly worded resolution condemning India’s oppressive lockdown on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, only to walk back and soften the criticism after speaking with Indian diplomats.

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Hindu nationalists across the world have seen an opportunity in Trump’s public embrace of Modi and unwillingness to condemn India’s human rights abuses, especially against Muslims. Even if Trump is voted out come November, these ideologues will keep working to make the U.S. government more amenable to their desires. Politicians like Kulkarni are one key to this goal, and many Democrats are probably willing to overlook such ties if they have a chance to take a House seat from the Republicans.

Current polls indicate Kulkarni will likely head to Congress in 2021, but some groups are starting to balk at throwing their support behind him. Emgage PAC, reportedly the largest Muslim PAC in the U.S. and a 2018 Kulkarni supporter, decided not to endorse either Kulkarni or Nehls in this year’s race, specifically citing Kulkarni’s refusal to disavow groups like RSS. (In response, Kulkarni claimed Emgage was “under attack by nefarious actors.”) The Indian American Muslim Council sent a detailed letter to Kulkarni, laying out his RSS ties and criticizing his claims of Muslim allyship. And some staunch Democratic votersnot just Indian Americans—have started protesting Kulkarni’s candidacy, rallying in Sugar Land and adopting a new line: “Vote Blue No Matter Who, but NOT Sri in TX-22.” For many in Texas’ 22nd, this choice may echo the one longtime Republicans faced on the 2016 presidential ballot. Democrats would be wise to take notice with their future candidates—and to do so before their victory seems assured.

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Update, Oct. 28, 2020: After publication, the Kulkarni campaign provided this statement to Slate:

Our campaign has no connection to any foreign groups, organizations, or ideologies. I personally have supported universal human rights for my entire career, and condemn all human rights violations or terrorism anywhere in the world.

The campaign is focused on making a positive change for all communities in our district and giving every community a seat at the table by running the most inclusive campaign possible, with a volunteer and supporter base that represents the diversity of the district.

Unfortunately, our opponent’s campaign has attempted to sow division in our district, by inflaming tension in our faith communities, including the Hindu and Muslim communities. We absolutely reject such divisive tactics. In a district as diverse as TX-22, the only way to achieve true representation is through strong coalitions which include every community. 

Our campaign will continue to promote unity and inclusion as the antidote to division and hate.

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