Ruh Ro. How the Valley's favorite politician may be foiled by a Hindu supremacist banned from the US

By Yasha Levine , written on May 29, 2014

From The News Desk

...and who just got elected Prime Minister of India.

When I first began covering the Congressional race between Mike Honda and Ro Khanna, the drama was fairly straightforward: A popular old school Democratic incumbent being challenged from within his own party by a young upstart with the backing of the richest and most powerful plutocrats in Silicon Valley.

The two candidates were battling for some of the most fertile soil in Silicon Valley: A congressional district that’s home to tech megacorps like Apple, eBay, Intel, Yahoo, and AMD. And the press was heralding it as a clash of political cultures: the first time that Silicon Valley was fronting its own candidate to take on the Bay Area’s powerful liberal Democratic Party machine.

Ro promised his mega-wealthy donors that he’d use Silicon Valley culture to disrupt national politics and make the world a better place — it would be Washington D.C. 2.0.

But as the June 3 primary approached, and the fight for the heart of Silicon Valley devolved into a messy five-way free-for-all, it became clear that Khanna couldn’t so easily disentangle himself from real world politics.

His vision of a technocratic political utopia met reality, and reality won. He got bogged down by uninspiring politics and accusations of a dirty tricks campaign to manipulate the vote in his favor.

It got sucked into something else as well: a bloody and violent political and religious conflict imported from more than 8,000 miles away. A conflict whose major player has just been elected prime minister of the largest democracy in the world and who, bizarrely, might also have the power to change the course of a local California election that's financed by some of technology's biggest billionaires.

This could well be the weirdest political story unfolding in America right now. And today I'm going to tell it...

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This is part three of Pando’s ongoing coverage of the Mike Honda vs Ro Khanna Congressional race in the heart of Silicon Valley. Read part one and two here…

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“The revelation that his closest associates, have actively recruited and signed for a fake Republican candidate to enter the race is shocking.”

That was how GOP Congressional candidate Vanila Singh reacted to allegations and evidence that the Ro Khanna campaign recruited dummy candidates to split his opponents' vote. There was something very funny about Singh getting upset about Khanna running dummy candidates — considering that she herself was initially recruited to spoil Ro Khanna's campaign.

Singh does not like to talk about that anymore — and her campaign now cuts off access to any journalist who dares to ask — but Singh was quite candid about it just after she officially entered the race earlier this year, telling a local paper that she had decided to run for Congress at the prodding of Shalabh Kumar — a rightwing Chicago businessman who had it in for Ro Khanna.

The bizarre motive? It all had to do with a rightwing Hindu supremacist politician named Narendra Modi.

If that name sounds familiar, it's because last week Modi was elected as India’s prime minister when he and his ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory. But back when Vanila Singh entered into the race, Modi was still just the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. He was also persona non grata in the United States. Since 2005, Modi had been on the State Department’s “visa blacklist” for his role in a 2002 bloody and nightmarish anti-Muslim pogrom that left several thousand dead and many more injured and displaced in Gujarat under his watch.

The violence was truly horrific and lasted for weeks. Women, men, children and the elderly were lynched — shot, hacked apart, beaten to death and burned alive. Women were raped; those who were pregnant had their stomachs slit open, fetuses ripped out and burned. Businesses and homes were looted and set on fire. An estimated quarter million people — mostly impoverished Muslims — were driven from their homes and ghettoized.

Here’s how an Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray described the events in the International Herald Tribune:

Muslim homes and shops have been destroyed, women raped and shrines attacked. With an indifferent if not hostile police, the thousands of Muslims who have taken refuge in hastily constructed camps feel unsafe even there. Aggressive Hindus push back those who try to return to their old homes and businesses.

…Meanwhile, the psychological pressure is mounting. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Social Welfare Organization), which is the BJP's parent body, demands that all Indians "should be called Hindus." The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Society), with nearly 2 million members, warns that minority security depends on the majority's goodwill. Both are urging Hindus to boycott Muslims economically. Human Rights Watch, which carried out an in depth investigation at the time, concluded that police and high level government and police officials were directly involved and organized the bloody anti-Muslim pogrom.

"What happened in Gujarat was not a spontaneous uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack against Muslims," says Smita Narula, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The attacks were planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.”

Under Modi’s watch, Gujarat became a “laboratory” of Hindu supremacy. Muslim and minority Christian groups were ghettoized and lived in perpetual fear. And periodic violence and extrajudicial executions of Muslims continue in the state to this day.

Narendra Modi has refused — and continues to refuse — to apologize for his role of the violence. Nor does he think he did anything wrong. And that's not surprising. Modi started out in as an activist in an explicitly fascist organization. His party, the BJP, is an ultra-nationalist party that wants remake India as a theocratic Hindu state. The party, and its network of militant Hindu supremacists support organizations both in India and abroad, sees religious and cultural pluralism as an existential threat to Hindi culture.

Indian novelist and political essayist Arundhati Roy says that violent Hindi supremacist ideology and idolation for Hitler and Mussolini is at the core of Modi's politics:

"[Modi] started out as a kind of activist in this self-proclaimed fascist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS, which was founded in 1925, who the heroes of the RSS were Mussolini and Hitler. Even today, you know, their—the bible of the RSS was written by a man called Golwalkar, you know, who says the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany. And so, they have a very clear idea of India as a Hindu nation, very much like the Hindu version of Pakistan.”
Modi is also rabidly pro-big multinational business. He supports neoliberal economic “reforms” — in particular, opening up India’s lucrative market to Western hi-tech companies like eBay and Google.

And our big tech supports Modi right back.

Pando's own Mark Ames recently uncovered the deep ties between Silicon Valley megacorps, and Narendra Modi and India's Hindu supremacist right. The love is particularly strong between Modi and Omidyar Network, the philanthropy arm of eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Google has been a dogged suitor as well. "In September 2012, days after members of Modi’s inner circle were found guilty of conspiracy to murder and rape during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms, Google and Modi partnered in a cross-promotional Google+ Hangouts event," wrote Ames.

Despite his violent and scary politics, Modi enjoys wide support among Hindu Indian-Americans. One of Modi’s biggest and most flamboyant boosters is a Chicago-based electronics tycoon named Shalabh Kumar. Kumar believes that the US visa ban on Modi is an insult to India and Indians, and he made it his mission to get it revoked.

Kumar sees Modi as a great man — India's answer to great statespeople like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

“Modi is the Ronald Reagan of India. The US could learn a lot from Modi,” Kumar told Caravan Magazine in April. And this was no idle comparison: Kumar loves the the Gipper so much that he named his tacky palatial pad in Bangalore the “Rana-Reagan Palace,” which has a fresco portrait of Reagan painted in its "Freedom Dome."

Rana-Reagan Palace

For the past several years, Kumar’s has been using his wealth and political connections to restore Modi’s honor. He's funneled cash into US elections, bankrolled Republican candidates and funded pro-Modi delegations to India — doling out cash to any politician willing to support and push his pro-Modi agenda.

In 2012, he sunk half a million dollars into the campaign of Joe Walsh, a Tea Party Congressman from Illinois, who ran on a strictly pro-business/pro-bigotry political platform. Walsh’s politics meshed perfectly with Modi’s: he scapegoated and demonized Muslims and loved the free market.

Addressing a crowd of Modi supporters during an Indian Day celebration in Bartlett, Illinois, Walsh described Modi — to wild applause — as “kind of like a Tea Party free market guy in India, which I found very appealing” — and vowed that he wouldn’t smile until Modi would be officially invited to the US.

Walsh's opponent was a Democrat named Tammy Duckworth — an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs in combat. But that didn’t stop Kumar from funding anti-Duckworth attack ads accusing her of cozying up to Islamic terrorists — all because she once said something positive about the highly respected Council of American Islamic Relations.

Walsh lost the race, but Kumar kept on going.

In 2013, Kumar's thinktank, the National Indian American Public Policy Institute, helped organize a Republican Congressional delegation that met with Modi in India. While they were there, Newt Gingrich dialed in over Skype during a roundtable discussion, praised Modi’s economic reforms and vowed to lobby on his behalf in D.C.

— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) March 29, 2013 But Kumar's passionate activism for Modi got him into some hot water with the Republican Party.

In 2013, Kumar and his National Indian American Public Policy Institute were nearly sued by a Republican Congresswoman, after mailing out an invite to an “India Day” event on Capitol Hill at which Modi would supposedly be addressing Republican Congressional leaders via a video link — the flyer advertised John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Pete Sessions. Turned out that the whole thing was fake — Kumar had made up the entire event without inviting or asking Republican lawmakers for permission. The event was scrapped after Kumar got a “cease and desist” order…

California’s 17th Congressional District was a natural attraction to a Modi fanatic like Kumar. CA-17 is one of two Asian majority districts in America. It also has the largest Indian-American population — a population that has nearly doubled in size since the early ‘00s.

If any place should have a pro-Modi politician representing it in DC, this should be it. But instead CA-17 had Mike Honda.

As a young child, Congressman Honda and his family spent time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. He has a reputation and track record of supporting the rights of ethnic minorities here  in the US and abroad.

In line with his beliefs, Honda was an early and steadfast supporter of Modi's visa ban. In 2012, he reaffirmed his position by signing a letter with 25 other Congresssman petitioning the US State Department to continue to deny Modi's visa.

That has never sat well with Hindu Indian-Americans in his district. And Ro Khanna saw it as Honda’s big weak spot. The Modi issue was a perfect wedge issue for Khanna, differentiating him from the incumbent and boosting his support among Hindu voters in the district.

After entering the race in 2013, Ro immediately began badgering Mike Honda and using the Congressman's support of a visa ban on Modi as way to promote his own candidacy. Khanna courted the pro-Modi Indian-American community and spoke at Hindu American Foundation (HAF) events. When local Hindu community leaders wanted to invite Modi to inaugurate the newly renovated Hindu temple in Fremont, Khanna signed onto a letter by HAF asking Congressman Honda to reconsider his anti-Modi stance.

HAF is a US lobby outfit created with the ostensible goal of fighting misconceptions and helping Americans understand Hinduism. But the group has a strong Hindu fundamentalist bent, and extensive ties to India's Hindu supremacists. It has been vocally lobbying on Modi's behalf.

In 2005, HAF sued the State of California in order to censor and revise California's 6th grade textbooks on Indian history in line with Hindu nationalist ideology, which included whitewashing the oppression and exploitation built into the caste system and downplaying the unequal treatment of women in  ancient Vedic society. The group criticized Wendy Doniger’s critically acclaimed book "The Hindus: An Alternative History." HAF's criticism was inline with those of Hindu supremacist organizations in India, who succeeded in bullying the publisher and getting the book pulped.

Khanna courted the HAF, and his pro-Modi/pro-Hindu gambit seemed to work. In the summer of 2013, Khanna got the full-throated endorsement of HAF co-founder Dr. Mihir Meghani, who 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.

Meghani’s letter repeatedly stressed Ro's pro-Modi stance and involvement in HAF as a reason why the Hindu community should support his candidacy:

Ro Khanna is running for the US Congress against Mike Honda. Honda wrote a letter asking the State Dept to deny Modi a visa.

Namaste, I am asking you to give your strong support to Ro Khanna who is running against Congressman Mike Honda for a Congressional seat in California's Silicon Valley. It is imperative that as Indians and Hindus that we support Ro. As part of my commitment, I have given the maximum donation of $5,200 to only 2 candidates this year - Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna, and I hope that you will give your maximum support to him as well.

…My wife Tanvi and I have known Ro personally for several years as he represents the area I live in (Fremont, Milpitas, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara). Ro has come to many of the programs of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and our leaders have interacted with him regularly at many community events. Most importantly, he is well informed and in agreement with many of the issues that we are concerned about as leaders of the Indian and Hindu community…

Earlier this year, Ro's opponent - Congressman Honda, signed a letter with 20 other Congressmen asking the US State Department to continue denying Narendra Modi a visa. Despite community leaders writing to him and many of us meeting him, Honda has not changed his stand. [emphasis in the original] Creepily, Meghani — who is now a doctor at Kaiser — is the author of a 1998 anti-Muslim BJP tract titled "Hindutva: The great nationalist ideology." In it he praised Hindu culture, while attacking Muslims and communists, and blaming the Muslims themselves for violence they incur from Hindus. "The communist and Muslim intelligentsia, led by Nehruvian ideologists who are never short of distorted history, have been unable to show that any Hindu ruler ever matched the cruelty of even a 'moderate' Muslim ruler."

But the Modi issue wasn't the gift Khanna thought it would be. The district is also home to a huge Muslim population. By some there are about 20,000 registered Muslim voters — out of a total Muslim population of 100,000.

Community leaders tell me that while Khanna was initially supported by Muslims in the district, that support was destroyed by his endorsement of such a divisive anti-Muslim politician.

"When Khanna wrote this letter to Mika Honda, the Muslim community — which was already by and large very favorable to Honda because he was known as a great supporter of the Muslim community and also a supporter of civil rights, which is the key issue in the Muslim community — the Muslim community became very antagonistic to Ro Khanna, and he wasn’t getting any inroads into the Muslim community,” Khalid Azam, vice president of the Indian American Muslim Council, told me by phone from San Jose.

Fearful of losing such an important voting block completely to Honda, Khanna quickly snaked back and attempted to distance himself from Modi's backers.

He wrote several op-eds, in which  he qualified his previous positions, writing that he didn’t believe that Modi's visa ban should be overturned, only that there should be a discussion.

"I very much oppose the killing of Muslims in India in 2002... I am not taking any position. I think [Mike Honda] should hear the community perspective. I certainly do not believe in sectarian violence, but at the same time I believe in constructive dialogue," he told India Abroad at the time.

Ro's flip-flipping might have saved him a few votes, but it didn’t go over well with some of the more hardcore Modi backers and Hindutva activists. They wanted a candidate with a backbone, and not the usual politician who would sell out their cause at the faintest whiff of controversy.

And that is where Vanila Singh came in.

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“When he started distancing himself from this position, of being hand-in-glove with the Hindu nationalists, the Hindu American Foundation propped up Vanila Singh. And they propped her up to send a message: if you are an Indian-American and are running for political office, and you don’t play good with our agenda, you are going to get opposed."
Singh lived in Fremont since she was a child, and had deep roots in the local Hindu Indian-American community. She was also a longtime volunteer and member of the HAF. And she was willing to take a much harder line on the Modi issue than Khanna.

After entering the race, she spoke out against the Modi visa ban, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that "U.S. policy came about because people pressured them" and that the State Department should "take another look."

As India-West reported in January, it was Singh's commitment to the cause what brought her to the attention of Shalabh Kumar:

Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar of Chicago, Ill., a businessman and founder of the Indian Americans for Freedom Super PAC, told India-West that Singh’s work with HAF came to his attention and he approached her to run for the seat.

Kumar, a fervent supporter of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, said he and Rep. Pete Sessions, a Tea Party Republican from Texas, have established the “Sessions-Kumar Project” to recruit and support 10 Republicans in bids for Congress who support a pro-India platform, the main plank of which is getting a U.S. visa for Modi, who has been banned from the U.S. for his alleged involvement with anti-Muslim activities in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. After convincing Singh of the need to run, Kumar launched her candidacy by introducing her to Republican Party bigwigs in DC, and here in California. Kumar was quite explicit that he was helping Singh only because Khanna was too much of a squish, telling India West:

...had Khanna been an independent “free of (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi’s whip” and willing to sign on to a “pro-India” agenda, he would have received the political and financial backing of Kumar’s Super PAC.
Pro-Modi hardliners wanted to teach Ro Khanna a lesson. And apparently, Vanila Singh was willing to do her part. “She’s way more hardcore than Ro,” said Dr. Shaik Ubaid, cofounder of the Coalition Against Genocide, a group  that was involved in the push for Modi’s visa ban in 2005.

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It’s not exactly clear what Kumar’s exact endgame is in backing a candidate to run against Ro. Was it just out of spite, some kind of sectarian infighting? Or was it meant as leverage to extract some kind of concession or promise from Ro later down the line? Certainly it seems petty and unimaginative to try to sink the election chances of a wimpy, but ultimately pro-Modi Indian-American just to "teach him a lesson."

Whatever the original intent, Singh has slowly transformed herself into a somewhat real candidate. Even now, with less than a week until election time, Singh is still politically hazy and unformed. Except for her halfhearted opposition to Obama's healthcare reform, she doesn’t have things clearly thought out on a lot of important political issues: immigration, climate change, marijuana or California's high-speed rail. And she refused to participate in a panel discussion with Mike Honda and Ro Khanna.

Singh’s been raising money, and loaned somewhere around $100,000 of her own cash to the campaign. Several Tea Party Republican Congressmen threw in $2,000 each into her race as well, — including Pete Sessions and Michael C. Burgess, a Texas-gynecologist-turned-Tea-Party-Representative best known for opposing abortion because of the existence of fetal masturbation: “You watch a sonogram of a 15-week baby, and they have movements that are purposeful. They stroke their face. If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. They feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?”

Two months before the election, she ramped up her efforts: Singh hired an aggressive campaign manager who set up a bunch of small community events and meet and greet sessions. She blitzed local TV and radio stations, bought some TV time for a cheesy campaign ad.

The most ridiculous part of the whole Modi issue is that while it's been furiously boiling just below the surface, every single candidate has tried to do everything to make sure it stays out of sight. Mike Honda, Ro Khanna and even Vanila Singh — all them want to pretend like it doesn’t exist.

For Khanna, the Modi issue was too potentially divisive to bring to the front of the campaign. He couldn’t praise Modi nor could he bash Singh’s connection to HAF and Kumar, nor could he say a word about their virulently pro-Modi agenda. Even Mike Honda, who had previously been a fierce Modi critic, softened his stance for fear of alienating the Indian-American Hindu vote. The Congressman quietly raised a white flag, signalling that he was open to dialogue — just like Ro.

Even Vanila Singh was forced to move to the squishy center on the Modi issue. She denied her association with Kumar, HAF and the hardline pro-Modi camp, and played down her pro-Modi stance. Well, not just played down, but straight up deferred to the State Department, saying she "respects" its decision in the matter — which is exactly the position Khanna had taken.

And of course no one — not Khanna, not Singh — would talk to me about Modi.

When I caught up with Singh at a “meet and greet” event at an upscale beer joint in Fremont, her campaign manager Matt Shupe bluntly cut me off when I expressed interest in her views on Modi. He told me that if I wanted access to the candidate, I’d have agree not to talk about or ask her any questions about India. He also expressed concern about my coverage of the primary race and was skeptical of Pando's supposed ideological bent, which he perceived as left wing.

“As a campaign manager, my job is to protect my candidate. I hope you can respect that,” he said, flashing a grin and taking a sip of a dark microbrew.

“Well — I guess I can understand it, but I don’t have to respect it,” I replied, a bit shocked that Shupe thought he could unilaterally dictate the terms for media access to a nobody candidate like Singh.

So Modi had become the great toxic issue of the campaign — with even the pro-Modi candidates refusing to talk about him. Which is funny, because the issue has become moot:  Modi is now the Prime Minister of India, and the US has little choice but to deal with him, like it or not.

And as far as Modi hardliners teaching Khanna a lesson? Well, that's not going so well either. Latest poll numbers for the primary election show Mike Honda in first place with 40 percent, Ro Khanna in second with 21 percent and Vanila Singh coming in third with eight percent of the vote.

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This is part three of Pando’s ongoing coverage of the Mike Honda vs Ro Khanna Congressional race in the heart of Silicon Valley. Read part one and two here…

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]