Running for US Congress, Sri Preston Kulkarni under fire for ties with India’s right-wing RSS

By Pieter Friedrich

In the middle of his second attempt to secure a seat in US Congress, Sri Preston Kulkarni is under fire for his association with the top leadership of American affiliates of India’s controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary.

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“In this campaign, Rameshji has become like my father,” Sri Preston Kulkarni said in May 2018 after he won a run-off election for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Texas’s 22nd congressional district. He was referring to Ramesh Bhutada, the man responsible for mobilizing Indian-American support for the aspiring congressman. Bhutada is Vice-President of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (USA) as well as President of the HSS’s Southwest Division.

Bhutada apparently worked hand-in-hand with his cousin-in-law, Vijay Pallod, who met Kulkarni “in the early months of the campaign.” Pallod himself is a former Governing Council member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), the US wing of the VHP of India, which is considered the religious wing of the RSS. He describes seeing a “steady stream of RSS workers” at Bhutada’s house in the 1980s.

Speaking about Kulkarni’s campaign, Pallod recounts how the candidate “was all by himself” until he and Bhutada came alongside him. “We raised $30,000 to get his campaign off the ground in the first month and brought in a total of $45,000,” says Pallod. “Despite the busy schedule, Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”

Analysis of Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports reveals that Bhutada — as well as his wife and son — were among the first 40 donors to Kulkarni’s campaign.

By the time of the primary election on 6 March 2018, he had received $20,000 from just five individuals (and their immediate family members) who are directly affiliated with the Sangh Parivar (an umbrella term for RSS and its subsidiaries) in America. These included Bhutada, Pallod, Jugal Malani (brother-in-law of Ramesh Bhutada), Mihir Meghani, and HSS-Houston President Subhash Gupta — all of whose links to the Sangh are detailed extensively in my article for The Caravan.

Kulkarni had also received donations from Navin Bhargava (an executive at Bhutada’s company, Star Pipe Products), Vivek Kavadi (an apologist for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of RSS), Subroto Gangopadhyay (an activist with Overseas Friends of BJP who helped organize a 2018 event for BJP’s Islamophobic Subramanian Swamy), Shekhar Agrawal (also an OFBJP activist), and Ashok Danda (former president of Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, a VHP project). Their donations — before the Democratic Party primary — totalled $8,100.

The $28,000 donated by these handful of Sangh associates and leaders constituted approximately 26 per cent of the $106,000 that Kulkarni raised before the primary.

Thus, it appears that the Sangh in America laid the financial foundation that allowed Sri Preston Kulkarni to launch his first bid for US Congress.

Kulkarni lost his first bid for Congress. When he formally launched a second attempt in April 2019, the audience at his launch “heard from two individuals who have a strong emotional bond with Sri”: one was his mother and the other was Ramesh Bhutada. The ten Sangh-affiliated individuals who first began giving to him in the very earliest days of his first campaign have mostly remained faithful. Over the past two years, between both campaigns, they’ve provided approximately $110,000 in funding.

Kulkarni’s primary relevant experience for the job in Congress is his 14-year career in the US Foreign Service. Yet he strangely has not issued a statement on foreign policy.

Meanwhile, some Indian-Americans currently serving in Congress have made it a point to take a stand on American foreign policy towards India despite not serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. For instance, Congressman Ro Khanna has unequivocally denounced Hindutva — the religious-nationalist political ideology undergirding the RSS.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has been so vocal in support of human rights in the disputed region of Kashmir that, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister cancelled a meeting with a delegation of US congressional representatives after they refused to exclude her.

When Kulkarni’s fellow Indian-Americans are so outspoken in opposition to the agenda of India’s ruling Hindu nationalists and yet he remains silent on the issue of foreign policy while, at the same time, taking in large donations from representatives of the Sangh in America, one wonders what kind of a congressman he might make.

Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is 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.”