Win or Loss, RSS Scandal will haunt Sri Preston Kulkarni

By Pieter Friedrich

“I didn’t know about all this, like all this RSS stuff, to be honest,” Sri Preston Kulkarni, brow furrowed and hands waving, stressed at a recent campaign event caught on camera. “If you had asked me two years ago…. I didn’t know what this word even meant.”

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Win or lose his second campaign for US Congress in the Greater Houston region of Texas, Kulkarni’s decision to launch his first campaign with the aid of top leadership from the US wing of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will haunt his political career forever. And he will certainly never forget “all this RSS stuff.” Yet now that he knows what the word means — assuming his plea of prior ignorance is credible — the supposedly progressive candidate refuses to offer an opinion about the world’s most powerful paramilitary and its fascist agenda.

Founded in 1925 with the goal of turning India into a Hindu nation, the RSS has been accused of assassinations, bombings, and over a dozen anti-minority pogroms targeting Christians and Muslims. Its political wing — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — has held national power since 2014. Approximately 75 per cent of the BJP government’s cabinet ministers are members of RSS or its associated groups, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After accusations of allowing an anti-Muslim pogrom while serving as Gujarat’s Chief Minister in 2002, Modi was banned from entering the US until he achieved diplomatic immunity through his election to the prime ministership. Subsequently, he headlined several glitzy mega-receptions in the US which were hosted by the highly organized network of US affiliates of the RSS-BJP who were instrumental in his election in India. The most recent, dubbed “Howdy Modi,” was organized in Houston by people like Ramesh Bhutada — the Vice-President of RSS’s US wing, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA (HSS-USA) — and his wide circle of fellow activists.

At least 45 of Howdy Modi’s main organizers have donated to Kulkarni, who attended the event. With donations from the Bhutada family surpassing $50,000 in total, they’ve earned the candidate’s deep gratitude. “Without them, this campaign literally could not have happened,” says Kulkarni. “I really want to appreciate everything that the Bhutadas have done.” Ramesh Bhutada’s relative and fellow activist, Vijay Pallod, confirmed the crucial role they played in propping up Kulkarni’s campaign, noting that he was “all by himself” when they met him in the first month of his candidacy and brought “financial power” to “get his campaign off the ground.”

Kulkarni’s association with the RSS’s number 2 man in America stayed under the radar until August 2020, but when the connection emerged, a firestorm erupted and, as it continues to rage, it now threatens his ambition to win Texas’s 22nd congressional district.

“Blue no matter who except for 22,” declared Nyanza Moore, who lost the 2020 Democratic Party primary election to Kulkarni. “This is exactly the way I voted yesterday,” Moore said in a 19 October Facebook post as she shared an image of a poster reading, “Vote against Sri Kulkarni due to his ties to HSS, RSS, and BJP. Vote against fascism and foreign influence in US politics.”

On 17 October, interfaith activist Dr Mike Ghouse published an op-ed in multiple Indian diaspora media outlets, arguing, “We must reject those candidates who do not want the same values as the Indians living in India and certainly pull the hypocrites down if they support the fascist Modi regime in India that is lynching, harassing, raping, and killing fellow Indians.” Praising US lawmakers like Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Kamala Harris, he said, “The questionable man is Sri Preston Kulkarni…. He is accused of taking donations from the people who run the RSS organization in India.”

On 14 October, Ahsan Khan, president of Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) issued a lengthy letter to Kulkarni, declaring, “It is preposterous for your campaign to continue to maintain an anti-fascist posture in theory when your primary financial backers are Islamophobes rooted in the ideology of fascism.” Khan further stated:

“As you may be aware, the RSS, both in its ideology and its operating mechanisms, has borrowed heavily from Italian Fascism. Hindutva’s founding ideologues wrote approvingly on both Fascism and its collaboration with Nazi Germany, as well as Nazi Germany’s ‘purge’ of the Jewish people. Given this well-known history of RSS and Hindutva, many of us in the Muslim community were looking forward to your public disavowal of Hindutva, and distancing of your campaign from Hindutva’s front organizations in the US. To the dismay of many Indian Americans as well as progressives and liberals, you have done just the opposite.”

Khan’s letter followed on the heels of yet another blow for Kulkarni’s campaign. Emgage Political Action Committee — which calls itself the “policy home for American Muslims” — was expected to endorse him. They had done so enthusiastically in the previous election cycle. In late September, however, they announced their refusal to re-endorse, explaining:

“Emgage has discovered that some of Kulkarni’s largest donors and closest supporters are leaders of organizations promoting Hindutva. This far-right ideology, whose early founders openly praised Nazism, is completely antithetical to the inclusive and pluralistic values espoused by Emgage. During the Emgage endorsement interview, Kulkarni stated that he has no connection to any foreign ideology. However, he was unwilling to publicly condemn Hindutva-inspired organizations such as RSS, HSS, and BJP, or repudiate his donors linked to these organizations.”

Kulkarni has publicly — and repeatedly — stressed that his campaign is not “connected to or influenced by any foreign organizations, such as RSS.” That’s what his policy plank on nationalism states. In multiple interviews he has echoed the same sentiment, insisting that “I have no personal connection, the campaign has no connection to RSS” and also that, “we do not get any funding from RSS, or HSS, or any foreign organization whatsoever.”

Yet the one thing Kulkarni has not done — aside from refusing to grapple with the details of the allegation, which are that he has received heavy, targeted financing not from HSS-RSS as organizations but rather from individuals who are top leaders in HSS-RSS — is to actually offer any opinion, whether negative or positive, about the RSS.

Instead, he makes the incredible claim that he had never even heard of the paramilitary.

The RSS has approximately six million members. It has dozens of special-purpose subsidiaries — religious, political, educational, professional, social, and so on — with international wings established as long ago as 1947. HSS-USA was established as far back as the 1960s, with its first branch in Houston set up in the late 70s or early 80s by Ramesh Bhutada himself. Reportage on Bhutada, a prominent Indian-American public figure, is heavily focused on his work with HSS-RSS, including his intense efforts in 2014 to help Modi get elected.

Kulkarni never bothered to ask what Bhutada — a man he describes as “like a father to me” and without whose help his campaign “literally could not have happened” — does in his spare time?

Meanwhile, before Kulkarni resigned from the US Foreign Service in 2017 to run for Congress, his next posting was to be as a spokesperson for the US Embassy in New Delhi. As a seasoned diplomat, one would expect he would be aware of the political significance of the RSS. US ambassadors to India certainly have been, as revealed by former Ambassador David Mulford’s comment in 2007 that “the traditional muscle power of the BJP has always been the RSS.”

If nothing else, Kulkarni might have heard about “all this RSS stuff” from his uncle, Pramod Mahajan, who was considered the “BJP’s master strategist and troubleshooter” and even a future candidate for Prime Minister of India before his death in 2006. Once an RSS pracharak (full-time worker), Mahajan — along with Modi — planned then BJP President LK Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra in 1990. A campaign to destroy a mosque and erect a temple at a disputed religious site, the Yatra culminated in anti-Muslim riots in multiple states which left hundreds dead.

Today, Mahajan’s daughter Poonam — Kulkarni’s cousin — is a BJP member of parliament who, until September 2020, served as president of the party’s youth wing.

And yet Kulkarni insists that he only just learned what this word, RSS, means.

Regardless of the outcome of the election in TX-22 on 3 November 2020, Sri Preston Kulkarni will always remember — and never again be able to plead ignorance about — the RSS.


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.”