For many Democratic voters in a Houston-area congressional district, the choice between Sri Preston Kulkarni and Troy Nehls is an obvious one. Kulkarni, whose 2018 campaign was lauded for its grassroots outreach operation to Asian Americans, is backed by former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which for the second consecutive election has prioritized Texas’s 22nd Congressional District in its effort to flip Republican seats. Nehls, meanwhile, is the Donald Trump-supporting sheriff of Fort Bend County, with a checkered record that includes being fired from a previous police job for accruing 19 misconduct violations in a year. His narcotics unit has been accused of racial profiling for its disproportionate stops and searches of Latinos, which the sheriff’s office has denied.
But for some Asian American voters, the decision has become more complicated. Though Kulkarni went to great lengths to court the quickly growing voting bloc in the Houston suburbs during his 2018 run against Republican Rep. Pete Olson, his efforts to cultivate a diverse coalition of supporters have gone awry among Indian Americans in the district. Kulkarni’s attendance last year at a rally headlined by India’s far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump, in addition to allegations that his political career was launched with the aid of individuals ideologically connected to Hindu extremist groups in India, have cracked open deep-seated political divisions among Muslim and Hindu communities that were largely unified around his 2018 campaign.
“Our board is very mixed about how they feel about Sri,” said Munira Bangee, president of Houston Muslim Democrats.
A recent survey showed that U.S.-India relations ranks among the least important issues for the Indian American electorate, but Kulkarni’s ties to members of U.S. Hindu nationalist groups that are connected to violent, anti-Muslim activity in India have caused him to lose some of his 2018 supporters. A few have gone as far as backing Kulkarni’s Republican opponent — although Nehls himself has also been courted by pro-Modi groups and individuals during the race.
The seat in Texas’s 22nd District opened up after Olson, having defeated Kulkarni by 5 percentage points in 2018, announced his retirement last year. Kulkarni’s field operation in the diverse district — the majority of residents in Fort Bend County are people of color, and 17 percent are voting-eligible Asian Americans — includes contacting voters in 27 languages, up from 13 last cycle. Kulkarni’s domestic political positions hew mainly to the center. While he advocated for Medicare for All in 2018, his current platform favors a public option and states that he opposes efforts to dismantle Medicaid and Medicare. He has said that he is against defunding police departments and does not mention signature progressive Democratic issues, such as a Green New Deal, in his platform. His 2020 campaign has a host of endorsements from moderate Democrats, including the Blue Dog PAC, the political arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, as well as from a couple progressive groups like Indivisible and environmentalist organization the Sierra Club.
Though District 22 was once a Republican stronghold, the race for the open congressional seat is neck and neck, with the latest internal Democratic poll showing Kulkarni with a slight lead. In part because of the DCCC’s significant investment in flipping the district, Kulkarni’s fundraising has far surpassed Nehls: $4.5 million to $1 million.
Kulkarni did not directly answer questions from The Intercept about his connections to members of Hindu nationalist groups operating in the United States. In a statement, he said, “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.” Nehls did not respond to a request for comment.
The past two years in India have been marked by an alarming escalation of political and sectarian conflict instigated by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Under the BJP’s rule, India’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and Dalits and Indigenous groups, have faced violence and disenfranchisement.
Modi enjoys support in the U.S. from a like-minded segment of the Indian American public, including a Houston-based nonprofit connected to people affiliated with Hindu nationalist organizations across the U.S. that planned last year’s “Howdy, Modi” rally. He also has vehement opponents, however, including some who were appalled by Kulkarni’s appearance at the rally and the candidate’s acceptance of at least $60,000 in campaign contributions from members of U.S.-based Hindu nationalist groups and their family members.
At the center of the controversy over Kulkarni’s donors is Ramesh Bhutada, the national vice president of the U.S. wing of the Indian Hindu nationalist paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. In the 1970s, Bhutada helped establish Houston’s first chapter of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization under the RSS umbrella that is set up in the U.S. as a nonprofit with a stated aim of doing service work and fostering community among Hindus living in America. Bhutada has also been active in political organizing for Modi’s election campaigns, as well as organizing and fundraising for the campaigns of several U.S. politicians, notably Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who has drawn her own criticism for ties to Hindu nationalist groups and been a vocal supporter of the Modi government. Both Bhutada and his son Rishi were involved in organizing “Howdy, Modi.”
Bhutada and his relatives were reportedly involved in an effort that raised a total of $45,000 to jump-start Kulkarni’s 2018 campaign. Kulkarni himself has indicated that Bhutada was instrumental in getting his political career off the ground: After winning the Democratic nomination in the 2018 primary runoff, he said in a victory speech that Bhutada “has been like a father to me on this campaign.” Bhutada and his wife Kiran have donated a total of $29,000 to Kulkarni’s 2018 and 2020 campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Speaking to The Intercept, Rishi Bhutada said that he and his father first met Kulkarni in 2018 after he happened upon an Indian name while researching District 22’s Democratic primary candidates. The younger Bhutada is on the boards of Hindu American Foundation, a controversial D.C.-based advocacy organization that invited Kulkarni to its 2018 gala, and Hindu American PAC, a political action committee that donates to politicians it deems represent Hindu American interests, including $22,500 to Kulkarni since 2018.
Rishi Bhutada said he and his father were impressed by Kulkarni’s commitment to building diverse coalitions in the district, as well as his positions on domestic policy issues like climate change and gun violence.
“Sri was really pioneering something different, where he was strongly pushing outreach to every immigrant community in the district: Indian American, Pakistani American, Chinese American, Nigerian Americans, everybody,” said Rishi Bhutada, who has donated $20,200 to Kulkarni along with his wife Shradha. “So we really thought, OK this guy is trying something new and is possibly the best candidate that the Democrats have had in this district since Nick Lampson. He’s got a shot and we really believed it.”
The Bhutadas began activating the Hindu American community to support Kulkarni, asking them to donate and volunteer for his campaign. Among them were several individuals who helped organize “Howdy, Modi” and who are leaders in U.S. affiliates of the Hindu right. Their connections and contributions to Kulkarni were first reported in August by independent journalist and activist Pieter Friedrich, who has been at the helm of an online campaign against Kulkarni and these donors.
These ties, not much noticed in 2018, have become highly contentious in Kulkarni’s current campaign, in large part due to his attendance at the Modi rally. “The ‘Howdy, Modi’ event caused a lot of tension between communities,” said Shakeib, a voter in District 22 who asked to be identified only by his first name, citing fear of online harassment. “On the one hand, we had 50,000 people that came to the event, and on the other side, we had a huge protest happening. I haven’t seen that kind of mass protest before in 25 years living in Houston.” Shakeib has not yet decided who he will vote for, telling The Intercept that he hopes Kulkarni will condemn the RSS and consider returning the controversial donations in order to rebuild trust with the Muslim community before Election Day.
People were tipped off to Kulkarni’s attendance at the event after Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, a Democrat, posted a photo on Facebook posing with Kulkarni inside NRG Stadium in front of American and Indian flags. The photo set off a heated conversation within the Houston Muslim Democrats’ private Facebook group, Bangee said, over why he attended an event celebrating the right-wing Indian prime minister.
Kulkarni addressed the group later that week, saying that he went “not as an endorsement of any specific figure or policy, but as a show of respect for the Indian-American community and especially the volunteers who worked hard to organize the largest collection of Indian-Americans in America’s history, many of whom were also volunteers on our campaign last year, and who worked alongside people in this forum to register and get out voters last year.” He said this was his same rationale for attending Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech during the Islamic Society of North America convention in Houston the month prior.
Kulkarni went on to say that he had spent more than 60 hours last September in private discussions with various stakeholders on the Indian government’s unilateral decision to revoke Kashmir’s partial autonomy and lock down the Muslim-majority region last August, an action that caused international alarm amid reports of an internet shutdown, extrajudicial detentions, and human rights abuses.
In the weeks leading up to the November election, the online campaign against Kulkarni has painted him as effectively a stooge for Hindu nationalists in the U.S. — criticizing his close ties with individuals like Ramesh Bhutada and his apparent hesitance to disassociate himself from right-wing Hindu groups in the U.S. Late last month, Kulkarni lost the endorsement of Emgage, an American Muslim political action committee that had supported his 2018 run but decided to refrain from endorsing any candidate in the District 22 race this year after facing pressure to distance itself from him.
“The unfortunate thing is that when these attacks against Sri started, his response didn’t go far enough to give people comfort that he was disassociated from the views being attributed to him online,” said Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage Foundation. “He also didn’t clearly disassociate himself from potential supporters who held those views, or were tied to organizations accused of extremism abroad.”
Kulkarni has tried to manage the controversy over his candidacy that has been raging for the past several months. In response to criticism, he has given a handful of interviews in which he professed that he and his campaign have no connections to foreign organizations or ideologies, including the RSS. His campaign added to its website that “it does not accept support from any foreign entities, nor is it connected to or influenced by any foreign organizations, such as RSS, [the Chinese Communist Party], or their affiliates.” At a private meeting of board members of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston earlier this month, Kulkarni, a former U.S. Foreign Service official, was captured on video telling assembled guests that as little as two years prior, he had been unaware of the existence of the RSS and would have thought it was an acronym for Real Simple Syndication, a popular web feed.
After Emgage’s decision not to back his campaign this September, Kulkarni posted a “letter to the Muslim community” on his website, lamenting that the group had been pressured by “nefarious actors” to renege on its support for him and vowing that if elected to Congress, he would oppose measures by the Modi government to strip the citizenship of Indian Muslims — an issue of serious concern to Indian Americans whose friends and families in India would be gravely endangered by such a move.
“I want to make it clear that I am, and always have been, an ally to the Muslim community,” Kulkarni wrote. “My goal throughout all of this is to serve as an intermediary between our many different communities to spark dialogue and understanding in the hopes of creating real change that can help people.”
Kulkarni has made a final push with the Muslim community, including visiting several mosques during the early-voting period that began on October 13. He also made one last appeal on Facebook to the Houston Muslim Democrats: “For all those who want true representation in TX-22, please don’t listen to the conspiracy theories and propaganda. Look at our record and the choice is clear. We need all of your support and we need it now.”
Though some skeptical voters were appeased by Kulkarni’s letter, for some Indian Muslims in the Houston area, his response was too little, too late, after months of apparent equivocating about the Modi government’s discriminatory policies. Those who spoke to The Intercept said that in the worst case, Kulkarni’s remarks appeared to be merely an attempt to salvage his dwindling base of Muslim supporters while also retaining his funding streams from individuals connected with the U.S. Hindu right.
“People are still not happy, his base is still falling,” Shakeib said. “What people are now asking him is that he should condemn what’s going on in India, he should condemn the RSS, and he should return funding he’s gotten from these executives.”
Over the last few years, the potential influence of Hindutva money in U.S. politics has become a wider concern within the South Asian American diaspora. Members of the U.S. Hindu right could leverage their funding and leadership in their communities to influence how elected officials respond to the deteriorating political situation in India, including by obstructing congressional censure of the Modi government, said Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, a progressive Hindu American advocacy group. Rajagopal, who co-moderated a virtual town hall with Nehls last month, said that as a lifelong Democrat, he would never ask voters to back a Republican and that he has heard from some Democrats in the district that they may abstain from voting in the race.
As a hub of Hindu nationalist activity and the second-largest Indian American population in the country, Texas has also become one of the main states where voters are paying more attention to Hindutva money in politics. Even as Kulkarni’s conflict is largely intra-Democratic, Texas Republicans have sought to capitalize on the dynamic. In a series of since-deleted tweets on September 25, Olson referred to contributions to Kulkarni from his major Hindu donors as “big time money from Nazi sympathizers,” despite the fact that Olson himself received $4,000 from Ramesh Bhutada in 2009 and 2011. During the 2018 race, Olson was caught on video referring to Kulkarni as a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who is a carpetbagger.” While Kulkarni was in the crowd at “Howdy, Modi,” Olson was part of the event’s congressional delegation and shook hands with the Indian prime minister on stage. Olson did not respond to a request for comment.
On a national level, Republican Hindus last December launched Americans4Hindus, a Super PAC created in response to what its founders perceive as leftist, anti-India sentiment within the Democratic Party, particularly from Indian American politicians like Reps. Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal, who have sharply criticized Modi over his government’s human rights abuses. Several members of the group have been involved in pro-Modi and pro-BJP organizing, including its co-chairs, Romesh Japra and Raj Bhayani.
The group has endorsed Trump, as well as a number of congressional candidates, including Nehls, who attended an A4H Zoom call during the week of the Republican National Convention. In September, Nehls and his brother, who is running to succeed him as sheriff, participated in an in-person event co-hosted by A4H and Hindu Congress of America, another right-wing group.
Among Nehls’s Hindu American supporters in the district is Bangar Reddy, a Fort Bend County resident for 25 years. He previously donated $1,000 to Kulkarni in June 2019 after he said he attended a meet-and-greet with the candidate at the home of Jugal Malani. Malani is the chair of the nonprofit that organized “Howdy, Modi,” and, with his wife and son, has donated $18,300 to Kulkarni’s campaigns. But Reddy, who was a transportation coordinator for the event, thought that Kulkarni should have been a more active participant.
Reddy ran in the district’s Republican primary and, after losing, joined Nehls’s campaign as outreach director. Referring to Kulkarni as a leftist and a socialist, Reddy told The Intercept that he disagreed with the candidate making statements on Indian politics that Reddy perceived to be critical of the Indian government.
“Over a period of time, things have changed. Sri has become more far left, pandering to every community and promising everything,” Reddy said. “The ‘Howdy, Modi’ event was a litmus test that proved he’s neither for Indian Americans and doesn’t have a solid agenda.”
In addition to Nehls’s military and police service, Reddy told The Intercept that the sheriff has established himself as a familiar face in the district and built rapport with different communities. “Everybody knows him, and over a period of time he’s grown a good relationship with the Indian American community,” he said.
Last August, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh visited the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office for the Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan; HSS chapters across the U.S. are known to visit police and fire departments, as well as local elected officials, during this holiday.
Nehls has shown himself to be uninitiated on many issues that are driving divisions in District 22. During the September virtual town hall co-hosted by Hindu and Muslim progressive groups, Nehls repeatedly expressed that he did not know enough about the Muslim ban or India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which excludes Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority countries from receiving expedited citizenship.
As Election Day nears, Indian Muslims, and others who have become invested in the issue, are torn over who to vote for. Following the Islamic Society of Greater Houston meeting with Kulkarni, an ISGH board member came out in support of Nehls, setting off further discord in the community as the board president tried to quell rumors about the organization endorsing any candidates, which it cannot do as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
But others say they will bite the bullet and vote for Kulkarni. “Everybody’s a staunch Democrat and some are willing to look beyond his funding and support him,” said Bangee of Houston Muslim Democrats, who lives in the neighboring 7th District. “They’ve held fundraisers and phone banked and donated … because a Democrat is better than a Republican.”
Update: Oct. 30, 2020
This article has been updated to clarify Ramesh Bhutada’s history of political organizing and fundraising.