By Yash Johri and Arnosh Keswani:
While the Donald Trump wave has affected and continues to affect many adversely, it has also carried many individuals and organisations to newfound prominence. Shalabh Kumar, a self-made businessman from Chicago and leader of the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), an early supporter of the Trump campaign, is one such figure who is suddenly in the news for his apparent close connections with President Trump.
Diaspora news outlets, as well as mainstream Indian media outlets, have followed up on that and have given Kumar much airtime and column space. Unsurprisingly, Barkha Dutt, an anchor of a prominent news channel in India, introduced Kumar and his daughter, as the father-daughter duo with a direct line to the President, a tag that the father and daughter brandish and embrace.
Kumar’s close relationship with President Trump was brought to the public eye on October 15, 2016, at a massive rally in New Jersey by the RHC for strictly, Hindu-Americans. It is here that Trump famously stated, “I love Hindus, I love India,” a statement which some political commentators saw as consistent with his anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric. In addition to Trump’s rhetoric, the October 15 event spewed irrational hate against the Democratic candidate unfoundedly stating in a video that Hillary’s top aide, Huma Abedin had close ties with donors of Al-Qaeda and that if people voted for Hillary, they would be supporting terror.
Kumar, the choreographer of an extravagant display of Bollywood dancing, long distance nationalism and occasional bouts of Islamophobia, was handsomely rewarded for being a long-standing supporter of Trump with a place on Trump’s finance and inauguration transition team. It has also been reported that he has been instrumental in setting up meetings for top Indian bureaucrats with the new powers that be.
It is clear from events so far that although Kumar is yet to hold a formal portfolio in the Trump administration, he will be a major power broker in US-India relations under Trump. It is also well known that Mr. Kumar has been associated with the Indian Prime Minister, during his tenure as Gujarat Chief Minister.
Kumar was one of the first American businesspersons to publicly demand a visa for him after his US visa was rejected in 2005. Kumar has led business delegations to Gujarat as well, during his tenure.
In his 2010 address to the Indian Parliament, President Obama stressed that the relationship between the United States and India – bound by our shared interests and our shared values – will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. Those shared values included respect for democracy and democratic processes, inclusiveness, tolerance of all faiths and peoples, and social harmony. Just seven years on, we live in very different times, in a hyper-nationalistic and less tolerant society. Mr. Kumar from the dais of the Republican Hindu Coalition believes and insinuates that he represents all of India, something all Indians must be wary of.
I, as a member of the Non-Residential Indian (NRI) community in the US, strongly believe that practical necessities aside, the Indian government should not associate with people such as Mr. Kumar and his followers who equate the idea of India to ‘peaceful Hindus’, implicitly painting with a broad brush people from other faiths as inherently violent.
Recently on January 31, according to the RHC website, Kumar’s organisation held a press briefing at the Capitol Hill club citing its support for Trump’s recent draconian executive order on immigration. To engage with such organisations and individuals to mediate political and business ties gravely imperils the relationship between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies. Governments of both the countries will do well to avoid using the resources of people like Shalabh Kumar.