The Hindu Trump Card

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By Mansi Choksi

Three days before the presidential election, I found Shalabh Kumar sitting in a patio chair in the basement cafeteria of Trump Tower in New York, hollering at an imaginary Pakistani fighter plane. “Come on, shoot,” he said. “If you have the guts, come on and shoot.”

Kumar was inhabiting a memory from his youth, when as a sixteen-year-old in 1965, he stood on the roof of his parents’ home in Amritsar, a city in the northern Indian state of Punjab, in the thick of a war between India and Pakistan. His neighborhood was enveloped in darkness, and he was shouting at the sky, waving an Indian flag, as enemy planes thundered overhead.

Kumar, an electronics business tycoon in Chicago, who likes to be seen exclusively in black suits with a brooch carrying his initials, became a fixture on Capitol Hill six years ago, and emerged in July as one of the largest individual donors to the Donald Trump campaign, contributing $898,800 dollars for the cause of Hindu Americans. He wears gold-rimmed aviator eyeglasses and a beard like that of Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister who represents a Hindu nationalist political party.

In the spring of 2015, Kumar was invited to the annual conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, where businessmen, congressmen, governors and former presidents networked between golf and poker tournaments. Presidential candidates, he told me, behaved like salesmen. There were about 4.2 million Hindus in the United States, Kumar estimated, although the Pew Research Center reported a number closer to 2 million. Hindu Americans and Jewish Americans were alike, he said, because they were wealthy, entrepreneurial and well educated. Even interfaith marriages between Hindus and Jews were on the rise. The difference, as he saw it, was that Hindus kept their heads down and focused only on advancing their professional lives, not their political participation. So he had the idea of starting a lobby called the Republican Hindu Coalition, “a baby brother” to the Republican Jewish Coalition, that would have the same mandate on “free enterprise, fiscal discipline, family values and the fight against terrorism.”

Kumar took the idea to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, whom he described as the “smartest man.” “Thirty seconds it took him before he says—great idea. Thirty seconds, literally. Thirty seconds, he says—if you want, I’ll be co-chairman,” Kumar said. “Well, this idea must be really good.”

Kumar had the money ready to go but he was waiting for a hint from Gingrich about which candidate it should go to. He was skeptical of Trump, who had appeared on television, wearing a Make America Great Again cap, imitating an Indian call-center worker. But three months later, in July, with a nudge from Gingrich, Kumar and Trump sat down for a meeting. Kumar left with the understanding that Trump loved India and was only arguing that he favored legal immigration. “The Americans I deal with—businessmen, engineers, professionals—they respect talent,” Kumar said. “I could see very easily that, in that respect, Donald Trump is just like me.”

***

In August, weeks after Kumar pledged his contribution to Trump, I watched Kumar appear on the Newshour, an Indian TV news show that has been described as Fox News on Steroids. Arnab Goswami, a self-righteous and short-tempered anchor, bellowed over panelists whose heads were trapped in little floating boxes onscreen. Goswami asked how Kumar expected India to have a close relationship with the United States under a Trump administration, if the presidential candidate planned to ban roughly 180 million Indian Muslims.

“The problem here is we are taking a statement out of context. I met the gentleman. I met him for forty-five minutes. I had a heart-to-heart talk with him. You just watch RNC. Why would Muslims be participating in his nomination process? There were Muslims in the RNC presidential nomination. So this entire thing, which is blown out of proportion…” Kumar said.

“What is blown out of proportion?” Arnab asked.

“The fact that he will just ban all Muslims from entering the—”

“That’s what he said.”

“This is in a different context.”

“What different context?”

“You cannot take one paragraph out of a whole speech.”

Goswami cut him off.

***

On a Sunday last month at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, I watched two dancing make-believe terrorists wearing Islamic thobes get thumped to the ground by a troop of dancing make-believe U.S. troops wearing SWAT vests. The act, which eventually resolved in an earnest performance to Star-Spangled Banner, was part of the Humanity Against Terror Charity Concert, a Bollywood-Tollywood event, sponsored by Kumar’s Republican Hindu Coalition, to raise money for Hindu victims of Islamic terror in Kashmir and Bangladesh. Afterward the performance, Trump appeared as guest speaker, and announced that he was a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India. India and the United States would become best friends if he were in the White House, he said, all the while conflating the details of two different terror attacks and mispronouncing the word “Mumbai.”

Earlier that evening, Kumar pitched Trump to the audience, arguing that conservative values were Hindu values—free enterprise, libertarian small government, fiscal discipline, family values, and a strong foreign policy.

“I am proud to be a Hindu. I will repeat it again. I am proud to be a Hindu. I am proud to be a Hindu American,” he said. The crowd erupted. “We are the culture that gave the number zero to the world, we gave decimal point to the world, we gave astronomy to the world, we gave surgery to the world.”

In his speeches, Kumar spoke with an air of solemnity, as if he were standing on the pinnacle of self-made success. He liked to tell his story with a narrative arc: he was born in a lower middle-class family of freedom fighters; at the age of twenty, he moved to the United States to study electronics engineering; six years later, he founded the AVG Group, a electronics manufacturing firm, where he amassed his fortune.

“Folks, let me tell you, I also was a Democrat once,” he said at the concert. “I grew up admiring J.F.K. His pictures used to be plastered all over town as the most handsome president of the United States ever. But then after a chance meeting with candidate governor Ronald Reagan, in 1979, my life changed. He convinced me that my values were conservative, and I became, perhaps, the first Republican Indian American in the country.”

Back at Trump Tower, he told me that this had been a pivotal part of his speeches to Indian American voters. His own story of switching over to the Republican Party, he imagined, could make him relatable to an audience that was known to identify primarily with the Democratic Party. Roughly sixty-one percent of Hindu Americans and sixty-five percent of Indian Americans leaned left, according to studies by Pew. Kumar said this is due to an “information gap.” He argued that the Obama administration had used tax dollars from Hindu Americans to arm Pakistan with nuclear-capable weapons, which would likely be aimed at India. “Unless you are going to throw away your brain, then only you could be a Democrat and a supporter of Hillary.”

Kumar said his elder daughter, who lives in Boston, plans to vote for Clinton. “We have a lot of discussion on that,” he said. “I would have gone to her and spent a day with all these arguments I have. But I said to myself—it really doesn’t matter anyway, we are in a deep blue state.”

After the last presidential debate, Kumar based himself in Florida, a swing state where the Indian American population grew by eighty percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Part of Kumar’s strategy was about optics—getting Eric Trump to visit a Hindu temple there, for instance. And part of it was about generating paranoia. Last week, Kumar approved an advert that accused Clinton of sanctioning military aid to Pakistan and blocking the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visa to the United States. A doomsday voiceover stated that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s aide, was of Pakistani origin, and that if Clinton came to power, she would become chief of staff.

“People are already paying attention to Hindu Americans. In fact, Hillary came to the table a little late,” he said. “If this election comes down to a few thousand votes, then it definitely will be credited to the Hindu vote.” He went on to describe his plans to create a city named after Ronald Reagan in south India.

At one point in our conversation, a stranger sauntered to our table in the basement cafeteria. He was taking a break from calling voters in swing states on behalf of the Trump campaign.

“Are you Mr. Kumar?” the man asked, holding a poster that said ‘Drain the Swamp.’

“Yes,” Kumar smiled.

“I saw you on TV.”

“Good! Thank you. Which television?”

“I can only watch Fox.”

“Alright, very good, thanks for stopping by,” Kumar said, waving and grinning. “I’m developing fans.”

Published on November 7, 2016 on Harper’s.