Sri Preston Kulkarni: Hindutva’s Hope in Houston
US congressional candidate fielded by RSS in America
“In this campaign, Rameshji has become like my father,” Sri Preston Kulkarni said in May 2018 when he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Texas’s 22nd congressional district.
Kulkarni was referring to Ramesh Bhutada, the man responsible for mobilizing Indian-American support for the aspiring congressman. Bhutada apparently worked hand-in-hand with his cousin-in-law, Vijay Pallod, who met Kulkarni “in the early months of the campaign.” Pallod recounts, “We raised $30,000 to get his campaign off the ground in the first month and brought in a total of $45,000.” Describing how Bhutada’s hard work was instrumental, Pallod said, “Despite busy schedule, Ramesh met with community stalwarts, regardless of their party affiliation to bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.”
As he challenged incumbent Congressman Pete Olson, Kulkarni faced an uphill battle. But he fought well, losing by only five points. When Olson abruptly announced that he would retire after finishing out his new term, Kulkarni seized the opportunity and once again threw his hat into the ring.
His hat, as before, was swiftly filled up by “community stalwarts” whose “financial power” was leveraged by Bhutada.
Ramesh Bhutada is the Vice-President of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the international wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist paramilitary in India which drew inspiration from and offered praise for Nazi Germany. The RSS gave birth to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose international wing — the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP) — was instrumental in getting Narendra Modi elected as prime minister in 2014. Bhutada played his own pivotal role in the OFBJP’s campaign to elect Modi, organizing approximately 700 volunteers in Houston to phone back to India “round the clock to motivate voters.”
Among those who won office when the BJP swept the General Elections in 2014 was Poonam Mahajan. She is not only a member of parliament from Mumbai but the national president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha — the BJP’s youth wing. She is also, as it happens, the cousin of Kulkarni.
Bhutada’s experience campaigning for Modi — and, earlier, joining his relative Pallod to fundraise for US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard — no doubt honed the political skills he has employed to sponsor Kulkarni’s campaign. Once again, he is leading the charge. When Kulkarni launched his second bid for Congress in April 2019, “the audience heard from two individuals who have a strong emotional bond with Sri”: one was his mother and the other was Bhutada.
With Olson out of the way, Kulkarni’s chances of winning the race are high. “We jumped from 20th most competitive race in America all the way to 6th most competitive overall,” he announced on 22 July 2020.
While he recently joked that “this campaign is powered by aunties,” the wheels of his campaign are also heavily greased by fat donations from people like Vivek Kavadi, Ashok Danda, Mihir Meghani, Bharat Barai, and Subhash Gupta.
Kavadi — who complains that the BJP is “needlessly demonized” — has not only personally donated $4,500 to Kulkarni’s campaigns but also organized fundraisers.
Ashok Danda has helped “coordinate outreach to the district’s Telugu speakers.” As The Texas Observer reported, “He calls his friends, they call theirs, and soon, Danda is holding a fundraiser for 50 Telugu speakers in his living room.” Danda — who has personally donated $4,430 — is the former president of the US branch of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, a project of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious wing of the RSS.
Mihir Meghani, a medical doctor, completed a clinical rotation in the mid-1990s which was reportedly arranged for him by an RSS pracharak (full-time worker) named Sunil Deodhar, a man who later served as Modi’s campaign manager for the 2014 elections. Long affiliated with both the HSS and VHP-America (VHPA), Meghani made his mark on the BJP in 1998 when the party’s website featured his essay in praise of “the Hindu nationalist movement that was sweeping India.” He has personally donated $11,899 to keep Kulkarni’s campaign afloat.
Another $2,000 has come from Bharat Barai. A long-time leader in the VHPA, Barai twice hosted Modi in his Indiana home in the 1990s. In the 2000s, after Modi was banned from entering the US, he began hosting regular video-conferences with the controversial Indian politician — and, in 2014, he traveled to India to physically campaign for the BJP.
Also traveling to India to campaign for the BJP in 2014 was Ramesh Shah, a Houstonian who has given $1,651 to Kulkarni. A founder of Ekal USA and a former vice-president of OFBJP, Shah — like Barai — was not only a long-time leader in VHPA but also hosted Modi in the US in the 1990s.
Another $4,000 in donations came from Subhash Gupta who — besides his own long-time leadership role in the VHPA — is Chairman-Advisor to Ekal USA as well as president of Houston’s HSS chapter (which was founded by Bhutada).
Also joining the army of American RSS activists who put boots on the ground to campaign for the BJP was Vijay Pallod of both the HSS and VHPA. Pallod (and family) have donated $4,452 to Kulkarni’s campaign. Pallod also, as he notes, holds the honor of having discovered Kulkarni in 2018 — just as, seven years earlier, he discovered Tulsi Gabbard.
Another relative of Bhutada’s — his brother-in-law and business partner Jugal Malani — dug deeper than all the others. Malani (and family) have donated $18,300 to Kulkarni’s campaign. Aside from his association with Bhutada and Pallod, Malani is an advisor to Ekal’s Houston chapter.
Not to be outdone by anyone else, however, Bhutada (and family) have donated a massive $46,300 to Kulkarni. Meanwhile, he has — according to Pallod — motivated many others to “bring their financial power to help Kulkarni.” Is it any surprise, then, that the congressional candidate describes the RSS activist as “like my father”?
There are a number of other distinctly RSS/BJP-linked congressional candidates in the 2020 election. Rishi Kumar (challenging an incumbent in California) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (running for re-election in Illinois) top the list. Yet Kumar’s chances are slim and Krishnamoorthi already holds office. Sri Preston Kulkarni, however, is Hindutva’s hope in Houston.