Clever; a new mantra for Indian American politicians.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: If viewers in the United States were startled, puzzled when they saw campaign advertisements for Republican Manju Goel’s primary bid for the 8th Congressional district in Illinois, during the India-Pakistan cricket match in the recently concluded Asia Cup on Willow TV, or during news breaks on Times Now, they have good reason: the ads look more like for a candidate running for election in India.
The bizarre mélange has photos of and messages from the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, endorsement from Speaker Newt Gingrich, words like ‘Jaichand’ to describe Goel’s GOP opponent Larry Kaifesh – denounced as a traitor to the community.
Despite the strident voice over in English, the ad has unmistakably Indian tone. There’s a photo of a goddess – presumably to suggest Mother India; music that reminds of TV religious soap operas. It also flashes the photo of Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, the founder of the purportedly social organization Indian Americans for Freedom (IAFF), a staunch supporter of Modi; allegedly behind a SuperPAC that is supporting Goel.
There’s also a message from Ramdev: how the Indian American community can become more powerful than the Jewish American community, through politics.
The ad, however, does not feature on either Goel’s official website (www.manjuforcongress.com), or on the IAFF website (www.indianamericansforfreedom.com). Goel has said she has no connection to the IAFF. There’s no mention of Goel on the IAFF website, which has prominent photos of Gingrich posing with IAFF officials, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at an IAFF fundraiser. Kumar features in those photos.
A phone call requesting an interview with Goel was not returned. No response was received to an email to Kumar requesting an interview.
The ads are most likely running on only platforms catering to the Indian or South Asian community. It’s done in a clumsy, amateurish way, with juxtaposed messages that do not convey Goel’s policies. A subsequent, related ad does not even show Goel’s name on screen, just venues for early voting. The ads have too many images that flit past, in a fast forward mode. Modi, Ramdev feature more than Goel.
The concept, however, may have accidentally struck the mother lode for fundraising nationally for desi candidates seeking office: an honest, brazen appeal to the Diaspora from across the nation to help put a candidate from the community, one with deep roots in India, on Capitol Hill.
Most Indian American voters, especially first generation voters, whether they have received citizenship within a few years or after decades, maintain close ties to India; weigh equally on Manmohanomics, Obamacare.
Most Indian American candidates seeking office are not averse to fundraising in the community. But have also learnt the art of tactically distancing themselves from the same. It’s finally voters in their constituency who help them get elected. In every congressional race, the percentage of voters of Indian or South Asian origin, are miniscule.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did an excellent job of this, keeping in mind the conservative White voters in the state. During his long journey from being defeated by a few percentage points in his first bid for Governor – after being touted as the favorite, getting elected to Congress, and then a triumphant second bid for Governor which was successful.
Jindal has never visited India since he got elected to office. It’s not a surprise that IAFF has shown support for Republicans Haley and Goel. But there is no mention of Jindal, the most prominent Indian American conservative in the party (and with Punjabi roots, like Haley, Goel). Maybe he never wanted it, was wary of the association, the adverse publicity it might bring.
Haley has been open about her Indian roots, but has never had ads that portrayed her affiliation to India. New Jersey Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, a first generation Indian American politician like Goel, has shown deep rapport with the community over the years, but is now choosy of meets he attends, what they might portend for his Congressional chances.
However, can political ads for Indian American candidates that appeal to desi conscience help garner money or ballots? A voter in New York is helpless to vote for Goel in Illinois, but might give money, especially a supporter of Modi.
Are the ads going to really achieve what they intend – to get Goel clear the first hurdle to a potential clash with Democrat incumbent Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth in November?
The ad might also put off a Republican or anti-Modi from voting for Goel, create misgivings that she is not completely immersed in American politics, has vested interests at heart.
The question then also arises if the ad was in part also a clever move to project Modi, the right wing ideologue Ramdev, who supports Modi. If through the ads, Kumar was actually doing the politically unprecedented: support right wing conservative candidates on two continents in one go.
Goel, a health care consultant and resident of Aurora, Ill., emigrated to the US at the age of 21. She has been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune over her clear-cut policy views, like raise the retirement age for those who are now under 50. She’s also endorsed by notable GOP elites like former presidential contender Herman Cain, and the former 8th District Congressman Joe Walsh, apart from Gingrich.
But her campaign is also in trouble because of hard negative campaigning against Kaifesh. It remains to be seen if the support given by Kumar proves detrimental to her in the long run.
Goel has been attacked by leaders within the GOP for questioning her opponent’s legitimacy as a resident of Illinois, harvesting emails by creating a duplicitous look-alike Kaifesh website. She’s been asked to withdraw from the race by leaders in two counties, Cook and Kane, criticized for her alleged links to the IAFF.
The 8th District is centered in Schaumburg and includes parts of Northwest Cook, eastern Kane and central DuPage counties. Interestingly, Raja Krishnamoorthi, who lost a Democratic primary bid, has termed the constituency “perhaps the most Asian district in the Midwest”.
According to 2012 census figures, 12 percent of the district’s residents are of Asian descent. Duckworth got the Muslim support two years ago; voters of Gujarati Hindu origin went Walsh’s way for his support on Capitol Hill of the removal of the visa ban on Modi. In that election, Kumar’s SuperPAC supported Walsh.
If Goel clears the first hurdle, she would have to contend with a formidable opponent in Duckworth, who is herself of Asian origin – she was born in Thailand – and is the first Asian American woman elected to Congress in Illinois, as well as the first disabled woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Goel has vehemently staved off criticism, denounced critics as having “double standards.” However, a complaint has been filed with the Federal Elections Commission regarding the IAFF activities. If a verdict denounces Kumar before the primaries on March 18th, it could prove costly for Goel.
Goel in her counter attack – as does the ad in her support – points out that Kaifesh, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, tried to get 1,200 signatures of support by Indian Americans and Hispanic Americans discarded as ‘fraud,’ a charge that was overturned by the Election Commission, gave a big boost to her campaign.
Goel’s website indicates that she has learnt some lessons from India: lack of regard for the Congress party and dislike of Pakistan.
Her campaign points out that she was disillusioned when India faced “bankruptcy in 1991 because of the failed policies of big government, high taxes and massive regulations. As our next Congresswoman, she will work tirelessly for common-sense solutions that ensure the same failed policies don’t ruin her adopted homeland & keep the American Dream Alive.”
The campaign also says Goel believes in “calling a Terrorist a Terrorist.” It says: “As your next Congresswoman, I will work tirelessly to make sure that we cut off all foreign aid to countries that support terrorism and wage a smart and vigilant war on terror to protect our homeland.”
It’s a theme which is close to Kumar’s heart too: who has worked hard to see that Pakistan is cut off from all aid by the US. Countering radical Islam has likely shaped Kumar’s political activism over the years.
Goel maintains she has taken help from the IAFF as legally allowed. It could come back to haunt her though. Politically savvy voters will not forget that in the last elections, Walsh got mired in controversy after Kumar’s SuperPAC ran ads that put a question mark on Duckworth’s support for the Council on American Islamic Relations. It backfired badly. Though the ads in support of Goel are not critical of Muslims, it’s enough of an affront to Muslims who detest Modi.
Kumar, the founder, chairman and CEO of AVG Group of companies, claims to have worked for the Business Advisory Council for President Ronald Reagan, on the IAFF website. He is arguably the most well-known Indian American political activist, but with an uncanny knack for getting mired in controversy. More often than not, negative publicity follows.
Kumar sponsored the visit of three members of Congress to visit Gujarat and meet Modi – Aaron Schock, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Cynthia Lummis. The three were lambasted for taking a junket. Soon after the visit, Rogers distanced herself from Kumar, put question marks on his credibility.
Kumar is also allegedly behind the candidature of Republican Vanila Mathur Singh in California’s 17th congressional District, to oppose Ro Khanna, a Democrat. Singh has distanced herself from Kumar, though. Recent polls suggest Khanna trailing Singh, although both trail incumbent Mike Honda by a considerable margin.
It now remains to be seen how much Kumar’s support is going to benefit or harm Goel’s campaign.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)
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