Saffron, Red and Blue

How the American Sangh hopes to win the 2020 US elections

A "Howdy Modi" event organised in Houston, Texas in September 2019. Sergio Flores/Getty Images
Elections 2024
29 October, 2020

ON 20 SEPTEMBER, Princeton University’s Hindu Life Program held a discussion titled “Hindu-Americans and the 2020 Elections.” The virtual debate brought together Murali Balaji, the national co-chair of Hindu Americans for Biden, and Jay Kansara, a community organiser for Hindu Voices for Trump. In an electoral cycle marked by bitter partisan divisions, the event marked an unusually polite exchange between two men on opposite sides of the US political aisle.

The host of the event, Vineet Chander, was aware that political debates in 2020 had the potential to turn ugly. “We were fully prepared to skip this opportunity if we couldn’t ensure that we had the right people at the table,” Chander said, before introducing Balaji and Kansara. “Murali and Jay are friends. They are former colleagues. Interestingly, both of them worked side-by-side in some respects at the Hindu American Foundation.” Chander’s introduction was meant to explain why the two were the right people for a civil conversation, but inadvertently revealed a different truth: that the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group that has consistently lobbied in favour of the Sangh Parivar—a network of organisations connected to the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—encompassed what were considered mainstream Hindu-American voices in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

As colleagues at the HAF, Balaji and Kansara were accustomed to sharing the same stage. In November 2014, the two were both speakers at an HAF fundraiser in Houston, Texas. The chief guest at the event was Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii whose close ties to the Sangh Parivar are well-documented. Balaji, who was the director of education and curriculum reform for the HAF between June 2013 and December 2017, spoke at the 2014 fundraiser about his lobbying efforts against what HAF described as inaccurate portrayals of Hinduism in US textbooks. Progressive activists argued that the reforms pushed for by the HAF included attempts to erase references to caste.

Kansara was praised at the fundraiser by Rishi Bhutada, a member of HAF’s board of directors and a key member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America. The Bhutada family has been one of the most consistent supporters of the Sangh Parivar in the United States. While Rishi was a primary organiser of the VHPA’s youth camps, his father, Ramesh, organised Indian-Americans in support of the Bharatiya Janata Party during their election campaigns. Today, Rishi is on the HAF’s board of directors, while Ramesh is the vice-president of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS’s international wing.