Shalabh Kumar is convinced that President Donald Trump will “usher Ram Rajya” in the United States, no less. He will bring back the ’80s — a time Kumar remembers as the “golden age” when his adopted country called the shots on all fronts. Although Kumar was speaking metaphorically, the imagined utopia worked well for this student from Punjab who landed in America with the proverbial few dollars in his pocket. He found his niche and prospered.
But then America started heading in the “wrong direction”, getting all liberal and stuff, in his telling. It opened its doors to just about anyone. Illegals, better known as “bad hombres” these days, started walking over the border liked they owned the place.
“This direction needed to be changed and Trump is going to do it,” Kumar said in a free-wheeling conversation about his life and times as Trump’s top Indian American donor or rather his top Hindu American donor, a term he prefers. The dollars did enough magic that Trump now introduces Kumar as the “richest Indian” in America who brought him crucial votes.
Both claims are seen as “alternative facts” by critics. Kumar admits he is not the richest Indian but somehow can’t bring himself to correct the president in public. As for the Indian vote turning significantly Republican this election cycle, he doesn’t have data to buttress his claim. He only mentions a “Zee News study”. Research has shown that most Indian Americans favour the Democratic Party and according to preliminary exit polls, a majority voted for Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t diminish Kumar’s spot in the current constellation in Washington or New Delhi — he picked the right candidate out of a crowd of 17 and pumped some serious money into his campaign.
He was also one of the early and dogged supporters of Narendra Modi.
The prime minister probably remembers 2013 when Kumar took three members of the US Congress to Gujarat to begin Modi’s rehab in America which had revoked his visa. It’s another matter the trip became hugely controversial. Questions were raised about how Kumar financed the Congressional trip. Kumar says the House Ethics Committee approved the trip and every dollar spent was accounted for.
A few months later, Kumar was again in hot water for claiming in a letter complete with the Congressional seal and photos of top lawmakers that the Republican leadership had invited Modi to address them via video. The leadership saw red because they had issued no such invitation. Kumar was served a “cease and desist” order for “misrepresenting” the Republican Party.
Kumar had clearly overreached, trying to propel US leaders towards Modi before they were ready. Eventually, official Washington read the political weather in India and rushed to make amends with Modi. Kumar had scored the first goal for Gandhinagar.
It took him time to reappear on the Washington scene, this time as a more advanced version. Kumar 2.0 had moved into the presidential orbit, playing for high stakes. He was projecting himself as Trump’s hotline to Delhi and Delhi’s instant messenger to the White House, playing both sides to advantage. But sometimes, he overdoes his importance. Recently, he wanted to be “in” on Modi’s congratulatory call to Trump — the first between the two leaders — as a price for arranging it. It would have been a clear violation of protocol. Thanks, but no thanks, said the Indian government and found another way to connect to Trump Tower.
But Kumar does have things to boast about, starting with his self-advertised proximity to POTUS. He was the first to convince a US presidential candidate to attend an Indian American rally, no matter how oddly conceived as a bizarre mix of Bollywood entertainment, presidential politics and the menace of terrorism. Trump publicly proclaimed his love of India at the October fest. Subsequently he got Trump to appear in an ad to say “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkaar” in an echo of Modi’s campaign. This stealing of intellectual property was just fine by New Delhi.
It must be admitted that for all the support and money Indian Americans have showered on Democrats over the years, they haven’t managed to get 30 minutes from a candidate to appear at a rally to acknowledge the community. Hillary Clinton was happy to attend fundraisers by Indian Americans so long as they promised a minimum collection of $500,000.
Her staff micro-managed her appearances to an exasperating, even offensive extent. After shelling out thousands of dollars to be seen and to eat assembly-line food, Indian American big dads would be granted a few seconds for a photo with Clinton. They were not allowed to shake her hand or ask her to sign mementos. Demands were rarely made on the candidate to deliver on policy issues of interest in exchange for the largesse.
Kumar had a clearer path in mind. Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and a Republican grandee and early Trump supporter, arranged for Kumar to talk to the candidate at length about terrorism and Pakistan before taking a decision to support him. Trump had already been “briefed” about the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), a lobby group Kumar had created to put himself and his agenda across. Gingrich, RHC’s honorary chair, felt Trump and Modi shared an ideological togetherness that should be explored.
“Me and Gingrich are good analysts. We picked Modi 14 months before he was a candidate and we picked Trump 14 months before the Republican Party did,” says Kumar. “Demonetisation in India happened on the same day Trump won. It is destiny. God gives little clues.” All the signs said his mother country and his adopted one were meant to be together. Kumar was on a roll.
What about his decision to dice a separate Hindu identity while eschewing the more inclusive term of Indian American? “Go to any university campus here and look at all the associations — there is always an Indian Muslim students association. That’s religion in your face. So why not a Hindu association?” The RHC, tightly controlled by Kumar and his son Vikram, models itself after the Republican Jewish Coalition and hopes to be a bridge between the community and Republican lawmakers. “We are no longer going to be apologetic Hindus. We are coming out of the closet. The word ‘Hindu’ has caught fire,” says Kumar. After Trump’s victory, Hindus in South Africa, Dubai, Australia and Canada have been inviting him to speak. He says the Trump ad put Hindus on the “world map” — a claim he might want to debate with Modi sarkar.
Kumar, who was appointed to Trump’s transition committee on finance, has been asked to find 50 qualified Indian Americans for jobs in the new administration. He is ploughing through the humungous list, trying to match talent with positions while notso-subtly promoting himself for a plum assignment. On the side, he speaks out in favour of Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries that has half of America up in arms. He wants the ban to expand to include Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In fact, he never misses throwing a dart or two in that direction.
Clearly enjoying “prime time” — a candlelight dinner with Trump here, a heart-toheart with Gingrich there — Kumar is growing more and more confident pronouncing on policy issues and personalities with aplomb. Fears in India about new restrictions on H-1B visas are “overblown”, he says, because to make the US economy grow, you need more IT professionals. He sees a “win-win situation” for both India and the United States on this thorny issue. But “fraud and abuse” of H-1B visas will come under the scanner, he adds, while sipping his Coke and digging into a peach cobbler. A diamondstudded “Om” shines bright from his lapel.
“Trump wants a strategic alliance with India, an increase in trade to create prosperity in both countries. We can increase trade to $300 billion in four years of Trump. That will translate to one million new jobs here and 7 million jobs in India. I have a very specific plan to increase trade but I am not ready to roll it out.” One can cast doubt or go with the flow.
Kumar has freely been giving what can only be called assurances on behalf of the Trump Administration whether on a stronger defence partnership with India or a more stringent policy on Pakistan. Given China’s bid to shove the US aside, Pakistan’s role in destabilising Afghanistan and Russia subverting global norms, “there is arguably no more important a country in Asia than India,” he wrote this week in his first real op-ed. Together India and the US can reshape the world of trade.
When asked if he would take a senior position himself, he demurs but doesn’t deny. “I don’t know which department I want to be in. Maybe I would be like Gingrich and advise from the outside.” The luxury of plenty can be an affliction.
He tells me how he was inside “the wall” with Trump for nearly 30 minutes during the candlelight dinner the night before the inauguration. For the uninitiated, the “wall” is a security cordon thrown around the president by secret service agents if he is at a gathering and moving from table to table. “He (Trump) introduced me to so many people… it’s all a blur,” Kumar recalls, while listing almost the entire cabinet. He and his goddaughter Manasvi Mamgai, a former Miss India, attended 11 inauguration events across town. They took along a member of a prominent Indian business family, as a favour.
Kumar clearly raises and spends big money — some say he collects from eager Indian Americans promising them access or “darshan” but doesn’t always deliver. He said he and his family gave $4.2 million to the Trump campaign and the Republican Party in “hard and soft money”. So far the figure had hovered around $900,000 but he upped it substantially in this interview.
What’s undeniable is that Kumar was the only Indian American of means to bet on the right horse. Now he is off to the races.