Hindu American activists determined to defeat California Congressman Ro Khanna


Bay Area Indian-American community appears deeply divided even as Khanna appears invincible

  • By Aziz Haniffa    Oct 28, 2019 India Abroad
Hindu American activists determined to defeat California Congressman Ro Khanna
Rep. Ro Khanna

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Hindu American activists in the Bay Area, incensed over Democratic incumbent Ro Khanna’s recent tweet denouncing Hindutva and his joining the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and his defiant refusal to withdraw his membership, have promoted one of their own—Ritesh Tandon, and erstwhile tech entrepreneur—to run against Khanna in California’s 17th District, which incorporates Silicon Valley, on the Republican ticket in 2020.

But political observers in the Bay Area have said that Tandon, supported by multimillionaire cardiologist and erstwhile newspaper publisher of the India Post, Dr. Romesh Japra, at whose home on Oct. 4, Tandon declared his intent to challenge Khanna, is on a quixotic quest and stands no chance against the popular Khanna. They say Tandon will end up both embarrassing himself and his patrons since the largely diverse and mainstream constituency are averse to parochial and religious-oriented campaigns.The Congressman is polling at nearly 80 percent, in the majority Democratic district.

Chinmoy Roy, a political activist, who ran for the school board in 2002 and an avowed supporter of Khanna, told India Abroad, “Ro’s district is predominantly Democrat and so they (Hindu American activists) can’t run a second Democrat against him because he’s so popular and so, they have gone within the Indian American community and picked up a Republican to run against him to cause some dissension in the community and say he’s anti-Hindu and so on.”

But, Roy, an IIT Kharagpur alumni, said that “a significant Indian American constituency in the District is strongly behind Ro because of his support for secularism and most of them are Hindus too. He affirmed that when Khanna held a townhall meeting recently (on Oct. 3 in Cupertino), he was given a standing ovation, despite the protests by some of these guys who are part of a fringe group who are opposing him.” Earlier Khanna also hosted an event to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

“They cheered him on when he said that he would never bow down to bigotry or white nationalism and sectarian and would always strongly stand up for pluralism,” Roy said, and alleged that most of the protestors “were members of HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh)” and added that he believed that it was this group that had promoted Tandon and was now supporting him against Khanna.

But Mahesh Kalla, the national spokesman for HSS US, told India Abroad, “We are a non-political organization and we are basically bipartisan. So, we don’t prefer one (candidate) or the other.”

“We don’t participate in anybody’s support or against,” he added, and reiterated, “So, that’s not our policy and we don’t endorse or do anything for anyone.”

Kalla declared, “That’s not our stand and once again, we don’t indulge in any electoral politics.”

He also said that the HSS had nothing with the protest on Oct. 3 at Khanna’s town hall because the organization was strictly bipartisan “and we don’t engage in any political activity of any sort.”

On Oct. 4, Tandon, a resident of San Jose, who lives in California’s District 18, but is eligible to run in any district in the state, declared his candidacy.

Japra also held an event in support of Tandon at his residence and other longtime community and Hindu American activists like entrepreneurial technologist Khanderao Kand, Vijay Simha, and Gaurang Desai also were backing Tandon.

Kand denied that he’s a HSS supporter. “I have nothing to do (with them). I am an India-U.S. relations (supporter) and for a better world.”

But Kand said that “there is a community outrage (against Khanna) and you see that in social media,” and hence this could have been the genesis for the protest at his town hall in Cupertino on Oct. 3. “Some people are bound to do that if he doesn’t take out some of the concerns that shouldn’t have been done by him.”

He spoke of how “I supported and helped Ro in the 2014 election with fundraisers, community meetings and organizing volunteers. I did precinct walking for him. And, even after his recent comments on Hindutva and joining the Pakistan Caucus, I still tried to get the community and meet him and try to mitigate and all that. But I can only do limited things.”

“I can’t tie myself to one Congressman in the district. I have broader things to address, including immigration issues that are going on and other issues. (But) I want Ro to do better by getting out of Jihad supporter Pakistan Caucus, support India on Kashmir and delink him from Hindu-phobic forces.”

Kand said that “Ritesh Tandon is seen as the community’s candidate as against the Democratic establishment candidate (Khanna).”

Another political activist and community leader in the Bay Area, who wished not be identified, told India Abroad, said, “It is the hard-core Hindutva forces,” who had recruited Tandon, “because they are angry with Ro.”

“Ro is a very pluralistic guy and they resent that and he’s not Hindu enough for them,” he added. “I believe these guys were shopping for somebody and he (Tandon) bought the Kool-Aid. But these guys are just trying to create some noise and Ro’s going to win as he did last year with a resounding number. But what they are doing is a great disservice to the community.”

According to this community leader, “In fact, Ro is looking even stronger because he’s taking on certain aspects of the Hindu base and he’s willing to tell them that they are wrong and that Hinduism is all about pluralism and secularism.”

Explaining Japra’s involvement, this source said, “He is one of HSS’s biggest sponsors because the temple (in Fremont) is his base, the mela’s. He has to appease his base.”

“But I don’t think that he’s the one who’s driving it – others are driving it. But he’s just trying to keep his base happy. I am sure he’s not delusional to think that this guy can win. I believe he just got railroaded into this.”

“But, it’s sad because these are fringe elements, who are misdirecting their anger and in the process are hurting the community and some of the things coming out of this people are vile and putting off a lot of people and in the process,” he added. “There are many people uncomfortable with this message coming out and what they are doing. It is very discomfiting for many, many people, both in the mainstream community as well as the Indian American community.”

Khanna contacted by India Abroad for his response on Tandon’s decision to run against him, said, “I welcome all voices into our democratic process.”

“It’s terrific that more Indian Americans are getting engaged in the political process, and I look forward to earning voters trust for a third term,” he added.

There were also reports that the group backing Tandon were also promoting another candidate, Nisha Vaneet Sharma — an organizer of Japra’s annual Festival of the Globe in Fremont–who lives in Danville in District 11, against Rep. Eric Swalwell, also because of his perceived anti-India comments, including in the aftermath of India’s revocation of Article 370 that provides special status for Kashmir, saying that “the basic human rights of Kashmiris must be front and center,” and that New Delhi should immediately lift its communication blackout in the Valley and the “re-establishment of democratic governance.”