On 15 October, in the loading bay of the New Jersey Convention Centre, amongst a mess of cables, broadcast vans and catering trucks, a white stretch limousine with the license plate AVG One cut an incongruous sight. Its owner, Shalabh Kumar, who goes by the moniker Shaili, is a portly man with white hair and vintage spectacles. That day, Kumar, stood in front of the gleaming limo, wearing a blue suit, red tie and black, heeled shoes. Two diamond-encrusted brooches—one in the shape of his initials SK, and the other in that of an Om—were pinned to his lapel.
Kumar is a Chicago-based businessman who owns AVG Advanced Technologies, a multi-million dollar electronics company. He was the organiser of the event I was in New Jersey to attend—an awkward yoking-together of moderately successful Bollywood celebrities to raise funds for Hindu victims of terror in South Asia, headlined by the Republican candidate for President of the United States, Donald Trump. In 2015, Kumar founded the Republican Hindu Coalition to get Hindu Americans on the policy making table on Capitol Hill.
In interviews to Indian television channels before the event, Kumar said that Trump was the only candidate who could see the “camel in the room,” a pejorative metaphor referring to Trump’s promises of countering radical Islamic terror. As a mark of his support, Kumar reportedly donated $1.5 million to the Trump campaign. Trump returned the favour by agreeing to address Indians at the event, a first by any major Presidential candidate. The event was meant to galvanise the Indian vote for the Republican nominee —or rather the Hindu vote, if we are to go by the group’s name.
While any event featuring Trump is bound to receive widespread coverage within the US, this particular gathering predictably caught the fancy of the press in India as well. Apart from several Indian journalists based in the United States, the event was also attended by correspondents who had been sent by leading news outlets from India. The channels NDTV, Times Now as well as the paper Hindustan Times got exclusive interviews with Trump before the event—a big scoop considering Trump has not given interviews to the American press for over a month. The event itself was reported by newspapers and online publications as a surreal spectacle that featured samosa chat, sequined ethnic costumes, and Bollywood alongside obvious displays of anti-Muslim sentiment.
A signboard at the entrance of the event depicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and insinuated that he was framed for the 2002 Gujarat riots, at the behest of Hillary Clinton, who was portrayed with horns on her head, next to a picture of Sonia Gandhi. A postcard that was being distributed during the event had the same image printed on it. It also claimed that Hillary looked for mass graves in Gujarat but had been unsuccessful in her “witch hunt,” finding only “buffalo bones.” On the flip side of the postcard was an image of Trump atop a lotus with an Om at its centre titled “Hindus for Trump.”
That evening, however, Trump, had unlikely competitors—a religious folk singer from Gujarat and Bollywood and Telugu stars.
Alka Swali, a 58-year-old woman who sat with a friend in the VIP section of the hall grimaced when I asked her if she had come to see Trump. “Absolutely not. I’m here for Sunderkand”—a reading of a chapter in the Ramayana, which was slated to be performed by the singer Atul Purohit, well-known for his devotional performances.
Three other women in their fifties, who told me that they were originally from Gujarat, laughed loudly at the same question. “I have no idea what’s going on,” one of them said. “I am here for Atul Purohit’s Sunderkand program. Most of the people are here for that. I had bought a ticket; I will ask them if they will return the money.”
Another woman sitting not too far away had come down from Philadelphia, an hour and a half away. Visibly annoyed, she said she didn’t like Trump at all. “There is a confusion. I don’t want to see him even. I will stay if Atulji will come otherwise I will leave.” (Purohit did not show up eventually.)
Even the promotional material that had been used for the event highlighted the audience’s interests: a poster on the RHC’s Facebook page billed it as a “Bollywood-Tollywood-Punjabi extravaganza,” a charity concert for the benefit of Hindu victims of terror from Kashmir and Bangladesh featuring Hindu Heritage exhibitions, with Trump as a “guest speaker.” The RHC also posted videos of several performers expressing their excitement for the event, but few made any reference to politics or to Trump. While the candidate recorded a short video inviting Hindu Americans to the event, some of the posters on the page did not feature Trump at all. The promotion seemed to have caused some confusion among possible attendees. “So Trump not coming?” one had commented online. “Will there be refunds if Trump does not show up?” asked another.
I also met three college students who were volunteering at the event, a software engineer, and two young men who said they were fans of Prabhu Deva—the renowned performer who was slated to appear. All of them said they had come for the evening’s entertainment. It was only after speaking to ten audience members that I found a Trump supporter.
Dhiraj Parekh, a 71-year-old man, sat in between his two male friends with a sign that read “Trump: Great for India.” Originally from Gujarat, Parekh is a retired scientist who has lived in the United States for 48 years. “Trump is a bold man and his actions will be bold,” he told me emphatically, before adding with a smile that he was also interested in seeing the Bollywood performances that evening.
Since the event was dedicated to victims of terror, I asked Parekh what he thought of Trump’s statements against allowing Syrian refugees into the country. He shrugged it off, saying “god decided to give them birth in Syria.”
He became visibly upset when I asked him if Trump was the right candidate for Indian Americans, given the candidate’s stance on immigration, which may affect skilled labour coming into the country. “Donald Trump is not anti-immigration— it is a wrong impression that people like you have, people in the media have. If he cuts down on skilled immigration, only America will suffer.” Earlier, before the event began, as volunteers placed the banner signs on chairs, security personnel had removed one set that read: “Trump: For Faster Green Cards.”
Parekh had been a Democrat when he first arrived to the United States. He said, “All foreigners have been voting for Democrats when they come to America in the first 5 or 10 years. As they stay here, they live longer, they realise that Democratic values are misplaced, bigtime.” He claimed that Democrats only wanted to tax the rich and give to the poor, which he believed did not help anyone. “Democrats speak like they care for middle class and the poor but in reality, they don’t. They only show up like Congress used to show up in India every four years when the election comes.”
This comparison between the major parties in India and America is not uncommon. In March 2016, I had reported on the launch of the Republican Hindu Coalition and the parallels between the Republican candidate and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kumar seesTrump’s rise as the Narendra Modi moment for American politics. During his speech introducing Trump, in the latter half of the event, Kumar equated the values of the conservative Republicans— he called them the three F’s: “free enterprise,” “fiscal discipline,” and “family values”—to Hindu values. There were also muted cheers when he suggested that a Republican President would help Indians get green cards faster (there is nothing to back this claim). Kumar’s other rousing cry in the speech was “I am proud to be a Hindu,” which he repeated twice.
Trump, too, milked the comparison to Modi. He walked on stage to loud cheers with ‘God Bless America’ playing in the background, and proclaimed “I’m a big fan of Hindu. And I’m a big fan of India. Big, big fan.” Trump’s misstep later became the subject of much mirth in the media, as did his promise that US and India would be “best friends” if he was elected. During his speech, Trump elicited the loudest cheers from the crowd when he praised Modi by calling him a “pro-growth leader.” After the candidate spoke, Kumar walked up and whispered something in Trump’s ear. Trump initially waved him away, pacing the stage instead. Kumar persisted and Trump returned to the podium to say, “We love the Hindus, we love India. Thank you.”
Kumar and Trump’s posturing, however, is not borne out by facts. Though not large in number, the Indian American community is one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States. In 2014, Indian-born residents were the awarded the second highest number of Green Cards, or permanent residentships. In a study published earlier this year, Pew Research, a Washington DC-based research centre, found that in 2014, illegal immigration from India also registered the highest spike. But politically, like other Asian immigrant communities, Indians have historically leaned Democrat. This preference has only increased since the last election in 2012—a survey in May 2016 found that only 7 percent of the registered Indian American voters supported Donald Trump over the rest of the candidates that were in the running then. This was the lowest amongst all other Asian American voters.
Close to 6 pm, two hours after the gates to the RHC event had opened, the huge auditorium with a capacity of around 7,000 people was still half-empty. It remained that way till the end. This was despite the fact that the tickets, initially priced at $29, had been slashed to $10. The first set of performances, though provocative, were somewhat listless and failed to rouse the crowd: there was a short Islamophobic skit depicting two dancing couples being taken hostage by jihadists carrying guns that resembled light sabers from the movie Star Wars, who were then rescued by fake Navy Seals. Then, a Michael-Jackson impersonator had a dance-off with a Punjabi dancer. The crowd only stirred to life when Prabhu Deva, Trump’s warm-up act took the stage.
While Trump was courting an indifferent crowd inside, a small group of protestors outside chanted “Trump means Hate,” holding banners saying “South Asians dump Trump.” A pro-Trump white man got into a spat with one of the protestors. “This is a Trump rally. Get the fuck out of here,” he screamed at her.
Soon after Trump left, Malaika Arora, Shriya Saran and the Telugu actor, Akhil Akkineni, took the stage. The crowd whipped out cellphones for selfies, stood on chairs and broke into excited cheers. I found 30-year-old Jyothi Potnuru enthusiastically clicking selfies with a friend. When I asked her if she had come to hear Trump, she giggled and said no.“Actually I’m supporting Hillary,” she told me.“But if Trump becomes President, I can say I saw him personally.”
This is part five of a series of reports by Niha Masih on Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign. You can read her first story in this series, a report on Donald Trump and Atlantic City, here; her second story, on a Trump rally at Chester in Pennsylvania, here; her third story, on blue collar support for the Republican nominee, here; and her fourth story, on the women who support Trump, here.
Niha Masih is an independent journalist and photographer based in New York, focusing on politics, social justice and conflict reportage. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she was a correspondent at NDTV. She tweets @nihamasih.