Indian-Americans make up one of the of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population and generally lean Democratic. But Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar – a wealthy Chicago businessman who immigrated from India nearly 50 years ago – is hoping to change that.
This year, Kumar founded a new group called the Republican Hindu Coalition to try to consolidate Hindu-American support in key battleground states ahead of the 2016 election for Republicans.
“The first thing on the minds as Hindu-Americans is to establish themselves as successful citizens: Have good jobs, make money and get a good education. Politics has not just been the focus,” said Kumar, who moved to America in the late 1960s.
Kumar said he sees an opportunity for Republicans to tap into the Hindu and Indian American population. As a whole, only about a third of Asian-Americans identify with a political party and the group has been found to “under-participate” in elections. When they do participate politically, they have traditionally leaned Democratic. In 2012, 84 percent of Indian Americans voted for President Barack Obama over his Republican rival.
Over the past decade, the Indian-American population in the United States has risen 37.6 percent to about 3 million – larger growth than any other population of Asian Americans. About half of them are Hindu, and according to a 2013 survey by Pew Research Center, the Indian-American population has one of the largest median household incomes as a population, earning $88,000 a year.
“When they do start to focus on politics, Hindu-Americans will find that the party of our values is the Republican Party,” he said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Kumar said when he arrived in America, he was a Democrat who voted for Jimmy Carter and George McGovern for president. It was not until 1980, after he met then-Rep. Newt Gingrich in Chicago, who eventually introduced him to Ronald Reagan, that he changed his party affiliation. Indians, he said, prefer “limited government and strong national defense,” as evidenced by their election of Narendra Modi, a man viewed as a conservative reformer, he said. Republican leaders said they hope other Indian-Americans will experience a similar political transition.
“I see this coalition playing a very important role in being a bridge between America, India and across all the world, the Hindu community,” said Gingrich, who is serving as an honorary chairman of the group.
Last week, Kumar’s new group held its inaugural event in Washington. They were joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and a number of the Republicans from highly contested 2016 Senate battlegrounds, including Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
McConnell, in his remarks, said there is a “natural alliance between the Hindu community in America and the Republican Party.”
That alliance could bring with it a significant financial boost to the party’s campaigns. Kumar said in addition $2 million of his own he plans to contribute, his goal is to raise at least $10 million to spend in states with large Hindu populations – including Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey – to sway races.
The group is “patterned after and inspired by” the Republican Jewish Coalition,” Kumar said. He attended a conference for the RJC in April and was “very impressed in the cohesiveness and the influence they had in policy in the United States, particularly with Israel.”
“One of the things we have learned from the RJC is the strength of making collective decisions,“ he said. “Say, for example, Rob Portman in Ohio. If we have Republican donors from all over the country when we are donating, we’ll be able to channel our energy.”
In terms of policy, Kumar said group will advocate for more trade between the United States and India and in favor of pushing back against groups such as the Islamic State. The group hopes to be a counterweight to Pakistan’s influence on foreign policy and Chinese influence over trade.
Democrats have similar efforts on their own side. In Chicago, group South-Asian Americans created the Indo-American Democratic Organization in 1980 to help build “a strong, unified voice for the South-Asian Americans in the socio-economic and political spheres,” but the group – which spent only $72,000 in 2014 – has focused largely on its home state. The Democratic National Committee has helped groups like the Asian Americans Action Fund, which supports candidates and issues aligned with the group which includes Indian-Americans.
“The Republicans are on the wrong side of the issues,” said Eric Walker, a spokesman for the DNC. “It’s not hard to see how someone who came to this country pretty recently would be horrified by the Republican positions on immigration reform or how they won’t lift the finger to help the parents of immigrant kids.”
The first Hindu-American elected to Congress in 2012, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, is a Democrat. There are very few Indian Americans representing their states in D.C. In Illinois’ 8th District, a district with a large population of Indian Americans, Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi is hoping to join them, and he is at the top of the field of candidates vying to replace outgoing Rep. Tammy Duckworth in the Democrat-leaning district.
Kumar said he knows Krishnamoorthi from Chicago. “I always tell him to be a Republican just like I’ve become a Republican, and we’ll support him,” he said with a laugh.