TULSI GABBARD, a United States Congresswoman, entered the historic First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” She shook hands with her cheering fans, leaped on stage with a smile, accepted a garland of white flowers from a supporter, folded her hands in greeting and said, “Aloha.” It was a sunny Saturday morning in March 2019, and she was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Addressing an animated crowd of hundreds, she urged them to “stand together.” The 38-year-old representative for Hawaii’s second congressional district, who frequently refers to herself as a “Karma Yogi,” declared that the nation is divided. “What we are seeing is this dark shadow caused by a corruption of spirit that is ruling our land,” she warned—a clear reference to the polarisation of Trump’s America.
Gabbard called for a range of changes in domestic policies: fixing a broken healthcare system, reforming criminal justice, providing affordable housing and addressing the climate crisis. Reckoning with the “cost of war,” she said, is central to carrying out this vision of change. As a major in the US Army National Guard—a reserve component of the US armed forces—and a veteran of the war in Iraq, she denounced “wasteful regime-change war policies.” America’s foreign policy, she argued, is creating a new Cold War that puts it at “greater risk of nuclear catastrophe than ever before in history.”
Outside the venue, around two dozen people had gathered to protest. They were neither irate protestors opposing her domestic policies nor activists angered by her stance on America’s wars. They were people such as Baljit Kumar, a young Dalit refugee residing in nearby Riverside. “She supports the people I ran from in India,” Kumar told me. Claiming that Gabbard’s congressional campaign financing is heavily augmented by American affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the parent organisation of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—protestors held bold red, white and blue signs proclaiming her “Prince$$ of the R$$.” Since 2015, a handful of articles in online Western media outlets have speculated about Gabbard’s perceived closeness to the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the BJP.
The mood inside the hall was different. As she concluded her speech, the crowd chanted: “Tulsi! Tulsi!” The emcee, Jimmy Dore—a comedian who hosts a popular YouTube show, and is a Gabbard supporter—opened the floor up for questions. As hands went up all around, he pointed to me. Aware that my prepared question was about to strike a discordant tone, I removed my hat and glasses.
“It is getting serious,” Gabbard joked.
“In your first two terms in office, you met the RSS spokesperson at least three times,” I said. “You spoke at many RSS events, including two in India. When did your collaboration with the RSS begin and how much money have they given you?”
The usually unflappable Gabbard, who speaks with slow deliberation, grimaced. She paused long enough for an audience member to shout, “Speak up.” Finally she responded. “I am a soldier, and I took an oath,” she began. “One oath in my life. That was an oath to serve and protect this country, to put my life on the line for the people of this country.”
She grew more emphatic. “We stand for aloha. We stand for diversity. We stand for peace and bringing people together around these shared ideals of freedom and opportunity for all people.” Gesturing to the audience to stand, she continued, “Thank you everybody for standing with me. It is this kind of attacks that are rooted in religious bigotry that we must stand together and condemn. Whether these attacks are being targeted at Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or Jews, or atheists, or Catholics, we must stand united and condemn this hate and bigotry because an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.” Again, the crowd chanted, “Tulsi, Tulsi.”
Tulsi Gabbard, who visited India on the personal invitation of Narendra Modi, has played a significant part in rehabilitating his image in the United States. vijay verma / pti
This is typical of how Gabbard responds to questions about the depth of her relationship with Modi, her association with affiliates of the Sangh Parivar—the family of organisations working with the RSS—or the identity of many of her key donors. Such queries are dismissed as signs of “Hinduphobia.” When an article in The Intercept described her as “a rising progressive star, despite her support for Hindu nationalists,” Gabbard lashed out with an opinion piece for Religion News Service, headlined: “Religious bigotry is un-American.” She said her critics were “trying to foment anti-Hindu sentiment.”
Yet, as they say, the devil is in the details.