New Delhi: The Democrat Party in the US is all set to field Indian-American candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni in Texas’ 22nd district, a Republican stronghold, in the House of Representatives elections in November.
Aside from the much-anticipated presidential elections, US citizens will also vote in members to the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Congress, and one-third of the members in the upper house, the Senate, in November. These two elections occur every two years.
Kulkarni, a 41-year-old former diplomat and Harvard University alumnus, will be up against Republican candidate Sheriff Troy Nehls and, if elected, will be the first Hindu representative in the US Congress from Texas.
Texas’ 22nd district is also one of the most diverse congressional district in terms of population. About 64 per cent of the total population is White, 25 per cent are Hispanic or Latin, 17 per cent are Asian, and about 12 per cent are Black, according to census data.
At present, there are five Indian-Americans in the Congress — Democrat vice president candidate Kamala Harris in the Senate, and Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthy and Ro Khanna in the House.
Life as a first-generation immigrant
Kulkarni was born in 1978 in the state of Louisiana, nine years after his family immigrated to the US. They later moved to Houston, Texas, where he grew up. His father, Venkatesh Kulkarni was an Indian novelist and academic, while his mother Margaret Preston Kulkarni is originally from West Virginia.
Margaret is also the descendant of Sam Houston, an American soldier and politician in the early 19th century who arrived in Texas when it was still part of Mexico and helped it become a part of the US.
“I tell people the first immigrant in my family wasn’t my dad. It was Sam Houston, because he came here from Mexico,” Kulkarni said in a media report in March.
According to Kulkarni’s campaign website, he dropped out of the University of Texas at the age of 18 after his father was diagnosed with leukemia. After his father’s death, he helped take care of his three siblings.
He claims to have personally experienced gun violence, crime, and a broken criminal justice system and has admitted to having been arrested for possessing less than a gram of cocaine when he was a teenager in 1997.
“We should not be stigmatising our youth for the rest of their lives,” he said in 2018, about the incident.
Kulkarni eventually graduated from college, served as a Senate advisor on issues like defence and national security, and later earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University.
After joining the US foreign service in 2003, he carved out a 14-year career in diplomacy that took him to Iraq, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, Jamaica and several other countries. He speaks several languages such as Hebrew, Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian.
At one point, he was also considered for the position of a spokesperson in the US Embassy in India.
Foray into politics
According to Kulkarni, the 2017 white supremacist rally that took place in Virginia was the reason he left his career in diplomacy and entered politics.
In August 2017, hundreds of far-right extremists had taken out a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate (pro-slavery) statue in a local park. However, the rally turned violent after a man rammed his car into counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 other people.
“The final straw was the Charlottesville Nazi rally, where a woman was killed and a woman from Houston was put in the hospital. These aren’t issues of right and left but of right and wrong,” Kulkarni notes in his website.
An advocate of human rights and bi-partisanship, the Democratic candidate found a window of opportunity after six-term incumbent Republican Congressman Pete Olson decided not to run for re-election this year. In 2018, he ran against Olson but lost.
Now, he faces stiff competition from Republican candidate Nehls who is pro-police and also a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump.
‘Links’ with RSS
However, Kulkarni was recently embroiled in a controversy and was subjected to much criticism for his purported links to the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), an international offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and particularly the organisation’s vice president, Ramesh Bhutada.
Veteran BJP leader Subramanian Swamy also tweeted about this alleged link.
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) August 2, 2020
Kulkarni, however, has rejected these claims. In an open letter to the Muslim community, he wrote, “I want to make it clear that I am, and always have been, an ally to the Muslim community… We will continue to stand against Islamophobia and any form of prejudice anywhere in the world.”
In a video that surfaced on social media a few days ago, Kulkarni can be heard saying to a group of people: “I didn’t even know about all this RSS stuff.”
But several Internet users questioned his ignorance about the organisation considering his career as a diplomat.