CONCORD, NH, USA—Tulsi Gabbard’s recent announcement that she will skip the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate to spend her “precious time directly meeting with and hearing from the people of New Hampshire and South Carolina” came soon after she Tweeted a picture of her snowy yoga session at her newly-rented New England home.
“We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing: campaigning, holding town halls, going out and campaigning and meeting people where they are,” Gabbard told NH’s WMUR/ABC. Her town halls are not always uneventful, however. Twice, most recently in Londonderry, the presidential aspirant has been challenged over alleged foreign interference in her congressional campaigns.
“We’ve protested Congresswoman Gabbard three times over her complicity in the persecution of minorities in India,” says Arvin Valmuci of Organization for Minorities of India. “Prime Minister Modi’s religious nationalist government just passed a citizenship bill specifically excluding Muslims. Even US Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee spoke up against it, but Gabbard is strangely silent. The only time she has spoken in the past has been to defend Modi’s acts of oppression in Kashmir, whitewash his involvement in a pogrom, and derail congressional attempts to warn against Hindu nationalism. She is motivated by interference in her campaigns orchestrated by Modi loyalists in America.”
In October, Hillary Clinton called Gabbard a “favorite of the Russians” and implied they are “grooming” her for a third-party run. Yet Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a national media watch group, reported there is “no evidence” that Gabbard is “any kind of Russian agent.” FAIR calls the accusations a “distraction” from “the reality that Gabbard’s most troubling attribute is her documented connection to the far-right Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement known as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India’s ruling BJP party.”
That connection was the focus of questions at Gabbard’s Oct. 1 town hall in Londonderry. At a California town hall in March, a questioner asked: “When did your collaboration with the RSS begin?” While he posed the question, a group of Indian minorities outside the event protested Gabbard with signs calling her “Prince$$ of the R$$.” Similar protests followed her at campaign appearances in Houston and San Francisco.
Gabbard’s focus on NH appears to be her best and only chance to win the nomination. Her unique support base is far from the traditional “Blue” Democrats. Although she has publicly rejected the vocal support of white supremacists such as David Duke and Richard Spencer, she is actively courting formerly pro-Trump Democrats. She’s also popular among independents, the group that gave Bernie Sanders a leap in popularity in 2016.
Yet she faces an uphill battle after spending much of the primary attacking her own party. “Our Democratic Party is unfortunately not the party that is of, by and for the people,” she said at the November debate. Her regular appearance on conservative news programs, including that of Mike Huckabee (father of Trump’s former press secretary), leaves many scratching their heads in confusion.
Still, she has risen to fifth place in NH, regularly polling at or above 5 percent. Polls show her supporters are mostly high-income white males who lean independent. Although that demographic loves the non-interventionist policies of Sanders and Gabbard, they may discover a foreign policy divide between the two with increasing American awareness of Hindu nationalism in India.
After India’s “crackdown” in Kashmir, for instance, Sanders called it “a human rights crisis unfolding right before our eyes” and demanded an immediate lifting of the “communications blackout.” Internet in Kashmir is blocked and foreign journalists banned ever since August 5 when India revoked the Muslim-majority region’s semi-autonomous status. Gabbard, however, calls it a “complex” issue and claims it is related it to protecting minority rights.
When Modi visited Houston, TX in September, Sanders warned about “the rise of intolerant, authoritarian political leaders.” Gabbard, however, enjoys a personal relationship with the controversial prime minister. She calls him “a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.” At their first meeting in 2014, she gifted him her childhood copy of the Bhagavad Gita; the same copy on which she took the oath of office. When she married in Hawaii in 2015, Modi sent the spokesperson of the BJP (formerly RSS spokesperson) as his personal representative at her wedding.
On Dec. 10, India’s BJP-dominated parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The bill provides a swift path to citizenship for non-Muslim refugees in India. The day before it passed, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee warned, “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet.” On the same day, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom claimed the bill sets a “legal criterion for citizenship based on religion” and recommended sanctions against India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, who is the driving force behind the legislation.
Responding to the bill’s passage, Congressman Andre Carson stated, “Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalism — which appears to promote Hindu supremacy — is a topic I hope more Members of Congress take seriously in the weeks and months ahead.” Many other members of Congress have begun discussing the issue, including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ro Khanna. Congressman Khanna even issued a statement denouncing Hindu nationalism in response to an article exposing Gabbard’s RSS connections.
In October, however, Gabbard stated, “Hindu nationalism is a term that many people are using frequently without being specific about what they mean by that. Why is expressing pride in one’s religion a bad thing?”
“Even President Trump has pledged the US government to support an end to religious persecution around the world,” says OFMI’s Valmuci. “We expect even greater commitment to human rights from someone like Gabbard, who claims to be a progressive Democrat. Tragically, time after time she carries water for the violent Hindu nationalist movement in India and its US supporters. Americans are exhausted by this onslaught of foreign interference in our elections, the latest example of which is Gabbard. New Hampshire voters deserve to know the truth.”
Tulsi Gabbard’s recent move to New Hampshire seems likely to bring not only yoga in the winter but also controversy over her political ties to India’s ruling party.