For weeks on Facebook and on Indian television, a group has advertised an upcoming in concert in New Jersey.
It promises to be “an incredible” show. Prabhu Deva, Malaika Arora, and Ram Charan — big names in India — are expected to attend, and thousands of Indian Americans will watch as actors, dancers, and singers take the stage at the convention center.
Also, Donald Trump will speak.
Three weeks before the election and about one week after the Washington Post published a video of Trump boasting about making unsolicited sexual advances on women, the presidential candidate will headline a concert of Bollywood stars.
The concert — ostensibly a charitable event, whose proceeds will go to “victims of terror” — is a project of the Republican Hindu Coalition, a little-known group with big ambitions. Its wealthy founder, Shalli Kumar, modeled the group on the Republican Jewish Coalition and he aspires to become as influential as that group’s backer, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
“We are at the cusp of history,” Kumar said in an interview. “This is the first time in the history of India, the US, and the Hindu civilization, that a presidential candidate for the most powerful country is coming to a Hindu event three weeks before the election. He has particularly chosen this community.”
The event was planned before the video of Trump's remarks about women – including that he can "grab them by the pussy" at his will – surfaced. Since then, many prominent Republicans have abandoned and condemned Trump. Kumar told BuzzFeed News that “We are absolutely going ahead with this event. The Hindu and Indian communities don’t abandon their friends in difficult times. Hillary Clinton’s actions are far worse than anything Mr. Trump has ever said.”
In a separate room at the event — not paid for by the nonprofit — the Trump campaign will announce about 25 people to a new Indian advisory board. The Trump campaign did not return repeated requests for comment. But in the televised ads for the concert, Trump tells America, “I’m very much looking forward to speaking to thousands of Indian-Americans and others about making America great again. I look forward to seeing everybody there. It will be an incredible event.”
The concert itself is costing the group millions, and Kumar and his wife have given an additional maximum contribution of nearly $900,000 to the Trump Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee boosting Trump’s presidential campaign.
Kumar’s biggest ambition is the most daunting: persuading at least two-thirds of Indian Americans toward the Republican Party.
Indian Americans generally favor Democrats: About 61% of Hindus in the US identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to 13% for the Republican Party. Just 7% of Indian Americans plan to vote for Trump, according to a telephone survey of 1,212 registered voters who identify as Asian American, according to the Fall 2016 National Asian American Survey, conducted Aug. 10 to Sept. 29. Only 11% said they held a “very favorable” view of Trump, compared to the 79% who described their impression of him as “very unfavorable.”
That’s not to muddle religions with nationalities of origin – India is about 80% Hindu but accounts for the world’s second-largest population of Muslims, at 14%. Trump, of course, has called for shutting down all Muslim immigration to the US and said profiling American Muslims is “common sense.”
That landscape has not deterred Kumar, however. “He loves Indians. He loves Hindus,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We had a policy discussion. He said Indians have never attacked anybody. They're very peaceful people.”
The concert will come less than a month after another outburst of violence in Kashmir, the territory along the northern border of India and Pakistan that both countries have sought claim over since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. The next president will inherit the dance of managing relationships with both countries to US advantage as India continues to point fingers toward Pakistan for fostering terrorism.
Kumar first met Trump at his campaign’s finance director Steven Mnuchin’s house in the Hamptons in July. The meeting was arranged by Newt Gingrich, who serves as the co-chairman of the group, and Nick Muzin, who previously served as a senior adviser to Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. He has since had two more lengthy meetings with Trump.
“I was totally satisfied that he will be the most-pro India president that ever was in US history,” Kumar said of the meeting.
It’s unclear whether the Bollywood and Telugu cinema stars support Trump, but some have posted videos on the event’s Facebook page, acknowledging RHC and Kumar. The event was originally scheduled for September but was postponed, and since then, several of the celebrities expected to perform have changed. (Some fans didn’t react so well.) About 10,000 people, mostly Indian-Americans, are expected to attend.
The group believes it can get up to 50,000 Indian-American votes in favor of Trump in key states including Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio with grassroots mobilization and educational efforts on Trump’s positions. An affiliated political action committee is also in the works.
Asked if it has been hard to bring Indian-Americans on board with Trump, Kumar said: “Where people get stuck is: Is he a racist? What's his position on immigration? Democrats are very good at portraying a ceremonial image of friendship with India and Hindu Americans. But underneath it is is pretty bad.”
Pushed on Trump’s immigration position – the vast majority of H-1B visa workers come to the US from India – Kumar said the group applauds Trump’s support for “skilled legal immigration.”
“Sometimes vernacular doesn’t quite come out right when media only picks up snippets of his speech. When you hear his whole speech, there's no question. His wife is an immigrant, and he is a businessman,” Kumar said. “He has made it clear that immigration should be based on skills — not on country of origin, not your color, not your religion — and how you're going to assimilate in the American economy.”
“What we have seen is that when the facts all come out about Hillary's past with respect to policies affecting Indian-Americans, then it all becomes too obvious that there isn’t even a question that all Hillary and Democrats say is just ceremonial,” Kumar said. “When it comes to policies, all are against Indian-Americans — whether it’s immigration, visas or defense appropriations.”
He added Clinton has “recommended pressurizing India to give Kashmir to Pakistan.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the RHC’s efforts to capture a larger portion of the Indian American demographic, aside from pointing out that Clinton has “consistently encouraged both countries to have a dialogue about Kashmir and publicly said it's up to the two countries to solve the issue.”
The group is also looking to get involved in a few Senate races on behalf of GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania , Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — some of whom also attended the group’s inaugural event in Washington last year alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s also identifying some competitive House races in districts with big Indian-American populations. For example, Illinois Rep. Bob Dold’s district in the suburbs of Chicago, said Murzin, the former Cruz staffer who is now serving as a consultant to the group.
But with only a few weeks to go before Nov. 8, it’s unclear if the RHC will be that influential down-ballot. After the election, RHC is planning to take a trip to India with three Republican governors, so they can meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kumar is a major supporter of Modi and facilitated Modi’s recent trip to US to address Congress.
“Modi in a way was an outsider and he was given a very little chance...His entire campaign was about economic development — same thing with Mr. Trump. Both are steadfast against terrorism,” Kumar said.
(Kumar isn’t a fan of President Obama, but Modi has described his relationship with the president as a “special friendship.”)
Ultimately, organizers want the RHC to be as big of draw for major Indian donors and top Republicans as the RJC is. Kumar attended a RJC event in the spring of 2015, where he was “amazed” by the gathering, where then-Speaker John Boehner and to-be-presidential contenders spoke, Muzin said. After meeting with Adelson at the event, Kumar decided a similar group was needed to show Indian-Americans what he describes as hypocrisy in Democrats’ outreach to the community on issues such as US relations with Pakistan.
“I would compare it to — you get a basket full of flowers,” he said. “It looks great. But when you open it, a cobra will come out.”