Tulsi Gabbard, America’s first Hindu presidential candidate, recently crossed 66,000 individual donors, qualifying for a place on the national debate stage among the Democratic contenders running for President in 2020. She has been the first person in the US House of Representatives to take her oath of office on the Bhagwad Gita – and could well become the first US president to do so too.
What is the likelihood, with a strong field of over 24 presidential contenders – and still growing?
Gabbard, 38, outspoken, thoughtful and at the same time controversial, is certainly a viable candidate. She has been the US Congresswoman from Hawaii since 2013 and is also a soldier, having served in both Iraq and Kuwait. She is definitely a 'rockstar' with her supporters who hang on her every word. During her recent meet and greet in New York at a venue in Union Square the line stretched around the block while in the that packed hall were entire families and children all patiently waiting for her to arrive. As one young woman said breathlessly, “I can’t believe I’ll be in the same room with her!” And then the Congresswoman appeared in the room, jumped informally on a small table and gave an impassioned speech to a roomful of supporters.
Medium, Gabbard had shared memories of her growing up years, “My mom was a practising Hindu and my dad was a Catholic who practised yoga meditation and karma yoga. My earliest memories are of the bright colours, beautiful sounds, and fragrant aromas of both Christian and Hindu celebrations. My siblings and I grew up studying from both the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible; going to Mass, and then coming home to a yoga kirtan.
While I take my spiritual practice seriously, it is not something I wear on my sleeve, nor is it something I’ve spoken much about in the public arena because it is ultimately a deeply personal relationship for me. But as I look around and see divisiveness, hatred, bigotry and violence pervading our country and the world, the message of love that we hear from Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and so many other scriptures, is exactly what we should be speaking out about — because only love can defeat hate.”
It is going to be a long arduous road sharing her strong views with a divided country. The mainstream press has often been critical as in
this article in New York magazine. Along the way, Indians though, especially Hindu Indians, have been very open to her. Gabbard has a long connection with the Hindu shastras, having been born to the faith and her popularity has remained firm with many Indians, especially her 2015 India trip, and her Vedic Hindu wedding is often talked about with awe as are her video greetings on Diwali and Janamasthmi. Tulsi Gabbard is proud of her Hindu roots and often talks more about them than even Indian Americans do.
Tulsi Gabbard of course does not have an ounce of Hindu blood, being born to a Samoan father and an American mother in American Samoa. Talk to her Hindu supporters, though, and many feel a closeness to her because of her lifelong commitment to Hinduism. In Fact, she became the first politician to publicly call out Hinduphobia on a CNN townhall on TV. The Hindu American Political Action Committee has commended her for her support for all issues related to Hindu Americans -- tolerance, pluralism, and combating hate crimes.
Many Indian-American devotees of Dada Vaswani are supporters of Tulsi Gabbard because she had long received the endorsement of Dada JP Vaswani himself. Needless to say, there are many other points which endear her to Hindu Americans: besides being the first Hindu, she is also the first vegetarian and first yoga practitioner to run for the White House.
Ashok Lalwani is the President of American Spray Tech, a manufacturing company based in New Jersey and is the President of Sadhu Vaswani Center of NJ. He recalls that Dada JP Vaswani called her ‘Krishna’s Radha’ for her deep belief in the Vedanta, and had once told her ‘You are meant for Washington DC’. Just two years ago when she had not yet thought of running, the 98-year-old saint, who passed away at the age of 100, had told her, “I am looking forward to the day you will be president of the United States of America.”
Prince Agarwal is the former president of CODA (the East Village Democrats in Manhattan) and President of the Network of Indian Professionals - New York. Ask him why Gabbard is a strong candidate and he says that Tulsi has been able to establish herself as a leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, her career supporting working-class people of all races and genders against big money and divide and conquer politics.
“Tulsi stands for peace. In a few months children who were born into a country at war will be getting shipped out to fight in a war that has yet to be justified by law or to the American people. Tulsi wants to stop the cycle of endless wars that destroys lives, squanders resources, damages the human spirit, and hurts the US’ global reputation.” He adds that India itself is the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops in the UN and the desire for peace seems to be cultural, with many Indian-Americans favouring her policy.
While there are so many issues to be addressed in America, some feel Gabbard has a firm handle on matters of war and peace. I spoke to Jonathan Granoff, President of Global Security Institute, and a senior advisor and representative to the UN: “Congresswoman Gabbard stepping forward is sobering, mature and correct and she’s a strong advocate for advancing trust in the word of the United States,” says Granoff, who also serves on various boards including Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security.
“Her position of advancing the principle of negotiations, negotiations and negotiations is better than war and conflict and is informed by her direct experience of the cost of war. She is passionate about peace and this is an informed voice which should be heard not only in America but by the world,” he adds.
It’s not just the Hindu Indians who are attracted to Tulsi’s agenda but also people of diverse faiths. Omeed Malik, a Muslim from Wall Street, heads Farvahar Mercantile Bank and is a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur who has also worked in hedge funds at Bank of America. He recently hosted a discussion by Gabbard where she laid out her agenda which often does not get a hearing in the
Tulsi Gabbard with Sikh supporters in California
Malik believes she is the ideal candidate. He says, “To me Tulsi is transcendental – she transcends conventional wisdom and orthodoxy of both parties, Republicans and Democrats. So much has changed in the international and economic world that the old modalities don’t apply. She doesn’t fit into a box neatly – it isn’t about controversial, it’s about the future. It’s about putting good ideas over labels.”
The Democratic National Committee requires 130,000 donors for candidates to remain in debates from September onwards. As we get closer to the face-off, it will be interesting to see which way the Indian-American voters lean, with so many favourites in the running from Joe Biden to Kamala Harris to Tulsi Gabbard and Cory Booker.
Now that Gabbard has got a space on the national debating stage, Americans will get a chance to see her ideas up-close. Ashok Lalwani compares her to a dark horse: “Let the first debate happen in ten days in Miami and if she gets time and exposure people will get to see how her foreign policy dovetails with her domestic policy and they will know she is absolutely commander-in-chief material. She
is a soldier!” Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns