US Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat, has been a leading critic of India on religious freedom for decades and co-sponsored a 2013 House resolution that called for America to continue to deny then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi a visa.
Now, he says Modi is a “closed matter” for him after the Indian Supreme Court ruling on the Gujarat riots, and has pledged “to do more to integrate the concerns and aspirations of the Hindu community in India into my legislative work”.
What changed? Ellison is running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a post that has assumed critical importance this year after the party lost the White House and failed to wrest control of the two chambers of Congress.
The DNC chairman will have the onerous task of rescuing the party from despondency and putting it back on its feet over the next four years by working to deny president-elect Donald Trump a second term and winning back the Senate and the House.
Though small in number compared to other religious and ethnic minorities in the US, Indian Americans have begun to leverage their financial clout and the ability to swing the outcome in closely contested elections, especially in battleground states.
Hindus among them are a particularly prominent part of this trend. They made significant progress in the Republican Party when Trump attended a rally hosted by a wealthy donor Shalli Kumar. That was the first time a major party nominee had pitched himself directly to the community.
“There is a growing realisation among parties that though small in number this community matters as every vote matters as this election has demonstrated,” said a member of the community who played a key role in reaching out to Ellison.
This is what prompted the push in the Democratic Party, which remains the party of choice for most Indian Americans and Hindu Americans though, based purely on anecdotal evidence, a large number of them voted for Trump this time.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy group that has long tracked Ellison and tussled with him over his legislative activities critical of India and the community, led the effort by reaching out to him soon after he announced his candidature.
Ellison agreed to a conference call, which was joined by the only Hindu in the US Congress Tulsi Gabbard, a senior member of the Maryland state legislature Kumar Bharve and representatives from 30 Hindu outfits.
According to a statement issued by the foundation on Friday, discussion covered a wide range of subjects — the plight of Hindus in South Asian countries where they were in a minority and Ellison’s willingness to work with the government of India.
Ellison, an African American who is the first Muslim ever elected to the US Congress, was also asked about his unrelenting focus on the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi. The foundation said, “Rep. Ellison responded that he viewed the Gujarat issue as a ‘closed matter’ since the Indian Supreme Court has issued its ruling.”
He also wrote in a statement, “This should be seen in the broader context of my efforts to stand up for minority religious communities, and in no way detracts from my support for Hindus and Hinduism as one of the world’s great religions.”
Ellison and Joe Pitts, co-sponsors of the 2013 resolution, had continued to push it among fellow lawmakers right up till the 2014 parliamentary elections that the BJP won.
The Congressman also said in the statement after the conference call, “India is a key strategic partner and friend to the United States, and I look forward to building on a constructive and congenial relationship with the Indian government.”
The foundation’s Suhag Shukla, who led the outreach to Ellison, said in a statement, “On behalf of HAF and the other community organizations present, we appreciate Representative Ellison’s willingness to have an open dialogue about concerns of the Hindu American community, as well as the candor of his responses.”