My article in today’s editions about whether Democratic House candidate Ro Khanna and/or his supporters had anything to do with getting Republican Joel Vanlandingham into the 17th Congressional District race had far more complexity than room in the paper allowed.
For one thing, there’s a personal element of bad blood between Vanila Singh – the first Republican to enter the race – and Romesh Japra, the Fremont Hindu Temple chairman who is a staunch Khanna supporter.
When Singh entered the race to unseat Rep. Mike Honda in January, analysts said it could help Honda by stripping Khanna of GOP votes in June’s top-two primary election; in fact, a poll in February found Singh, largely by dint of her party, had leapfrogged slightly ahead of Khanna. But then two more Republicans – Vanlandingham, and another who was kicked off the ballot last week for petition signature irregularities – jumped into the race, potentially splitting the district’s small GOP base and helping Khanna surpass all Republicans in June and go one-on-one with Honda in November.
I hear Japra is a somewhat polarizing figure in the Indo-American community, wielding a lot of influence as chairman of the temple and of the Federation of Indian Associations. It’s the kind of influence some might resent in an old-country, political power-broker sort of way, but still significant enough that it would be hard for a candidate to snub him.
Singh said Wednesday that she and her parents were longtime friends with Japra, who even attended her children’s birthday parties as recently as last summer. But that ended abruptly when he learned she was considering entering this race, she said; since then, he has both spoken ill of her in the community and demoted her mother from a temple leadership position.
“We’ve lost a friend, or someone we thought was a friend, because of dirty politics,” she said. “The revelation that his closest associates, have actively recruited and signed for a fake Republican candidate to enter the race is shocking.”
That’s not proved, of course, though the evidence presented in my story isn’t easily explained away. It’s also possible as well that if Japra and temple officials were involved in Vanlandingham’s candidacy, they acted without Khanna’s knowledge; American politics is littered with tales of candidates and elected officials being tarred with their supporters’ independent actions. Singh, however, doesn’t buy that.
“What I’ve seen with my own eyes is Khanna following Japra and them working in concert together,” she said. “I would have a hard time to believe this was a rogue element that happened once by chance.”
Lots more, after the jump…
There’s an India politics angle here, too, though that’s been circulating ever since Singh got into the race.
Khanna’s grandfather, Amarnath Vidhyalankar, was jailed for four years during Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement and later was a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress Party. Singh is a supporter of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, from which Narendra Modi is the candidate to be India’s next prime minister.
Modi since 2001 has been chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, where terrible Muslim-Hindu sectarian violence broke out in early 2002. Modi’s responsibility for some of that violence remains a hot topic in the Indo-American community, especially since the United States in 2005 denied him a diplomatic visa and revoked a business/tourism visa he already had, citing a federal law denying visas to any foreign government official deemed responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Singh wants Modi to have his visa; Khanna doesn’t. “I have been attacked for being insufficiently Hindu because I have spoken out for the rights of Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans and condemned the violence in Gujarat in 2001 and against Sikhs in India in 1984,” Khanna wrote in an op-ed posted yesterday by India-West.
Some say Singh was recruited into the race to pressure Khanna on the Modi issue; some say Khanna’s supporters knew most local Indo-Americans are Modi supporters, and so recruited Vanlandingham to dilute Singh’s vote.
And then there’s the Harmeet Dhillon angle.
Last week, an Alameda County Republican committeeman represented by the law firm of California Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon asked a Sacramento County judge to kick Vanlandingham and the other last-minute GOP candidate – Vinesh Singh Rathore – off the ballot due to petition irregularities. Rathore got the boot, but Vanlandingham stayed.
Dhillon has provided reporters (including me) with an email thread that seems to show Japra used his tax-exempt, nonprofit temple’s email address and mailing list to invite contributors to a Khanna fundraiser he hosted at his home. She also forwarded emails in which the temple’s vice-chair used his City of San Jose email to invite Indian American Democratic Forum members and others to a voter-registration drive at the temple, but refused a GOP county chairwoman’s request to send volunteers as well.
At the state Republican convention a few weeks ago, Dhillon called Singh “a refreshing voice in our party … who shares the same concerns as the people in her community, and she has a lot to say.” She also noted Khanna stood to suffer from her candidacy: “He has certainly had his people reach out to Republican donors, Republican players.”
Some whisperers around town now note Dhillon is active in the Sikh-American community, which has been a big fan of Mike Honda’s ever since he was among few in Congress to vociferously defend Sikhs’ safety and interests after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – a time when people with turbans were being mistaken for Muslims and targeted for hate crimes. For my own part, it’s hard to believe that a proud partisan like Dhillon would do anything to help any Democratic incumbent; it’s much easier to believe she targeted Vanlandingham and Khanna to benefit Singh.