For Diwali, a tight circle in the Oval Office

Chicago-based businessman Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, right, poses with his family members and President Trump after the Diwali celebration at the Oval Office, Oct. 17. From left, Sasala Challa of the Republican Hindu Coalition, Manasvi Mamgai, Trump, Vikrum Kumar and Shalli Kumar.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When all was said and done and attendees at the private, invitation-only Diwali celebration had cleared out of the Oval Office, Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar and his family stayed on. There were photos taken, there was an extended conversation with President Donald Trump and, according to Kumar, it was an honor for him and his family to be at the Oct. 17 ceremony.

Kumar, who had bundled more than $1 million for Trump’s presidential campaign, had at one time been considered a likely nominee for the U.S. ambassadorship to India. Staying behind with the president was an “honor,” said Kumar, who was with his son Vikrum Kumar, his god-daughter Manasvi Mamgai Kumar, and the Republican Hindu Coalition’s Sasala Challa.

The celebration was six weeks in the making, Kumar told India Abroad. “As tight as his schedule was, he still did this,” he said. He said Trump insisted, saying “the Hindu community has done so much for me and Kumar has done so much for me that I got to have it.” Kumar said he learned that scheduling was not easy. “Things now are very structured in the White House, and so everything has to be funneled through General [John] Kelly [the White House chief of staff] and so things are not getting through to the president. He’s the big gate-keeper. He’s not being political and being a military general, he’s not going to have any idea whether it’s important or not, even though he’s a great guy.”

But, he said, there were space considerations for attendees.

He said when the decision was made to have it in the Oval Office, it was determined the room could not accommodate more than 25 people. He said there were about 15 staffers and so with total attendance of Hindu-Americans at seven or eight, that brought the full amount to 23.

He said unfortunately that also meant space constraints, leaving out strong supporters like Danny Gaekwad, who had helped him secure thousands in campaign funds in Florida at the time Kumar the Trump visited the state.

“There were two categories —one was the staffers and the people who are working for the administration or have been nominated or appointed and the other was essentially the leaders of the Hindu community, and that is the Republican Hindu Coalition,” Kumar said. He defended the exclusive presence of the RHC co-founders, supporters and contributors, saying, “because we have been part of his campaign.” That, he said, was why other GOP activists — considered likely attendees — were not invited as well: Puneet Ahluwalia, K.V. Kumar, and Harry Walia, who had served along with him on the Asian Pacific American Advisory Council of the Trump presidential campaign, Kumar said, “They were not part of the Hindu American Advisory Council. We were an official part of the campaign — these people were not.”

Kumar also said that this was the reason why the Generation X members of the influential Hindu American Foundation led by Suhag Shukla — that exercises significant clout on Capitol Hill —had also not been considered for inclusion. “President Trump is very aware of who were there for him in the campaign,” said Kumar.

He said the RHC was involved for six months. “My daughter Manasvi took six months from her career in Bollywood and my son took one month out of running our company, and so, there were a bunch of people who did that as members of the Hindu-American campaign, which essentially ran the campaign with over 400 spots [on radio and television] every day.

“So the list was very narrow. I couldn’t even invite my brother — Dr. Deepak Kumar in Dayton —who was a big supporter of President Trump and he raised quite a bit of money for Trump in Ohio, which was a critical state.”

Asked if it was essentially “a Shalli Kumar show” with all of the guests, except for the Parameswarans being from the RHC, he said, “You could say the Hindu-Americans who stood for him and did all the work –we held 200 town halls in the 2016 campaign.” That, he said, is another reason Generation Xers from the HAF, such as Shukla, were not on the list.

“Even if they had allowed even 10, Danny [Gaekwad] would have been there. Danny Gaekwad was a huge supporter in Florida,” he said. Kumar also said that in his brief remarks with Trump afterward he told the president “there is every potential to have President Trump usher a Rama Rajya in the United States,” a society run by the principles of Lord Rama. “In February, I had declared, and in the Times of India it was published, my interview, and I presented that to him, that no matter what type of a criticism people might have, I truly believe and our community believes, our people believe, and the leadership of our RHC believes, that there is every potential to have President Trump usher a Rama Rajya in the United States. Every Hindu—1.25 billion of them worldwide, and then on top of that you take Buddhists and all those other people who celebrate Diwali, there might be almost 1.5 billion or more people — who celebrate and wish on Diwali that Rama Rajya will return.”

In fact, he said, he presented Trump with a plaque about the Rama Rajya. As for the ultimate decision that came about with regard to the ambassadorship to India, Kumar declined to discuss the matter. “Don’t bring that into it at all. I am extremely happy with what I am doing,” he said. “In fact, without getting into it, I am not going to talk about it.”

He was, however, optimistic about the future: “I will be playing a significant role in the success of President Trump’s agenda,” he said.

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