For first time in 15 years, White House will not host Diwali ceremony

President Barack Obama lights a oil lamp during Diwali celebrations October 14, 2009 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Diwali, the festival of lights, is observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others in southern Asia. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the first time in 15 years, it is not likely that the White House will host a Diwali celebration.

Senior administration sources told India Abroad that with the focus on keeping the Republican majority in Congress in the midterm elections “and everything else that’s going on, organizing a Diwali event this year has not been something we’ve been thinking about.”

But these sources acknowledged that with the absence of Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, President Donald Trump’s most ardent Indian-American supporter and erstwhile surrogate, there has been no Indian-American Republican with the influence to convince Trump and those close to him to host a celebration this year.

Kumar, a major GOP fundraiser, was the catalyst behind the White House Diwali celebration in October 2017, when Trump hosted the event in the Oval Office. The gathering upset GOP activists such as Piyush Agrawal and Danny Gaekwad, both of Florida, who expressed bitterness over Kumar’s not engaging the community last year and only inviting his immediate family and the Republican Hindu Coalition hierarchy to the event.

When George W. Bush was president, Agrawal and Gaekwad had been part of the community leadership that convinced him to host the first Diwali celebration at the White House in 2003.

There are theories as to why Kumar has been keeping a low profile and why the RHC he founded and chairs has also been flying under the radar without its regular meetings and briefings. Sources have said Kumar was being vetted, with all of the protracted background checks, for a possible senior level position in the Trump administration.

In an interview with India Abroad, Kumar was circumspect when asked why he has gone “underground” for the past several months.

But he said it was unlikely that there would be a White House Diwali celebration this year, because he had not taken any initiative to push for one.

"Right now," he said, "the biggest thing on their mind is what the hell to do when we [the Republicans] lose the House [the U.S. House of Representatives].”

To Trump and his senior aides and others in the White House, including presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Kumar said, “I am the Hindu guy—anything Hindu, it’s me.”

He said he did not put stock in community leaders’ concerns that without a White House celebration this year, a 15-year-old tradition would be broken as would chances for any Diwali celebrations in the future. “The president would not want to go back – he wants to go forward,” Kumar said. “Maybe next year, they will do a bigger one.”

Kumar said he has left much of the organizing of events to his son Vikrum and daughter Manasvi since retiring from politics. “They have also been very busy running the businesses and their careers to take care of things like this,” convincing the White House to host Diwali this year, he said. “It requires a lot of pushing here, a lot of pushing there.”

He said, however, there was “still a possibility” of convincing the White House if Indian-American GOP leadership made a concerted effort. But he conceded that since it was already November, that is unlikely.

Agrawal recalled how on Oct. 9, 2003, when he was president of the Association of Indian American Associations, he spoke to Bush at a fundraiser for him in Fort Lauderdale and requested that that the White House host Diwali. “He was kind enough and said, ‘Let me look into that and I’ll take care of that’ and he did,” he said. A few weeks later, with the help of Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, it happened.

“I invited every president of every [Indian-American] organization because I wanted this to be fully representative of the community. Now, Shalli Kumar is a different person –he wanted only his family, which is OK, but my hope is that at least the tradition continues, because that is more important to us, but I think it should be fully representative of the entire community,” Agrawal said.

Gaekwad, however, said he was “really surprised” there would be no Diwali this year at the White House. Gaekwad, who Kumar excluded from last year’s White House celebration, called it a “very non-Diwali type of function. No Indian community involvement at all. Diwali is celebrated by all of the Indian community across the United States, so it is inclusion – not exclusion or seclusion.” He said participants were “just one family and a few Indians working in the administration.”

Gaekwad said, “I hope this year our President Trump does celebrate Diwali with all of the Indian community members because Diwali is celebration of light , and victory over evil dark forces, and our country today is facing dark forces and we need to have light over evil and win with our goddess’s blessings.”

Gaekwad said he had no time to push for a White House Diwali event this year either because he was heavily involved in supporting the races of his close friends, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, and Rep. Ron DeSantis who is running to replace Scott.

Gaekwad said DeSantis had promised him that “he will host a Diwali celebration at the Florida governor’s mansion for sure and I am hoping he wins.”

Although the White House tradition of celebrating Diwali was first started with Bush, he never attended, instead sending a Cabinet official or senior aide to do the honors. It was also not held in the White House but in the adjacent Old Executive Office Building in the White House complex, usually in the India Treaty Room – a room named in honor of American Indians.

But in his first year in office, President Barack Obama hosted a massive Diwali celebration with about 200 guests in the East Room of the White House and lit the diya. In his last year in office, he became the first U.S. president to observe Diwali in the Oval Office, replete with a Hindu priest and a reception featuring sweets provided by the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple. First lady Michelle Obama also led the Diwali celebrations in 2013, also with Hindu priests in attendance and a rousing cultural and dance celebration in which she participated. A reception followed, attended by more than 200 guests.

Last year’s Diwali celebration hosted by Trump was the first one closed to the press. The White House had first sent out invitations inviting the media for a pool spray – a brief gathering of a pool of reporters to document the event -- but after the journalists lined up outside the Oval Office for more than 20 minutes, the pool spray was abruptly called off with no explanation.

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