NEW DELHI — Chicago industrialist Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar kept the Delhi press corps waiting for over an hour before he finally showed up with a Bollywood starlet in tow — a woman he euphemistically refers to as his “daughter.”
Kumar, 68, was there to discuss his role as “chief architect” of the Trump campaign’s outreach to the Indian American community, but first things first: “You can clap now,” he instructed.
The Indian-born Kumar — one of Trump’s major donors and a tireless surrogate — may be an unconventional choice for a U.S. ambassador, but countries around the world are dealing with rumors of unconventional American ambassadors heading their way. The notion that Sarah Palin would go to Ottawa was in the Canadian air until the Trump administration knocked it down, and officials from the European Union were aghast to hear that an anti-E.U. professor might be named to the U.S. post in Brussels.
Kumar, intent on being more than a rumor, has been quietly waging a behind-the-scenes campaign to be America’s envoy to New Delhi, although, publicly, he says he would “have to think about it” if asked.
He has made trips to India, given high-profile media interviews and scored a coup last week, when he hosted U.S. Chargé d’Affaires MaryKay L. Carlson for tea at his vacation “palace” in southern India. He quickly posted photos on Twitter, cc’ing Trump insiders Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon.
“They think that to get into Trump’s head they need to understand me,” Kumar said of the sudden, intense interest in him here.
Indian officials and diplomats — who prefer their U.S. ambassadors to be statesmen — are dismayed that Kumar is on Trump’s short list. But as one of the few Indian Americans arguably close to Trump, Kumar has to be taken seriously, they say.
“He clicks well with Trump; that’s what matters,” said Robinder Sachdev of the Reston, Va.-based U.S. India Political Action Committee. “He’s quite an outgoing personality, and whatever he does, he tries to do it with a lot of flair.”
Kumar boasts that, through his efforts, Indian Americans shifted dramatically to Trump in this election, although an analysis by the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Data project at the University of California at Riverside shows that they went decisively for Hillary Clinton, in keeping with past trends, by a margin of 78 to 16 percent.
Kumar jumped on the Trump bandwagon early. He formed the Republican Hindu Coalition and, along with his wife and son, donated $1,162,400 to Trump’s campaign and victory fund, campaign filings show.
Trump spoke at a campaign event Kumar organized in New Jersey, enveloping his “good friend” in a big hug onstage. He later agreed to read a few words in Hindi in an advertisement Kumar made aimed at the community of more than three million.
Since then, Kumar and the former Miss India he calls his daughter, Manasvi Mamgai, have enjoyed special access to the first family.
They went with Eric Trump to an event at a Hindu temple, met with the president in New York and cozily chatted with him at a candlelight dinner for major donors the night before the inauguration.
The Indian media have called Kumar and Mamgai “the father and daughter with a direct line to Donald Trump” and likened them to the “power duo” of Trump and daughter Ivanka.
After the December meeting, Kumar and Mamgai, 27, stood in the lobby of Trump Tower and said they discussed the coming administration with the president-elect and Mamgai’s dreams of a Hollywood career.
“He said, ‘Okay, what can I do?’ ” Kumar said. (Kumar thinks she should run for office and said she would make the “prettiest congresswoman,” although she is not yet an American citizen.)
Kumar uses the Hindi term for “goddaughter” to describe their relationship, which he says is platonic.
“It’s more of a soul connection than a biological connection,” he said. “If you have this soul connection, it’s because we believe in reincarnation. Two people come together, and they enter into this godfather and goddaughter relationship.”
With Mamgai’s “foster or adoption,” as Kumar puts it, he now boasts he has two Miss Indias in his family — his daughter-in-law, Pooja Chitgopekar, was Miss India Earth in 2007.
Kumar is a native of Punjab who came to the United States in 1969 to study for a master’s degree in electrical engineering, becoming a citizen in 1981. The married father of four lives in the Chicago suburbs and heads AVG Group, which manufactures and sells electronic component systems.
Kumar made his first big splash in 2011, staging a lavish wedding in New Zealand for son Vikram and Chitgopekar that was on the TV show “The Big Fat Indian Wedding.” Traffic ground to a halt as guests danced through the streets, groomsmen rode white horses, and helicopters flying in a “V” formation — for Vikram — zoomed across the sky.
In 2013, Kumar organized a controversial trip to India for a delegation of Republican congressmen to meet Narendra Modi, India’s future prime minister. At the time, Modi was a state leader banned from entering the United States on charges that he had not stopped Hindu-Muslim riots in his state where hundreds were killed. One of the congressmen was Aaron Schock, the Illinois lawmaker later indicted on a charge of improper spending, including luxury travel.
Over the years, Kumar has served as adviser to Republican entities and joined Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) to recruit and train Indian Americans to run for office.
But he has gotten in trouble for pushing the boundaries of these relationships. In 2013, he was sent a “cease and desist” note by the House Republican Conference for misusing its seal and insignia for political purposes on his stationery, a former staffer confirmed last week.
He still gives out business cards with an official-looking seal that identify him by this old title — “chairman, Indian American Advisory Council, House Republican Conference.” A leadership aide from the conference said Friday that there is no such council.
Kumar denied receiving a “cease and desist” notice and said the council still exists.
Since Trump’s election, Kumar has predicted that U.S.-India trade will jump from $100 billion to $300 billion and that Pakistan will be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
His support for Trump’s travel ban prompted a public rebuke from U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), an Indian American who said Kumar’s Republican Hindu Coalition does not reflect “the breadth and diversity of the Indian American Community, or our diaspora.”
The coalition racked up $237,800 in expenses in 2016 and has not filed an end-of-year report, risking fines, an audit or legal action, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Many Republicans support Kumar, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
“He’s obviously known much more in the community now than he was,” Sachdev said. “He’s regarded pretty well among Republicans. They find some of his straight talk really good — especially his core ideas about fighting radical Islam.”
The White House did not respond to emails requesting comment about Kumar.
Last week, Kumar sat down for tea with Carlson, a naval attache and other embassy staffers at his sprawling vacation home in Bangalore that he calls Rana Reagan Palace, a tribute to President Ronald Reagan and an Indian maharajah who defied Mogul invaders. The home’s centerpiece is a vaulting “dome of freedom” hung with a crystal chandelier and emblazoned with photos of Reagan, Mohandas Gandhi and other leaders. The embassy said in a statement that it is “customary” for embassy officials to meet with American business leaders.
After showing off the dome, Kumar had a lot of questions for Carlson, who is serving as the acting ambassador until the new one is named.
Kumar said he wanted “to see what they do on a day-to-day basis and what all the activities the U.S. Embassy is engaged in … You can never stop learning.”
Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report in New Delhi.