An Indian-American president in the White house? That distant dream has come within a few steps to being a distinct reality. On Tuesday, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the president of the United States, made the historic announcement of Kamala Devi Harris, the junior US senator from California, as his running mate.
I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 11, 2020
If Biden defeats Donald Trump to be the next US president, it follows that Harris should be vice president. More importantly, four years down the road, she will herself likely run for US president. If she wins, she will not only be the first woman, but also the first Indian-origin American to be the occupant of the White House, holding the most powerful job in the world.
Kamala Harris brings to the Democratic ticket a unique appeal. An Indian-origin politician who identifies herself as African-American, and has a Jewish husband, is sure to appear attractive to a large and important cross section of US voters.
Why then is Harris so reticent about being Indian and so vocal about being Black? And why is the American press projecting her not so much as a person of mixed Indo-Jamaican descent but much more as a Black woman? For instance, why has she been lauded for being the second Black woman ever to be elected to the senate rather than the first Indian? Is it merely identity fudging or political expediency?
In fact, even the non-Black part of her ancestry has been billed more as South Asian than Indian or Hindu.
Closer to Hindu roots
As her autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (2019) shows, Harris’s mother Shyamala, an Indian-born cancer scientist, was a remarkable and gutsy woman. She arrived in the US after graduating at 19 with a BSc (Hons.) in Home Science from Lady Irwin College, Delhi. She went on to do her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her husband-to-be, Donald J. Harris, a Jamaican economist who taught at Stanford. Both were student activists. The marriage, however, did not prove to be long-lasting, ending in divorce when Kamala was seven years old.
Shyamala raised both her daughters – Kamala and Maya – practically on her own, as a single mother. The children came home to their grandparents in Chennai during vacations. Kamala’s maternal grandfather P.V Gopalan, erroneously referred to as a freedom fighter, actually started as a stenographer in post-Independence India. He rose to be joint secretary, Government of India. He was posted in Zambia as an advisor to the Zambian government. Kamala and Maya visited their grandparents in Zambia too.
It seems that despite the mixed parentage, Kamala Harris was closer to the Indian, maternal side and Hindu heritage of her family.
Hinduphobia makes Hindu identity a liability
The Indian community in the US does not exceed 3 or 4 million, while African-Americans are a much bigger and older component of the US population. In the past, other would-be presidential candidates of Indian origin, such as former Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, also distanced themselves, if not completely cloaked, their Indian identity. Jindal even converted to Christianity and was baptised as a Catholic.
Similarly, Kamala Harris, who admits to going to Hindu temples, has also been reported as attending the National Baptist Convention, a predominantly Black Christian denomination. Being a Hindu politician, especially a presidential candidate, can still be a liability, as the Hindu-phobic attacks against Tulsi Gabbard show. No wonder the wealthy, powerful, influential, but small and still largely Democratic, Indian-American community has not yet welcomed Harris’s candidature as warmly as might be expected.
In the coming days, Kamala Harris will have to do a lot more to woo them. She has never denied being proud of the Indian side of her ancestry. Now she will need to be seen as Indian, not only in the United States, but also as a bridge-builder between the country of her origin, India, and her homeland, the United States. The Indian government and the diplomatic establishment will also have to factor in Harris’ candidature, to see how best to leverage it in case Biden actually wins.
Delhi must be ready for future developments
As of now, it is the Trump administration which is much more favourable to India. When the inevitable tilt in the other direction happens if Biden wins, India needs to be prepared. An outreach to Harris would help, just as it would bolster her standing in the US’ Indian community if she reciprocates.
Regardless of who is in the White House, India has become more and more important to the United States. Today, our strategic and economic partnership is stronger than ever before. Given her previous Left-leaning record, Harris’ candidature may not engender a huge uptick in India-US friendship and cooperation. If anything, the Biden-Harris ticket is likely to tilt closer to Pakistan and the Islamic world. India must work from now onwards to ensure that this does not happen.
Purely on her own merits, however, Kamala Harris is a phenomenon. Her announcement as Biden’s running mate is thus a cause for justified celebration in both our continents. We in India must acknowledge that had she remained in India, she may not have made it to the Indian vice-presidency. No woman has. We must doff our hats to say, ‘It happens only in America!’
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.