The recent hard-left turn of the Democratic Party has not gone unnoticed within the Indian diaspora. The government watchdog website (GovTrack.us) ranks Harris even further left than Bernie Sanders.
CHICAGO: The presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden has picked Kamala Harris as his running-mate. Harris is a sitting US Senator from California, where she also served as the Attorney General. Beyond the regular media circus that goes with a VP pick in the US presidential race, this year’s pick by Biden assumes significance for the Indian diaspora in the US.
Harris, 55, was born to Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris. Shyamala was a Chennai-born University of California, Berkeley researcher, who did her undergraduate study from the posh Lady Irwin College in Delhi. Donald was an economist from Jamaica, who taught at various US universities. Kamala’s parents divorced when she was 7. Later on, Kamala’s family moved to Canada where she graduated from the upscale Westmount High School in Montreal.
The question of identity and how we relate to the rest of the world and beyond is deeply personal. Identity is seen either in terms of “linkages of social structure” or “internal process of self-verification” (Sheldon Stryker and Peter J. Burke). These linkages and the processes of self-verification also include complex layers of history, culture, faith, among other things. It is those considerations that make Barack Obama, a biracial child of mixed religious heritage a Black Christian man, and Kamala Harris a Black Baptist woman.
Reactions to Harris’ selection as Biden’s running-mate were swift and wide-ranging. Hailing the selection, Suhag Shukla said: “Kamala Harris is the first vice presidential candidate with Indian and Hindu heritage, so this presidential election brings yet another Hindu American historic first.” Suhag hopes that the upcoming presidential campaign will provide an opportunity to understand Hindu-American concerns and perspectives through greater engagement with the community. Suhag is the Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), and a prominent member of the Indian-American community. The Foundation is a tax-exempt, non-profit Hindu advocacy group and does not endorse any political candidates. Suhag was speaking in her individual capacity.
Sheenie Ambardar, M.D., a Beverly Hills, California psychiatrist wasn’t that charitable. Referring to Harris’ stand on Kashmir she tweeted, “She’s the favorite candidate of those who want to break my ancestral homeland of #Kashmir away from India. Kashmir is the seat of Hindu spirituality. I can’t support any candidate who goes to bat for Kashmiri terrorists.” Atulya Tanka, a member of the Indian community in Seattle, Washington, and a Kashmiri himself, was a little bit conciliatory when he said, “Unfortunately, her utterances on Kashmir show that in the recent past she has moved towards the far left anti-India group. Hopefully, it is a temporary shift for political expediency and if elected will return to a more moderate stance.”
Harris has seldom made reference to her Indian ancestry and Hindu heritage in her political life. Initially (February 2019), even the official US Senate website listed Harris an “African American”. Later, Harris made rather feeble attempts to connect to the Indian-American diaspora during her short-lived presidential campaign. She appeared on the Mindy Kaling show making dosa. She also released a video where she talked about her Indian ancestry and broke coconut at a private religious gathering.
Many see a parallel between Kamala Harris and Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. A son of a Punjabi Indian immigrant and a Christian convert during his high school days, Jindal had run an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2012. He had famously said that he was tired of “all this talk about hyphenated Americans”. His campaign never got any traction in the Indian-American diaspora.
After the initial splash, when she received the highest campaign contributions from the Indian-American donors for her presidential run, Harris’ presidential campaign soon hit a wall. Before she finally bowed out of the race, she was polling in the single-digit in her home state of California, where she had served in various capacities prior to winning the US Senate seat in 2016.
Given the minuscule numerical strength of the Indian diaspora, Harris’ Indian or Hindu connection may not have much impact on the overall presidential race beyond some attention-grabbing headlines in the media. It is also not clear if she will be able to hold Indian-Americans, once a strong voting bloc of the Party, securely in their pocket. Indian-Americans are a much politically diverse group now. Indian-Americans in general and Hindu-Americans, in particular, have started to resent and reject colonial-oriental, and Indologist-Marxist markers that have come to define India, its people, culture, traditions and history. They also see the “South Asian” label as an attempt to wilfully deny the existence of the indigenous Indic civilisation with a continuous history of 5,000 years or more.
The recent hard-left turn of the Democratic Party has not gone unnoticed within the Indian diaspora. The government watchdog website (GovTrack.us) ranks Harris even further left than Bernie Sanders. Harris’ stand on the so-called “human rights” issues in Kashmir and opposition to India’s Citizenship Amendment Act has made many Indians very uncomfortable. Democratic Party and Joe Biden’s pandering to the pro-Islamist groups have further divided the Indian community. Harris’ public spat with an extremely popular External Affairs Minister of India, Dr S. Jaishankar over the cancelled meeting with an extremely unpopular Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal also did not go well within the diaspora.
In the gruelling next few weeks leading up to the elections, Harris’ past records as a public prosecutor are bound to resurface. Scrubbing the Wikipedia entry off some of the inconvenient controversies and corruption by Democratic surrogates have already been reported in the press. Harris’ strong support of prosecutors in Orange County, who engaged in rampant misconduct, will be re-looked. She will also be asked about her role in the clergy abuse case as well as her decision not to prosecute Steve Mnuchin for mortgage fraud-related crimes.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, in that now-famous exchange during the live primary debate, had pressed Harris on her records as California Attorney General. This questioning on her role in the criminal justice reform in California ultimately doomed her presidential run and is sure to come up during the campaign. Amid concerns of Biden’s age and health, many consider Harris’ pick as an attempt by the Democratic “establishment” to control the White House by proxy. Questions about Jussie Smollett, Harris’ criticism of Biden on race and sex abuse during primaries is sure to hound her.
Harris’ strengths and weaknesses lie in her policies and ideology. Providing a boost to a rather dull and flat Joe Biden campaign will be her primary focus. In the end, Harris will be judged on what she brings to the table for the Biden-Harris campaign. Can Harris help Biden in the turnout battle and mobilise young voters? Can she help bring the disenchanted Indian-American voters back in the Democratic fold? That answer may end up defining Harris’ legacy for this campaign beyond the symbolic rhetoric.
Avatans Kumar writes frequently on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, language, culture, and current affairs. Avatans is a JNU and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He tweets @avatans.