Given the high degree of political participation by the South Asian diaspora in the US that I’ve written about before, it seemed an inevitability that a person with some degree of Indian ethnicity or culture would make it onto a presidential ticket. The question was never if, but who. Would it be Bobby Jindal, the former governor of Louisiana, congressman and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful? Would it be Nikki Haley, who represented the Trump administration to the United Nations and is now apparently gunning to lead the post-Trump Republican Party?
Neither, as it turns out. Instead, Democrat Kamala Harris beat them to it, last week announced as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, months after making her own presidential tilt.
Harris is well-positioned to take on a potential vice-presidential role. She has spent the past few years in the Senate, and before that, six years as attorney general in her home state of California. Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she represents the apex of immigrant aspirations: a successful career as a prosecutor followed by an even more successful career in politics, and is the face of an America that is diverse, multicultural and progressive, in stark contrast to the incumbent, Mike Pence.
Harris has given away little on how she might approach India from a foreign policy perspective, however some of her views indicate that she might diverge from the current administration’s cosy relationship with New Delhi.
It is her heritage that sets her apart. Harris is the first woman of colour on a major party’s presidential ticket. Unlike other politicians of colour who seek to flatten the markers of difference, such as Anglicising their names, Harris has embraced her background, and has spoken passionately and often of her dual cultural backgrounds.
And India is well and truly here for it. Swift to claim her as its own, Indian media has lit up with headlines proclaiming her victory. “Lotus to Potus”, ran one newspaper headline (Kamala means “lotus flower”). Media outlets, after rapidly seeking out aunts and uncles to interview, heralded her love of idlis, and the fact that she once asked an aunt to break coconuts for her, in a Hindu ritual for good luck.
Then there are the posters. Almost immediately, large posters appeared in Chennai, of the kind that might usually feature local politicians – but this time, featuring Harris, along with the words: “PV Gopalan’s granddaughter is victorious”. (Harris grandfather was a prominent local senior civil servant.)
I was sent this from Tamil Nadu where our Indian family is from. It says “PV Gopalan’s granddaughter is victorious.” I knew my great grandfather from our family trips to Chennai when I was young—he was a big figure for my grandma and I know they’re together somewhere smiling now. pic.twitter.com/WuZiKimmqj— Meena Harris (@meenaharris) August 16, 2020
In her grandfather’s home village of Thulasendrapuram, in Tamil Nadu, banners cheer her on. One describes her as “Singapenn”, or lion-hearted woman, while another reads “Thulasendrapuram to America, bring laurels to the home country”.
Harris has sought to make the most of her Indian roots and connection. Last year, before ending her own presidential campaign, she appeared in a social media video along with comedian Mindy Kaling, in which they bonded over their shared Tamil heritage while cooking a dosa. Could it be that, policies aside, watching Harris in paroxysms of delight over spice jars is the best way to win immigrant hearts and votes?
Doubling down on her South Asian roots story, she told a gathering of “Indians for Biden” over the weekend of her Indian links.
“When my mother, Shyamala stepped off the plane in California as a 19-year-old, she didn’t have much in the way of belongings,” Harris said. “But she carried with her lessons from back home, including ones she learned from her parents, my grandmother Rajan, and her father, my grandfather P. V. Gopalan. They taught her that when you see injustice in the world, you have an obligation to do something about it.”
“Growing up, my mother would take my sister Maya and me back to what was then called Madras because she wanted us to understand where she had come from and where we had ancestry. And of course, she always wanted to instil in us a love of good idli.”
“In Madras I would go on long walks with my grandfather, who at that point was retired. We would take morning walks where I’d hold his hand and he would tell me about the heroes who are responsible for the birth of the world’s biggest democracy. He would explain that it’s on us to pick up where they left off. Those lessons are a big reason why I am who I am today.”
Her speech gave away much of not just her background and inspirations, but how they have informed her leanings, pointing out that the South Asian diaspora, while diverse, is bound by common values, “like tolerance, pluralism and diversity”.
What she didn’t go into are the more granular details of the forces that shaped her life. Her mother’s family hails from the most privileged sector of Tamilian society, Tamil Brahmins (“Tam Brams”), who are known for their intelligence, hardworking nature and focus on education – along with their insularity, piety and clubbishly traditional values. To send their 19-year-old daughter to study in Berkeley is in itself revelatory, and to allow her to forge her own path and marry a Jamaican man even more so. Defying the strict social codes of their community shows just how deeply progressive they were.
Harris’s policies which impact Indian-Americans are mixed. She has spoken openly in support of H-4 visas, which are issued to family members of H-1 visa holders, saying that any revocation of H-4s would “disproportionately target” South Asian women. At the same time, she last year attracted criticism for defending a 2011 policy that prohibited prison guards from being permitted to wear beards, which Sikhs found discriminatory against their religious dictums.
Harris has given away little on how she might approach India from a foreign policy perspective, however some of her views indicate that she might diverge from the current administration’s cosy relationship with New Delhi. Last December, a meeting between India’s visiting Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and the House Foreign Affairs Committee was cancelled after he refused to meet with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal over her vocal opposition to India’s stance on Kashmir. Harris sided with her colleague, at the time tweeting, “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill”.
It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I'm glad her colleagues in the House did too. https://t.co/PpbDoB0zKB— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) December 20, 2019
And it is Kashmir that may well shape up as a bone of contention. When asked about the situation there during her presidential campaign last year, she simply replied: “It is about reminding people that they are not alone. That we are all watching.” A potent reminder that, idli diplomacy aside, Harris’s overarching values of tolerance and diversity will likely extend far beyond American borders.