Dubai: The wheels of fortune that have brought a historic nomination for Kamala Harris to be the first biracial and woman US vice-presidential contender began spinning in the socially restive India of the 1950s. If the junior senator from California and her Democrat presidential contender Joe Biden manage to win the US elections this autumn, that journey will come full circle with more robust relations likely with New Delhi, according to her closest family members.
“There’s no major problem right now in US-India relations that requires intervention at the highest level. The last time things really escalated was during the negotiations ahead of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008. Even in the era of President Trump, the bilateral ties are beyond any one person’s personal impact, but Kamala would definitely do her best to strengthen it if she is elected,” Dr Gopalan Balachandran, the maternal uncle of Kamala Harris and an analyst of foreign policy and defence strategies, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview from New Delhi on Thursday.
But Balachandran acknowledged that Harris — who has been quite vocal against the Indian government’s policies on the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the promulgation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Delhi riots earlier this year — will stand her ground on those issues. In December last year, Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with the US House Foreign Affairs Committee after Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had moved a US House resolution on restoring the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, was found to be part of that interaction — prompting Harris to tweet that it was wrong for any “foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill.”
How Harris could impact US-India ties
According to Balachandran, a former consultant at the Indian think-tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and a PhD in Economics and Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, the US-India partnership has stood the test of time and major policy continuity is likely no matter which government comes to power. “Both India and the US are now worried about China, and that gives them common ground. Beyond that, there are small things could be tweaked here and there, some political differences and divisions like in every major relationship. But overall both India and US are the biggest markets for each other and Indians continue to make their mark in the US,” he said.
The nomination of Harris, 55, comes at a time when Indian-Americans are a rising political force in the US with more than two million eligible voters, according to Pew Research Centre. While Indian Americans voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by 77 per cent to 16 per cent, Trump has since then assiduously courted the Indian American vote: he flew to India on a high-profile visit earlier this February, enjoys a great personal equation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and last year was the opening act for the latter’s Houston rally of 50,000 people dubbed “Howdy Modi”.
Harris’s mum a trendsetter
But those numbers on the US voters list are a long way from the few thousands of Indian-Americans in 1958, when Balachandran’s sister and Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, stunned her orthodox Hindu Brahmin family by announcing that she had applied for a master’s program at UC Berkeley. It was a campus that the Chennai-based family had never heard of. At 19, Shyamala was the eldest of four children, had never set foot outside India, and the family barely had the resources to cover an expensive education.
“This was very rare at that time — an unmarried Indian woman going to the United States for graduate studies. It was even rarer for members of the Indian community fighting for racial equality in the US at the time, but Shyamala got involved with that as well. In pursuing her goals, Shyamala would become the trendsetter that Kamala emulates and is inspired by today,” Balachandran said. “Our father was very encouraging … He told Shyamala it was fine to go ahead if she secured an admission — and provisioned for her tuition and living costs for the first year from his retirement savings,” he said.
Tryst with civil rights movement
That marked the beginning of a journey that would take Shyamala to the heart of the civil rights activism in California and a career as a dauntless cancer researcher, whose works led to the isolation of key hormones linked to breast cancer. UC Berkeley was also the place where Shyamala met and married Donald Harris, originally from Jamaica, who would later become a professor of economics at Stanford University. Both were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, and the couple had two daughters, Kamala and her lawyer sister Maya. They divorced when Kamala was seven years old.
“Much of what Kamala is today is inspired by her mother, who has been a huge influence on her, along with our father,” said Balachandran. Harris’s grandfather, PV Gopalan, participated in India’s freedom movement against the British and later worked on rehabilitation of refugees from East Pakistan in India. Harris often invokes him along with her late mother, and compares her mother’s diminutive figure — she was five feet tall — with her unlimited ambition to strive for excellence.
Pursuit of justice
“My mother and father, they came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America. One from India and the other from Jamaica in search of a world-class education. But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And that is how they met as students in the streets of Oakland marching and shouting for this thing called justice in a struggle that continues today,” Harris told her supporters on Wednesday night during her campaign-trail debut as Biden’s running mate in Delaware.
A little more than 50 years after her mother first set foot outside of India, Harris would return to Chennai in 2009 — to immerse her mother’s ashes in the Bay of Bengal, following Shyamala Gopalan’s death from colon cancer.
But today, the family feels her efforts have been vindicated.
Pride of Indian diaspora
“This is not just a happy moment for us, but for the entire Indian diaspora and for Indian-Americans, who have so far achieved high professional jobs — but this is one of the highest political jobs,” Balachandran said. “The day that Biden announced that he would pick a woman as a running mate, we were certain that it would be Kamala,” he said, adding that the phone hasn’t stopped ringing and messages of congratulations haven’t stopped pouring in the past 24 hours since the announcement was made.
With Biden, 77, expected to serve a single term should he get elected, Kamala — whose name means a blooming lotus in her native Tamil and Sanskrit — stands a strong chance of eventually becoming the first woman President of the US. “With everything that she does, Kamala always thinks what her mother would have thought of it. If she were here today, my sister would be very proud of Kamala. And if she wins in November, her mother would have also told her, ‘Now that you are the Vice-President of the US, don’t just sit and relax, go and do some work.’ That’s why I know that Kamala will be a very active US Vice-President,” Balachandran said.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Kamala Harris hails from a long line of achievers in her family. Her mother had a seminal influence on the young Harris, as did her grandfather. Here’s a quick look at key family members:
• Shyamala Gopalan: The mother of Kamala Harris was a breast-cancer scientist who had emigrated from the south Indian city of Tamil Nadu in 1959 to pursue a doctorate in endocrinology at UC Berkeley.
• Donald J. Harris: The father of Harris is a Stanford University emeritus professor of economics, who emigrated from British Jamaica in 1961 for graduate study in economics at UC Berkeley.
• Maya Lakshmi Harris: The sister of Harris, she is an American lawyer, public policy advocate, and TV commentator who was a senior policy advisers for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
• PV Gopalan: The grand-father of Harris from her maternal side, he was an Indian civil servant who served as Director of Relief Measures and Refugees in the federal Government of Zambia and as Joint Secretary to Government of India in the 1960s. Until his death in 1998, Gopalan remained a guiding influence for Harris and helped kindle her interest in public service.