New York: The financially powerful and – increasingly - politically vocal 4.2 million strong Indian diaspora in the US was ecstatic when the Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden formally announced on August 11, 2020 Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the upcoming Presidential election on November 3.
But the Indian diaspora was also surprised because Biden had appeared annoyed by Harris’ criticism of him during the presidential debate of the Democratic candidates. The Biden camp feared that Harris would overstep her role and profile herself for the President’s office – she is considered to be “too ambitious” – from her vice presidential chair. Harris, who is 55 and Biden, who is 78, have an age difference of some 23 years. If he does win the Presidential race on November 3, Biden may possibly not candidate again in 2024, when he would have turned 82.
Harris, who served as senator from California since 2017, was born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, who was from Tamil Nadu in southern India, and immigrated to the US in 1959 to attend graduate school at the University of California Berkeley, was married to Donald Harris, a Jamaican professor of economics. After her parents divorced, Harris and her sister were raised by their mother.
While many rejoiced over the historic decision to nominate a person of Indian and Black origin as Biden’s running mate, a section of the Indian diaspora appeared ambivalent about her nomination, recalling her criticism of the Indian government over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the abrogation of article 370 that terminated Kashmir’s autonomous character making it an integral part of India.
Nevertheless, a large section of the Indian diaspora believes that Harris’ nomination will drive Indian Americans to vote for the Democratic Party. Indeed, many Indian Americans, settled in states that are traditionally conservative – the so-called “red” states – welcomed Harris’ nomination because she would “understand the experience of marginalization”, as Lakshmi Natarajan, a software engineer from Chennai, who went through the “initial cultural shock and marginalization on arrival in the US” told Gulf News.
While the diaspora has historically voted in large numbers voted for the Democratic Party, the present incumbent President Donald Trump, as a staunch India supporter, has also broadened his appeal among the diaspora. The two mega events – “Howdy Modi” held In Houston, Texas, and the “Namaste, Trump” in Ahmedabad provide a vivid testimony to the bromance that has blossomed between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump. Indeed, Trump recently even boasted that he has “more Indian following than she (Harris) has”.
Harris, on her part, has tried to play up her India connections by talking about her visits to temples or preparing Masala Dosa (a South Indian potato-vegetable filled crepe delicacy); however, the Indian diaspora will want more than that to convince itself of her “true Indianness” which would be determined by her stand on Kashmir, the CAA, immigration and visas for Indian workers, India’s stand-off with China, etc.
Identifying with Black community
Organisations such as the Hindu-American Foundation, Overseas Friends of the BJP, the World Hindu Council of America and the Indo-American Kashmir Forum have supported Modi on the abrogation of Article 370.
The diaspora also notes that Harris tends to identify herself with the Black community. While she has stated that she frequently visited temples with her, accompanied by her Hindu mother, she was heavily influenced by the Black community, and considers herself a Baptist. Indeed, she has publicly narrated about attending predominantly Black churches In Oakland and Berkeley. She is married to a Jew who has two children from his first marriage.
Harris was influenced by African American intellectuals, including Mary Lewis, a professor at San Francisco State University, who left a deep impression on her.
She attended Howard University, a Black university in Washington DC, graduating in 1986 with a degree in political science and economics.
Harris then returned to California to attend law school at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law where she served as president of its chapter of the Black Law Students’ Association and graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in 1989. She was admitted to the California Bar in June 1990; she was appointed deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California.
Indian Americans speculate whether she is “more Black than Indian” or vice versa. While the Black community accepts her because of her long association with African-Americans and her support on issues of crucial importance to them, many Indian-American critics tend to judge her by her stand on India-related issues.
However, despite her past criticism of Kashmir’s changed status and the CAA, many Indian-American supporters believe that she will moderate her comments on sensitive issues once she becomes the vice president.
“Democrats and, particularly, Biden know that Kashmir is as important to Indian-Americans as Jerusalem is to Jewish-Americans,” says one US observer who prefers to remain anonymous. He adds that Democrats are also aware that Modi continues to be hugely popular not only in India but also among Indian Americans.
Harris’ mixed Black and Indian ethnicity represents a uniquely American melting pot story which can create both confusion and double discrimination.
Diana Sanchez, a Rutgers University professor who studies multiracial identity in America, reportedly explained that multiracial people can face what she refers to as double discrimination, experiencing discrimination from both communities they are members of. In Harris’s case, that can translate as Indian Americans saying she is not Indian enough and some Black people doubting if she is Black enough.
Indian Americans have, traditionally, voted for Democrats in the past; in the 2016 election, some 77% of Indian-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, raising over $ 10 million for her campaign. However, Indian Americans are also, increasingly, supporting Republicans and providing substantial funds for the Republican campaign for Trump’s re-election.
The diaspora often judges an Indian-American politician’s Weltanschauung through the Indian prism and by his or her position on India-related issues.
Loyalty to India
However, Harris’ supporters remind her critics in the Indian-American diaspora that her ethnicity does not mean she has to demonstrate her loyalty to India. After all, they argue, a number of countries with large Indian immigrant population – the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, etc. - also send envoys of Indian origin for postings in India where they represent the interests of the sender state and not of the receiving one.
Harris’ supporters urge the critics not to make too much of her criticism of the Kashmir situation. “Don’t forget that politicians sometimes vent criticism while not in office but sober down when they attain high office. Besides, India as a vibrant democracy is strong enough to face Harris’ criticism. It’s water off a duck’s back,” argues Meena Pandey, a retired professor in New York.
Will India and the Indian diaspora be comfortable with Harris as vice president? “Nobody knows how she will behave as the vice president, but Biden has underscored India’s importance for his administration, implying that he is keen to build up ties with India. As far as Harris is concerned, let’s hope we Indian Americans don’t have to repeat those last words of Julius Caesar as he lay dying: ‘Et tu Kamala?’” Pandey quips.