When Joe Biden, Democratic candidate for the 2020 US presidential election, announced the name of US Senator Kamala Harris, a biracial woman with Jamaican and Indian heritage, as his vice-presidential pick, the Indian Diaspora and Indians went into a jubilant mood. Sharp and witty, and known for his senatorial inquisition of Trump loyalists, she is a progressive face in US politics. But truth be told, it is her African roots from her father’s side that might have forced Biden’s hand to pick an adversary he was battling on his race to win the Democratic nominations.
African Americans make up 13.4 per cent of the US population whereas the Indian origin people are still less than one per cent. Harris fits the role perfectly. Harris has a glowing record as a prosecutor in California and graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C., a historically Black college. She belongs to a prestigious Black sorority from a campus which in American parlance is often called the “Black Harvard”. She can rally that constituency in her defence when the Trumpistas start veering from politics into personal attacks, a Republican trademark that saw Michelle Obama being called an ‘ape’ in the run-up to Barack Obama’s first presidential bid.
Harris happens to be the first Indian American woman and only the second Black woman in history to serve in the US Senate. She is only the fourth woman in US history and the first Indian American and Black woman to be chosen for one of the presidential tickets.
But with this move, Biden may have prevented a huddling of Indian American votes and resources (Indian Americans typically are part of the richest section of the American people) in the Republican camp, duly aided by the Trump-Modi bonhomie, the groundwork of which is being done by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the international wing of the RSS. If the HSS had made headways into bringing Indian Americans into the Republican fold by co-opting politicians like right-wing Hindu Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, as shown by independent journalist Pieter Friedrich, this move by Biden certainly galvanises a large section of the Indian Diaspora who are not ideologically right-wing and have traditionally been Democratic supporters.
Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born in Chennai and moved to the US to attend a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. A mixed-race heritage allows Harris to connect across identity silos and reach multiple voting blocs.
In an interview to Aziz Haniffa in India Abroad, a US-based newspaper for the Indian Diaspora, on August 26, 2009, a part of which has been reproduced by CNN, Harris said, “I believe that one of the benefits of having traveled the world and having known different cultures is that you really understand and see very clearly that people, whoever they are, whatever language they speak, have so much more in common than they do differences.” That’s inclusion she is talking about.
In the same interview, Harris also underlines the importance of her Indian roots: “My mother was very proud of her Indian heritage and taught us, me and my sister Maya, to share in the pride about our culture. We used to go back to India every couple of years. One of the most influential people in my life, in addition to my mother, was my grandfather P.V. Gopalan, who actually held a post in India that was like the secretary of state position in this country. My grandfather was one of the original Independence fighters in India, and some of my fondest memories from childhood were walking along the beach with him after he retired and lived in Besant Nagar, in what was then called Madras.
He would take walks every morning along the beach with his buddies who were all retired government officials and they would talk about politics, about how corruption must be fought and about justice. They would laugh and voice opinions and argue, and those conversations, even more than their actions, had such a strong influence on me in terms in terms of learning to be responsible, to be honest, and to have integrity. When we think about it, India is the oldest democracy in the world—so that is part of my background, and without question has had a great deal of influence on what I do today and who I am.”
Harris has been an outspoken backer of the Black Lives Matter movement which gathered storm in the US after the horrific video-taped death of Black American George Floyd in the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis in May. Harris joined protesters on the streets of Washington and a week ago, she scored a crucial endorsement when civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents George Floyd’s family, backed her.
Biden was always under pressure to pick an African American. A biracial and progressive woman allowed him to tick all the right slots: Black, Indian, South Asian and woman.