Kamala Harris’s candidature for the Vice Presidential post has turned many heads and brought her Indian heritage to the forefront. Rohit Tripathi, founder of Young India Inc, examines her career and the role that her election can play in Indian-American politics.
ON August 11, 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden picked Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate for the vice presidency. Senator Harris became the third woman to get on a US presidential ticket. She wrote herself into the history books for being the first woman of colour in that position. She is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Naturally, both the African-American and Indian-American communities felt a deep sense of pride at the announcement of her selection.
Before we dive into the specific implications of Senator Harris’s selection and possible victory, it is crucial to look at this moment in American history. The 2020 US presidential election is going to take place in a volatile backdrop. This volatility is fuelled by a raging, sadly politicised, once-in-a-century pandemic and the oft-ignored plight of the African American community that re-emerged as a test for America’s moral well-being, which is not looking good.
The political system is also fractured like never before. Republicans have completely cast their lot with President Donald Trump, whose view of executive power and the role of institutions has been colored by political compulsions.
America is seeing a generational political shift and Harris is on the fringe of that generation – just barely making the progressive ranks per the new paradigm
On the other hand, the Democratic Party is having a revolution within itself. An articulate, young progressive wing is gaining steam throughout the country and putting the establishment centrists on guard. They are increasingly impatient with unaddressed inequities even in regions where the Democrats have held power.
Kamala’s Chequered Career
Senator Kamala Harris isn’t new to this political landscape. Her political career already spans almost two decades. It started with Harris becoming the District Attorney for San Francisco to then being the Attorney General of California and ultimately as the Senator from California. Her political promise was recognised early and her political success was anticipated. However, a forensic assessment of her political past is giving many progressives a pause. As the detailed analysis of Senator Harris’s law enforcement career by Vox’s German Lopez shows, Harris was a progressive step or two ahead as District Attorney in the early 2000’s, but political compulsions to seek higher office made her a more status quo political leader. Her tenure as Attorney General of California doesn’t lend itself to any progressive acclaim.
A review of her record will be incomplete without at least recognising that the role she took was predominantly held by white men.
The time around 2010 was also when the progressive response to criminal justice reform leapfrogged and Harris was caught a little flat-footed still pursuing a “tough-on-crime” policy structure. But her thinking took a progressive turn once she became California’s Senator in Washington.
Criminal justice reformers do give her credit for standing up for reversing mass incarceration in American prisons, highlighting the bias towards black and brown men and women and taking progressive positions like the decriminalisation of marijuana possession. As Lopez points out, the progressive wing does worry that in response to a spike in violence she may slide back into her “tough-on-crime” posture. A review of her record will be incomplete without at least recognising that the role she took was predominantly held by white men. So, her race and gender were factors but the degree to which they affected her decisions isn’t crystal clear. No doubt that she was far more aware of the racial bias than her white, male counterparts but how her convictions played off her politics is still under study.
Coming back to today. It is tricky to isolate the impact of her candidacy in this moment of America’s journey. And that’s because America itself is evolving like two separate societies. For the more liberal, cosmopolitan, diverse, and urban America, Harris’s identity being a factor in her candidacy seems like an evolutionary development and accomplishment. For the not-so-liberal, self-segregating, and diversity-resisting America, it is another reminder that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Her African-American identity has clearly shaped her life far more than her Indian half. While it’s emotionally important for Indian-Americans to see Harris adopting them as her own, doing so does indeed have an impact, making the debate over how much she is Indian is a futile one.
Senator Harris’s parentage is rare for America. Her life journey through California, Canada, and then college in Washington DC gives her a wider perspective than most.
She does claim her African American heritage more firmly than her Indian one. To be fair, unlike other Indian-American politicians, she has not shied away from her Indian roots. She was born and raised in another period of tumult in America by parents who were engaged in activism during that time. Her African-American identity has clearly shaped her life far more than her Indian half. While it’s emotionally important for Indian-Americans to see Harris adopting them as her own, doing so does indeed have an impact, making the debate over how much she is Indian is a futile one.
Will it bring Structural Changes?
Harris’s candidacy is fighting two battles-one against a nativist incumbent and another with progressive insurgents within her own party. While her selection, given her multicultural background has muted internal talk, the enthusiasm gap has not completely disappeared. America is seeing a generational political shift and Harris is on the fringe of that generation – just barely making the progressive ranks per the new paradigm.
The Harris selection has brought to the fore a raging debate about representational change and whether that always leads to structural change.
There is a lack of trust between establishment centrists and young, emerging progressives when it comes to hard choices on healthcare, economics, and climate change. Kamala Harris does hold out greater hope than Joe Biden on that count since she has publicly championed causes in the last four years aligned with the progressive wing. However, this wing is focused on holding fort in the House of Representatives and ready to challenge the next executive independent of the winner of the November election.
The Harris selection has brought to the fore a raging debate about representational change and whether that always leads to structural change. There were scores of stories of African American women breaking into tears at the announcement. My 10-year-old daughter, an Indian-American, was beaming-she also happens to share her birthday with Harris! Both communities certainly feel pride and see Harris as one of theirs.
Kamala’s candidacy is most definitely path-breaking as a woman of colour. We are clear-eyed about possibilities that lie ahead and how some of them may not be realised. Yet recognition of the representational change is in order as it will inspire a new demographic of leaders that will further enrich American democracy with different perspectives.
The Indian-American community, like most, isn’t monolithic though.
Role of American Indians
The Indian-American community, like most, isn’t monolithic though. There is vocal and visible support for Prime Minister Modi and these supporters expect full-throated endorsements of Modi from American political leaders. The President often obliges. Senator Harris hasn’t waded into contentious waters when it comes to Modi’s policies.
The Indian-American population can be divided into two dimensions – first-generation and second or third generation Indians. Within the non-first generation Indians, there is further segmentation by age. The first generation Indian American population is significantly right-wing and, given the Modi-Trump proximity on a wide range of issues, will probably vote for Trump. That said, there indeed is emerging a progressive slice of the diaspora among first-generation Indian-Americans primarily in response to repressive policies back home. The second-generation Indian-Americans are somewhat split by age with those above 45 more centrists while those below more progressive. All of this is made even more interesting when one sees the Indian-American population becoming consequential in the three swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that decided the last election with less than 40,000 votes combined.
(Kamala Harris with her mother. Source: Facebook)
The Indian American population could well decide the winner.
Unprecedented moves like wooing the Hindu Indian-American community with competing Ganesh Chaturthi greeting messages by the campaigns shows how crucial they view this voting bloc.
Crucial Role for Harris After Win
Moving to the ramifications on governance if Biden and Harris win, Harris will be the point person engaging with Congress. She will have to play a crucial role in sharing the baton, not passing it, with the progressives who are sure to solidify their numbers in the simultaneous Congressional elections in November. Harris will preside over a very key phase of America’s political life. This is where we feel her life experience, her multiculturalism will truly matter. These factors may give her an added dimension to think with empathy and build bridges. She will have an opportunity to take her identity beyond her biography and put it into action.
The world has changed since Biden was last in power.
American foreign policy has not been very coherent over the last four years. Biden, a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will bring in old-school realpolitik back to the policy realm, but that will be challenged. The world has changed since Biden was last in power. Yes, even in the past four years, strong men around the world have become stronger, more authoritarian and are acting with impunity and pride as they challenge their citizens’ fundamental rights. What will the Biden-Harris administration do?
Bonhomie with Europe?
Let’s go region by region. Biden is a big believer in NATO so we do anticipate a return to bonhomie with Europe, at least the Western part. This reunion is seen as essential to get the Trans-Atlantic alliance back on the same page to collectively respond to the constant flexing by Russia to specifically undermine democracy. It is unclear how Biden and Harris will respond to Poland and Hungary’s sharp right turns. On Russia, Turkey, Iran, and China, they will likely revert to Obama’s playbook of strategic engagement with the occasional admonishment if transactional items are affected. One area to keep an eye on is the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that China sees as a threat.
South America won’t be straightforward with support for Venezuela’s opposition re-evaluated and Brazil’s Balsanaro being unpredictable. Africa will hopefully come back on the radar for the United States. Here’s Harris’s African heritage that could play a role in her going beyond the traditional, incremental engagement with Africa. North Africa remains a troubled spot and will be interesting to see what Biden has in mind for Libya given he was in the room when Gaddafi was taken out. We will have to see if neoconservatives feel they have a lifeline with Biden at the helm.
She will find herself living in a globalised world where progressive inconsistencies have started to be measured across the globe, not just in America.
The India Challenge
India will be a real challenge. While Harris hasn’t shown her cards on the contentious issues facing Indian democracy, her support of Congresswoman Jayapal when snubbed by Foreign Minister Jaishankar was seen as a tacit support for Jayapal’s positions. The Congresswoman has been a vocal critic of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir and generally, the violence against minorities. No indication so far that Harris’s Indian identity makes her more likely to engage with internal Indian political matters any more than her progressive colleagues.
Harris will be creating a new political image, if elected. She will find herself living in a globalised world where progressive inconsistencies have started to be measured across the globe, not just in America. Thus, whenever the NRC or any other discriminatory or repressive measure is afoot in India, the expectation will be a full-throated denunciation. Harris has talked of her progressive maternal grandparents and how they instilled a value system in her.
Senator Harris finds herself at the proverbial crossroads of history.
We will have to see how true she is to that value system when under duress in her maternal homeland. Also, if Biden continues to view India as a bulwark against China and keeps looking the other way, this will set Harris for many attacks from progressives. Her political career has a long stretch ahead and she sees the tide is increasingly progressive.
Senator Harris finds herself at the proverbial crossroads of history. She is at a transformational juncture with the ability to influence the direction in which America goes and perhaps the world. Like all of us imperfect beings, she will make mistakes and should be held accountable for them. Yet, at this moment, it does give us greater solace to have a multicultural woman at the table. And that counts for something.
(Rohit Tripathi, is based in Maryland, United States of America. He is the founder of Young India, Inc, a policy advocacy group. He’s also a business strategist with a focus on innovation. Views are personal.)