Trans-Pacific View | Politics | South Asia

India’s Hopes for Kamala Harris

Her nomination as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate evoked a wide range of emotions in an already polarized society.

By Pranay Sharma for
India’s Hopes for Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris at Camp Pendleton, Nov. 29, 2018.

Credit: Office of Senator Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris’ emergence on the American national scene has created a huge splash in the United States as well as in India. But her nomination as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate has led to widespread enthusiasm among different sections in India. Some have already begun to appropriate her.

The California senator has not visited India since her mother died 11 years ago. She came to India, carrying her mother’s ashes, to honor her dying wish and has not returned since. Born of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris is the first woman of Black or Indian heritage — much less both – to be nominated to such a key position by any major political party in America. The excitement that it has sparked in the United States and elsewhere in the world, particularly India, is therefore, predictable.

But many of those in India trying to claim Harris as their own not only hate her being identified as Black, they also ignore her mixed-race parentage, highlighting only her Indian origins.

True, Harris and her sister were brought up by their mother, Shyamala Gopalan, after her parents’ divorce. However, the U.S. senator has always identified herself as African American not Asian or Indian American, even though she has often stressed her mother’s influence on her—most famously with the lines: “There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter.”

In the American political landscape Harris has always identified herself as Black. But since her nomination, she has also been talking pointedly about her Indian roots, perhaps in an attempt to reach out to the nearly 4 million-strong important Indian-American constituency. During her acceptance speech upon being nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate on Thursday, she sent Tamils across the world into a frenzy with her line that “family is my uncles, my aunts and my chithis” — aunt in Tamil, one of the oldest Indian languages spoken in Tamil Nadu, the southern state in India, in Sri Lanka as well as by the Tamil diaspora.

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For many in India, the “feel-good” factor stems not just from Harris’ success in a foreign country, but in the United States — the biggest stage in the “white man’s world.” By identifying themselves with Harris, they want to bask in the glory of her success.

Though Harris’ nomination created a major splash in India, attracting both plebeians and the elite, it has also evoked a wide range of emotions in an already polarized society. Most reacted according to their own perception of what the nomination meant.

To some sections in the Indian establishment, Harris, who could play a key role in a possible Biden presidency, might be a useful and influential ally to have. Though bipartisan support for strong India-U.S. ties could also be expected under a Democratic dispensation, some members of a Biden administration might tend to be over-critical of India for its pronounced pro-Trump tilt in the past few years.

Harris’ nomination has especially enthused liberals in India. Reeling under their marginalization in a political landscape dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing ruling party, India’s liberals feel Harris’ presence in a future U.S. administration could act as a deterrent to perceived government excesses against democratic forces.

The liberals in India point out that Indian governments have been more  sensitive to their image abroad than to domestic criticism. Unlike current U.S. President Donald Trump, who chose to ignore a violent communal clash in Delhi while he was in the Indian capital, the reaction of a Democratic president could have been very different.

Pro-BJP sections both in the United States and in India, on the other hand, have already expressed their reservations about Harris’ track record on human rights and her alleged “anti-Indian” stand.

Harris has established herself as a strong defender of human rights. Detractors of the Narendra Modi government are hopeful that if attacks on democratic forces in India were to continue, then the future VP and other members of the Biden administration would not hesitate to pull up India.

But seasoned Indian diplomats point out that even in the 1990s the United States had regularly lectured India on the human rights situation in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country. This has not detracted India from defending its position and pursuing its preferred policies.

India’s stature on the international stage has grown substantially in the past few decades. So have its relations with the United States, which now considers India a key partner in Asia. Therefore, on issues where the two sides have differing positions, discussions would likely be held behind closed doors, not in public.

Moreover, Harris, who sees herself as a possible future president of the United States, may refrain from taking “too critical” a stand against India for fear of jeopardizing her relationship with Delhi.

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Of course, the entire debate is premature, premised as it is on a still-hypothetical Democratic victory in the November 2020 presidential election. But as the situation pans out in the United States, Harris might be guided by pragmatism to be a long-term player rather than a fiery human rights activist who could burn herself out before 2024 — when she could be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

Pranay Sharma is a New Delhi-based commentator on strategic and foreign affairs.