New Delhi (Sputnik): Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s announcement about selecting US Senator Kamala Harris as his 2020 running mate has already created a stir in the election race. The daughter of an Indian-born mother and Jamaican father is known for being vocal on matters like racial justice.
The phone kept ringing the whole morning with congratulatory calls at the house of Gopalan Balachandran, Kamala Harris’ maternal uncle, in Delhi on Wednesday following the news that US Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden had named her as his running mate. Balachandran has termed Biden’s decision as a “historic day for the Indian community”.
Even though Harris is known as a black politician who has lived an African American life, her Indian roots cannot be ignored when the Indian-American diaspora is comprised of 2.4 million people in the US, the second-largest immigrant group after Mexicans.
“Being the first south Asian woman to be nominated as a major party’s vice presidential candidate is in itself reflective of the rising political relevance of the Indian-American diaspora and the community”, says Kashish Parpiani, a research fellow at the think tank Observer Research Foundation having expertise in US foreign policy in the Asia⎯Pacific region.
Embracing her Indian roots, Harris explains the meaning of her name Kamala in her autobiography “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey” as “lotus flower”, which holds immense significance in Indian culture. With roots embedded in a river bottom, growing underwater, the flower then rises above the surface.
Raised by a single Hindu mother, a cancer researcher and a civil rights activist, Harris, last year during her short run in the 2020 presidential primaries, posted a video on her YouTube channel with Indian-American comedian and actress Mindy Kaling where the two discussed her Indian roots, Indian dishes such as potato curry, dal, idli, and rice while reminiscing about her visits to the country as a kid.
Before becoming Biden’s running mate, Harris was among his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination but she had to withdraw due to lack of funds in December 2019.
Will Harris Bring in Votes From the Indian Diaspora?
Last year, US President Donald Trump participated in the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, Texas, which was widely interpreted as an effort to win the support of Indian-American voters in the US polls.
While Trump’s 2016 election campaign witnessed a strong gathering from conservative Hindus, with the emergence of groups such as the Republican Hindu Coalition group, Indian Americans for Trump, and Hindus for Trump, 80 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, as per a polling exercise undertaken by the Asian American Legal Defence organisation.
However, Trump’s efforts have shown that the vote of the Indian diaspora is worth vouching for as they are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the US, who register and vote at high rates, but does Harris’ nomination change things for Republicans? According to the 2010 United States Census, the Asian Indian population grew at a growth rate of 69.37%, one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country.
Sreeram Chaulia, dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs from O.P. Jindal Global University, feels Harris’ nomination is only going to be celebrated in terms of general ethnic pride but it’s not going to translate into voting behaviour.
Stressing her biracial identity, Chaulia says: “She is not fully Indian, she has emphasised more on her African origin. The Biden camp is looking at Black votes in important industrial states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, in these places Asian votes don’t matter”.
“Indians on the East Coast and West Coast like California, New York, New Jersey, those Indian-Americans tend to be pro-Democratic but they are now no longer necessarily in the majority. Anyway, the African American vote is much bigger than the Indian-American one”, he says.
Chaulia also highlights a sharp swing to the right among Indian-American voters. “There are large segments of Indian-Americans who now support Trump, especially in Texas and southern states of the US like Florida, Georgia, where the oil and gas sector is highly subsidised by Trump. Indian-American voters are no longer safely liberal, like they used to be in the past. They are not going to go by ethnic identity. Trump has favoured them with a high income category and tax break”, he says.
As per the expert, Trump’s stand on Islam and China are other factors causing a conservative swing among Indian-American voters. Harris has been vocal about her positions on the communication blockades in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been termed anti-Muslim in India.
“We have to remind the Kashmiri people that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands”, Harris said last October while talking about the abrogation of Article 370. Harris openly supported Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, when she introduced a resolution on Kashmir. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar even refused to meet Jayapal.
But these concerns are not just limited to Harris, Biden himself has been critical of India, which ORF research scholar Parpiani explains as “his political bargaining with the progressive community of the Democratic Party which is led by the likes of Bernie Sanders”.
Is Biden-Kamala Team Raising Alarm in New Delhi?
In June, Biden released the Agenda for Muslim-American Communities as part of his political campaign, wherein he described Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and National Register of Citizens as religious issues. “These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy”, Biden was quoted as saying.
As per tradition India has asked other countries and its leaders to refrain from commenting on the nation’s internal matters but Biden coming to power may change US-India relations, which are witnessing new developments every day amid a trade war with China.
Paripiani stresses that Biden speaks of America’s role in moralistic terms (“The United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example”).
“The push for a greater role for values also stems from their abhorrence of Trump’s values-bereft ‘America First’ conduct of foreign policy, as they allege in the case of his administration’s response to the Kashmir matter”, Paripiani underscored.
Optimistic about his niece’s run with Biden in the elections, Balachandran, a strategic analyst, believes there are certain areas where the vice presidential candidate will hold her ground on India-US relations. However, he also underlines that one or two persons cannot change the dynamics of this relationship.
“India-US relations are well beyond one senator or even the president. The India-US caucus is the biggest caucus. There is a need for some tweaking here and there, that she will do”, Balachandran was quoted as saying by news website India Today.