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Kamala Harris and Her Race to the White House

At one level, we are a simple, sentimental lot. When our cricketers return after a win abroad, thousands greet them with garlands at the airport and great men tweet their praise. If, God forbid, they lose, they have to smuggle themselves back home through some side exit, and wait for the storm of despair to pass.

Those who remember international hockey matches will recall how Hindi commentators staked “Bharat ki laaj” on every run a forward made towards the opponent’s goal. And so, if the run failed, it was not just a hockey ball but the nation’s honour that rolled despondently over the sidelines. We do the same when foreigners of Indian extraction – astronauts, scientists, Nobel prize winners, writers – succeed.

They are feted on national television, ancestral villages are visited by breathless TV reporters and obscure relatives are interviewed until these embarrassed souls, who have tried so hard to be true citizens of some other country, are desperate to shake off the cloying hug of Indianness.

We are doing something like that now to Kamala Devi Harris.

Everything that she ever said about India, okra and her Indian mother’s influence is all over our papers. We also have an uncle – who hasn’t spoken to her for a year – giving us insights into her thinking.

A video in which she interacts with an Indian origin actor making dosas has surfaced, where she admits that she’s never made a dosa. Diaspora WhatsApp groups are ecstatic about her selection with the sub-text that it is an endorsement of their own success.

It is time to get a little real, though, as this will not win me a popularity contest.

While brown is attractive, America is about Black and White. Race is tearing that country apart. The Black Lives Matter movement is in full swing. Trumps racial baiting, on top of mishandling of the pandemic, has put him on the electoral back-foot.

Joe Biden, with an imperfect record on race, needs a Black face to strengthen his ticket. Besides, the #MeToo movement has put the gender issue right up front to a point that Biden actually reserved the Veep slot for a woman. African American women have been the bedrock of the Democratic party for years; now they want a leadership role.

Biden’s Choice of a ‘Proud Black Woman’

Over 100 Black celebrities, athletes and academics wrote to Biden, demanding that he choose an African American woman for the job. Black votes saved his faltering campaign in South Carolina in the early stages and could deliver Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which Trump took last time because of an indifferent Democrat turnout.

Biden himself interviewed the five Black women shortlisted by his team. Clearly, Harris has been selected as a Black woman from a limited college of Black women, and that is how she will be projected as the campaign progresses.

And, honestly, Black is how she largely projects herself. That’s politically savvy: historically, in America, it is Black that is the counterpoint in the race debate; brown and yellow are only sidelights.

Brought up, by her own admission, with her sister as “proud Black women” Kamala absorbed her parents’ commitment to the civil rights movement, sang in a Black church choir, went to the historically Black Howard University in Washington DC and joined the country’s oldest Black sorority. When asked about her Black heritage, she said, “It affects everything about who I am.”

Recently, she has been a strong voice on race and police brutality; her new plan is titled “How to Stand Up for Black America.” In primary debates, she twice scored over Biden, both times with a Black identity: First, she attacked him for segregationist sympathies and projected herself as the little girl going to a racially integrated school; next, when he mentioned Carol Braun as the only Black woman to enter the Senate, she interjected “I’m right here.” Her political hero is Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to mount a Presidential campaign.

Human Rights Will Come Before Her Indian Origins None of this is meant to detract from her extraordinary achievement. Harris has shattered a very high glass ceiling and could be the leading Democrat Presidential candidate in 2024. Her competence and her tenacity are not in doubt, nor is her Indian connection. She is also a talented fund-raiser and it is also perfectly plausible that Indian Americans with deep pockets will be able to open doors to her, even though her relations with Bay area desis have not been too cosy.

The purpose here is only to tone down unreasonable expectations. If Biden wins, Harris will play an important role on India policy and will strongly espouse mainstream Democrat concerns; even Uncle Balachandran has said her human rights will come before her Indian origins.

With a concerted effort, it should be possible to manage these concerns within the undeniable broader logic of the strategic relationship without loading too many expectations on Harris.

If we can wrap our head around that reality, we will not be disappointed the first time she makes a statement that we don’t like on human rights or civil rights or Kashmir. If we don’t throw a national party, we will not suffer a national heartbreak.


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