What the Kamala Harris nomination means for the US and ties with India

For the kind of person she has shown to be in the little time she has shot into prominence, Senator Harris will be a leader in her own right pushing for the national interests of America, not of any other country, writes Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami for South Asia Monitor

Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami Aug 15, 2020
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Joseph Biden could not have done it better. He chose Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate from a pool of highly talented candidates that included whites, African Americans and women who were born to immigrants. But the critical thing to remember is that Biden chose Kamala Harris not just because she had Indian-Jamaican heritage so that he could benefit from the votes of African Americans and Asians. Many Asians and some African Americans will still cast their votes for Donald Trump. 

If 'color' was the only pre-requisite, Biden could have gone with Susan Rice, Val Demings, or Karen Bass; but the former vice president needed to have on his ticket an accomplished individual and that is what he got when asked Senator Harris to get on board.

Focus on Indian Americans

It is only natural that many Indian Americans in the United States are elated that Senator Harris is on the ticket. It is not a matter of pride only for the Indian American community but to all of Asians who have migrated and settled in America and made it their permanent homes. The Indian American community has undoubtedly done well and of late have come to be recognized as a political force. It is estimated that there are about 3.5 million Indian Americans, and by one count some 1.3 million eligible voters spread across America, particularly in the must-win swing states of the Midwest where in some the incumbent president barely won by a handful of votes. It is generally believed that a good majority of Indian Americans vote for Democrats, but it is difficult to imagine that those Republicans within the Indian community are all about to jump ship because of Senator Harris.

In all the excitement that has come about in the elevation of Senator Harris, many in the Indian American community as well as in this country have come to deeply analyze how it is that the 55-year-old who has roots in Chennai by way of her mother and someone who loves idlis, dosas and dhal could be beneficial or otherwise to India. Some have already started pouring into what the junior senator from California has said about India, particularly about Kashmir, trade and H1B visas and many a statement has been attributed to her in a pedestrian fashion at a time when the context is quite important. 

It is hard to recall the last time Senator Harris was subject to this kind of scrutiny, perhaps not even at the time when she ran for the Senate in 2017. To one set of people, Harris could be a “godsend” to India; but to some others, she could not even be considered “Indian” as her parents raised her as “black”. 

The analysis of Senator Harris’ position on India by Indian American community leaders—the real, imagined and the self-styled ones—is coming at a time when the right-wing extremists have started questioning the constitutional and legal basis of Senator Harris even being on the ticket. These “birthers”, it has to be recalled,  questioned the status of Barack Obama as having been born in Kenya until this fell flat on their faces when a Hawaiian birth certificate was produced of the former president. Even President Donald Trump has started flirting with this notion and must be elated to see the same group floating this idea again about Harris, even if it is nonsense and sidetrack the real issues facing the country. For the second time in less than a decade, Trump is willfully peddling garbage fully aware of what the 14th Amendment of the American constitution says. 

Impact on Indo-US ties

The knowledgeable in the Indian American community in America and in India would not go for any superficial assessment of Senator Harris. The Indian heritage that she is proud of and respects does not mean that it is going to be manna from heaven for India if Biden makes it to the White House after the November 3 election. The political and strategic relations between India and the United States have withstood the tests of time and across dispensations in Washington and New Delhi. 

There have been differences that still persist on matters of trade and investment; and New Delhi is not too thrilled at the manner in which the Trump administration has dealt with visas, either pertaining to students or the H1Bs. All these issues are not going to vanish overnight if Senator Harris becomes a vice president. Any thinking along these lines would only reflect a poor understanding of how the American system works, and in what it is the executive can and cannot do. 

In the context of the presidential election, the wiggle room for candidates is extremely limited given the competing interests that would have to be factored in while drafting the party platform.

A leader in her own right

President Obama leaned on his vice president on matters pertaining to foreign relations for the simple reason that Biden’s forte was foreign affairs as he sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years and even chaired the panel. Senator Harris’ strength is law and law enforcement and is expected to play a prominent role in domestic politics against the backdrop of the current troubled environment of racial equality and racial justice in the country. For the kind of person she has shown to be in the little time she has shot into prominence, Senator Harris will be a leader in her own right pushing for the national interests of America, not of any other country. But this does not and should not mean that she is incapable of understanding where the other side is coming from.

In wishing Senator Kamala Harris the very best of luck, well-meaning Indians in the United States and India should not play into the hands of narrow-minded chauvinists and extremists.  As it is President Trump is hammering away that electing Biden means the selling of America to China; and the last thing that needs to enter the mind of a self-proclaimed genius is of the Biden-Harris ticket planning to sell America, one half to China and the other to India!    

(The writer, a former senior journalist in Washington DC, is currently Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at sridhar54k@gmail.com.)