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Difficult choice


Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris. (Photo: Twitter@JoeBiden)

Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate for Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden may affect the party divide among Indian-Americans

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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, selected by Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden as his running mate, has stepped into the crosshairs of the ideological divide in the Indian-American community and could well affect the current configuration.

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While there has always been a schism within this community along party lines with a majority voting Democratic, the Republican segment is now also driven by Harris’ stand on foreign policy issues relating to India. It is also influenced by the GOP criticism of her as a radical left leaning politician.

Meanwhile, the ‘independents’ or ‘undecideds’, of which there are more than 30 percent according to a 2016 Asian American Survey, could prove fluid and some possibly be drawn to the Democratic ticket by Harris’ Indian heritage, or driven away as much by her recent pronouncements on India.

There are probably as many different lenses through which Harris is seen as there are sides to her personality – a highly qualified attorney, former Attorney General of California, the only Indian-American in the U.S. Senate, a liberal leader on women’s issues, voting rights, health care, climate change etc., a multi-racial woman of Indian and Caribbean heritage.

The radical left have critiqued Harris for not being left enough; Liberals, on the other hand, have an unqualified ‘yes’ for her candidacy; and the right considers Harris too Left.

One opinion writer in Canada said Harris would be considered a ‘moderate Conservative’ in Canada and Europe.

For mainstream Americans, the fact that Harris may be two-steps away from the Presidency right now and one-step away if the Biden-Harris ticket ends up winning, is a source of some anxiety on one side and joy on the other.

For most Indian-Americans, as a whole, other aspects of foreign policy, such as issues surrounding immigration including family reunification, skilled worker visas, students wanting to study here, or already here having spent millions to enroll, as well as trade, and business, down to the nitty-gritty of grocery prices, bread and butter issues, are of utmost concern.

Reams have already been written about every tweet from India, Indians, Americans, Indian-Americans, celebrities, influencers in every field from Top Chefs to Bollywood, CEOs and ‘aunties’ around the United States and India, on what essentially does Kamala Harris represent.

Indian-American PACs like IMPACT, led by Neil Makhija, have gained prominence overnight in the mainstream, as have a number of other Indian-American talking heads, and professors at universities, who can pronounce on the impact of some aspect of Harris’ candidacy.

Left, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, when she was a toddler, with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who came to study in America and decided to remain here and marry Donald Harris. Right, Kamala Harris as a child. (Photo Left -Twitter@KamalaHarris ; Photo Right – Courtesy: Facebook)

Indian Heritage Card

The day after her acceptance speech as Vice Presidential running mate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris’ first post on Facebook next day, was the photo of her as a toddler with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and the comment, “My mother always use (sic) to say, “Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.” I dearly wish she were here with us this week.”

Harris continuously identifies her mother as being from India and puts up many pictures on her Facebook pages about her Indian grandfather and family in India, accepting deep emotional ties with her mother but not articulating it to the same extent with her mother’s motherland.
Harris walks a fine line in how she identifies herself in the ultimate analysis.

This duality has been one of the major issues Indian-Americans – both Republicans and Democrats – had mentioned to this writer early on when Harris decided to run for President — the daughter of an Indian mother did not identify enough with her Indian roots or identity, was their complaint.

Democrats don’t worry anymore about the Indian heritage being in the background in light of numerous references of her mother being the driving force inspiring her life of public service.

However, Harris rarely if ever has described herself as an ‘Indian-American’ despite her early life and visits to India, her love of daal, making masala dosa with filmmaker, author and actress Mindy Kaling.

In her acceptance speech for the nomination the day before, Aug. 12, 2020, Harris clearly referred to herself without qualification as a “black woman”.

“And today, he (Joe Biden) takes his place in the ongoing story of America’s march toward equality and justice, as the only, as the only who has served alongside the first black president and has chosen the first black woman as his running mate,” Harris said.

Record On India

The other fault line in the Indian-American community lies along concern over whether Harris would be ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ India – or rather whether she would be good for U.S.-India bilateral relations, or the current administration in India.

For Republican Indian-Americans, Harris’ record is not good. Some Indian-Americans have expressed trepidation about U.S.-India bilateral relations if Biden and Harris win the Presidential election. Harris has shown a lack of diplomacy in her public statements about India and its concerns.

“It’s a welcome choice for Vice President. She’s the first black woman selected for this position, which is extraordinary,” noted Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, founder of the Parikh Foundation for India’s Global Development and chairman of Parikh Worldwide Media and ITV Gold. “However her thinking and philosophy is against India’s interests,” he contended. “She was a strong opponent of revoking Article 370 on Kashmir. And she criticized India’s foreign minister,” Dr. Parikh said.

Harris had taken a strong stand on Kashmir in October 2019, when she was a Presidential candidate.

When asked about the human rights situation in Kashmir, she had responded, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

Later in December, Harris expressed her displeasure with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar who was visiting Washington, D.C., and opted out of a meeting with U.S. lawmakers because the group included Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, a vocal critic of India’s Kashmir policy and of rights of minorities in India.

“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris said.

Now those words are here to stay among Republican Indian-Americans.

Puneet Ahluwalia, a Republican, and founder of Proud American PAC, a registered organization, added more points to Harris’ record on India. “She has chosen to pick on India when convenient. She had nothing to say when China attacked India on the border; nothing on terrorism against India sponsored by Pakistan.” Ahluwalia said.

Her nomination, “is basically a de-facto President being nominated to play the race card,” Ahluwalia added. “We see the failed policies she implemented in California and was very hard on minorities prosecuting more African Americans and Asian Americans while in office,” he contended.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign event, on her first joint appearance with presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden after being named by Biden as his running mate, at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 12, 2020. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Bringing In The Vote

Indian Americans in general also seem to be affected by Harris being on the ticket.

Wall Street Journal quoted Shekar Narasimhan, founder of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC that helps elect Asian-Americans, saying he was being approached by Indian-American voters and donors now activated by the ticket, wanting to know how to help the Democratic ticket.

Narasimhan earlier drew the attention of the Democratic Party higher-ups by showing how Indian-Americans could affect the outcome in swing states where vote margins were small enough for the voters among them to make a difference, Narasimhan had told this reporter July 20, 2020 in an interview.

Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan of University of California, Riverside, founder of AAPIData and director of the Asian American Voters Survey told The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, he expects a Harris candidacy to draw in more Indian-American youth and Independents.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s tweet about how Biden had “nailed this decision” and now has an “ideal partner” to face the challenges, still holds water with some younger Indian-Americans.

“I’ve known Senator @KamalaHarris for a long time. She is more than prepared for the job. She’s spent her career defending our Constitution and fighting for folks who need a fair shake. This is a good day for our country,” Obama said.

Divided We Stand

In the mainstream, opinions about the Democratic Presidential ticket are so far apart, they sound like the race is happening in two different countries.

For its part, the Democratic National Committee declared on Twitter, “In 83 days, voters can elect a ticket that will get to work from day one. @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris are the duo best equipped to recover our economy from recession and respond to the cries for racial justice that are ringing across our nation.”

The Republican Party has described the Biden-Harris ticket as that of radicals controlled by ‘left-wing mobs’.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s official statement on the occasion reads: “A hiding, diminished, and incoherent Joe Biden didn’t just select a vice-presidential candidate, he chose the person who would actually be in charge the next four years if he is somehow able to win. Kamala Harris’ extreme positions, from raising taxes to abolishing private health insurance to comparing law enforcement officials to the KKK, show that the left-wing mob is controlling Biden’s candidacy, just like they would control him as president. These radical policies might be popular among liberals, but they are well outside the mainstream for most Americans.”

Indian American undecided voters may also be divided, some influenced by Harris’ public statements and remarks, and some by her statements on India. Going by a 2018 Asian voter survey, Indian-Americans are not a monolithic vote, even among the uncommitted.

A 2018 Asian American Voter Survey released Oct. 9, 2018, showed a high proportion, 90 percent, of the registered Indian-Americans said they will exercise their franchise, a good sign so far as the community’s clout is concerned.

Ramakrishnan’s 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey showed that Party Identification among Indian-American voters was 46 percent Democrat, 19 percent Republican, and hefty 35 percent Independent (NAAS-post-election-report.pdf). The 35 percent undecided may have come down, analysts like Ramakrishnan feel, especially with Harris on the ticket.

But the existence of an ‘independent’ vote still leaves room for both sides of the ideological divide, to lobby the fence-sitters among Indian-Americans.

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