Kamala Harris is the Democratic vice-presidential candidate and the first Black and South Asian woman on a major party ticket in the USA. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to remark that she has dominated news cycles ever since Joe Biden declared her as his running mate. Op-eds scrutinising Harris’ journey in US politics and dissecting the implications of her Indo-Jamaican roots are flooding the news stream.
Across the globe, there is a palpable fixation on American politics owing to the preponderant position that the country occupies in the world. This, however, is not the only reason why Kamala Harris has invaded popular discourse in India. Born to a mother of Indian origin and a father of Jamaican origin, her candidature is of immense sociocultural significance to many Indians. India’s Brahminical social fabric makes it impossible for Indian savarnas—from the homeland and the diaspora—to not claim her as their own while simultaneously condemning some of her stances.
This article seeks to address the complexities surrounding Kamala Harris’ candidacy in terms of what it means to Indians, her murky track record and the politics surrounding her identity. It also intends to examine some of the paradoxes that her nomination presents.
Global Ambivalence About Her Candidature
Kamala Harris’ candidacy has evoked a divergent set of reactions from different parts of the world. A lot of Americans have expressed joy about her nomination although they are staunchly critical of her politics. The reason why these contradictions exist is because the primary goal of the progressive voter base is to replace the current occupant of the White House. The Biden-Harris duo offers a promising alternative to Americans despite not being devoid of problematic attributes.
Opponents on the far-right have indulged in Kamala Harris’ character assassination on several occassions. The incumbent president reportedly referred to her as “mean” and “nasty”. Right-wing commentators are highly critical of her Indo-Jamaican roots and have tried to conceive nativist arguments in an attempt to undermine her legitimacy. Through their enduring narrativisation, they intend to downplay the fact that she is quintessentially American.
It is interesting to note the manner in which her candidature has been perceived by upper-caste Indians. A distinct polarisation of opinion can be gauged. While one section of the community is keen on appropriating her and emphasising her Indian heritage, another section is critical of her “anti-Hindu” stance and has qualms about her competency. She embodies the third-culture-kid-dream for several young Indian Americans, but is not Indian enough in the eyes of certain other Indians—such is the dichotomy between the moderate and hardcore proponents of the Hindutva ideology. The latter tend to be pro-Republican given that both Trump and Modi are aligned in their Islamophobic agendas.
Problematic Track Record
Kamala Harris presents herself as a feminist crusader, but a closer look at her track record would reveal the fallacies in her narrative. She actively resisted efforts to decriminalise sex work by stating that it has contributed to the transmission of HIV/AIDS. She also failed to condemn sex crimes orchestrated against children by the Catholic Church.
During her days as a prosecutor, she was responsible for the establishment of an LGBTQ+ hate crime unit and also expressed support for marriage equality. However, her allyship to the queer community seems to be merely performative—she sought to deny an incarcerated trans woman gender-affirming health care. Further, she also neglected the rights of trans people nationwide.
Apart from being a staunch supporter of Israel and expressing apathy towards the occupied people of Palestine, she has also unironically used ‘top-cop’ as a self-descriptor. Her prosecutorial record reflects her anti-Black and sexist stances. This is owing to the racism implicit in the founding of the American police and prison institutions. Further, she did not oppose the death penalty. Black feminists have been highly critical of her contributions to systems that were specifically designed to cater to white individuals and discriminate against the rest. Her carceral feminism which sees punitive measures as the solution for everything has been condemned.
Kamala Harris’s candidature dangerously coincides with the politics of tokenism. “She is an illustrative example of the kind of empty, tokenistic brand of identity politics that this establishment uses to give its major figures political cover.”, writes Peter Bolton. While her identity as a biracial woman candidate sets a historical precedent, it cannot be used as an excuse to gloss over her problematic political agenda. As significant as representation is, it is important to reckon with the fact that it does not ensure liberation. Although she has claimed that she was just doing her job (one which required her to contribute to a structurally racist and sexist system), she must be held accountable for her actions.
In this video, American political activist Angela Davis succinctly explains that it is feminist to be able to work with the contradictions of Kamala Harris’s candidature.
The Upper-Caste Hindu Narrative
Identity can be complex and Kamala Harris’ identity bears testimony to this fact. Teemed with the exogamous marriage of her parents, biracial roots and immigration, her identity serves as an object of censure for her adversaries. Although she doesn’t neatly fit into the boxes of any one racial group, she has largely been perceived as Black in the United States—so much so that some mainstream American media houses have pretty much glossed over her Indian roots.
Before she was global news, she was barely vocal about her association with India let alone the rise of fascism in the country. Born to Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil Brahmin woman, Harris’s caste privilege grants her immense social capital which she has failed to acknowledge thus far. It was only after she landed the vice-presidential ticket that she publicly recounted fond memories of her time in India and was all praise for her Tamil ancestry. Her acknowledgement of her Indian roots thus appears to be a maneuver to secure the vote of the diaspora by appealing to their sociocultural sentimentality.
Moderate upper-caste Indian Americans have been quick to capitalise on her clout and claim her as their own. Their Indian counterparts have efficiently followed suit. Tamil Brahmins, in particular, have been fawning over Harris’s masala dosa video with Mindy Kaling and the latter’s utterance of the Tamil word chithi (meaning aunt) in one of her national addresses. In this process, however, they have harboured several hypocrisies. While they champion Kamala Harris (an American-born) for her Indianness, they have also routinely engaged in disparaging Sonia Gandhi (an Indian citizen) on the basis of her Italian descent.
In another instance, Sudha Ragunathan, a Brahmin classical vocalist, was denigrated for her daughter’s marriage to Michael Murphy, a man of African descent whereas Shyamala Gopalan’s exogamous marriage has been conveniently brushed aside. These double standards are reflective of the Brahminical ideals that caste Hindus hold dear.
Among the things that are especially worrisome about Kamala Harris’ candidature is her tacit endorsement of India’s growing Hindu nationalism. Although her self-constructed public image portrays her as a strong defender of human rights and democratic values, she has maintained a guarded silence in the face of state-sponsored violence targeted at India’s minorities. This is despite her past record of having taken vocal stands against repressive foreign leaders and powers, including China and Russia.
“The Democrats, and by extension Harris, have been further silenced by the threat of losing their Indian diaspora vote base, and cater as usual to the upper-caste Indians that wield political influence at the expense of marginalized members of the South Asian diaspora like Dalits, and Muslims, signaling to us that they do not, in fact, care about minorities, or human rights.”, writes Madhuri Sastry.
The Way Forward For Indians
Kamala Harris’s position with respect to India is largely ambiguous and India’s Ministry of External Affairs has not commented on her candidature either.
The section of the Indian diaspora which unquestioningly pledges its allegiance to the Democratic Party and rejoices at Kamala Harris’ nomination fails to exhibit a nuanced understanding of three things.
The first is that she mirrors her supporters’ own biases—she claims to be a human rights defender while choosing to turn her back on the rampant human rights violations in India. The second is that her candidature plays right into the politics of tokenism—she is an actor recruited from a marginalised background who will invariably contribute to inherently discriminatory systems. The third and arguably the most crucial point to note is that Kamala Harris is an American politician who extends her services to the United States. It is highly unlikely that the ‘special’ place she harbours for India in her heart would be reflected in her politics.
Therefore, a monolithic view cannot be held towards Kamala Harris’ candidacy. It, in fact, needs to be analysed through varying lenses. If elected, she must be pressured to do better—therein lies the essence of democracy.