Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he has chosen Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his vice-presidential running mate. While this was met with applause from the world over, Indians particularly couldn’t keep calm! Reason being, Harris has origins in Indian soil and Biden’s decision is a testament to how Indian heritage is starting to become a part of the Superpower’s politics.
The story of Kamala Harris
It all begins with the story of a Tamil Brahmin girl, who was the daughter of a middle-class civil servant posted in Delhi. This unassuming young lady went on to embark on an extraordinary adventure, which would years later play a significant role in world politics. At a time when Indian girls rarely went abroad for higher education, and rarely pursued research in the STEM areas, Shyamala Gopalan, not quite 20, moved to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue her scientific career in cancer research. There, she found a home within the Bay Area's vibrant Black community, which welcomed her with open arms.
Gopalan became an active civil rights crusader, while she undertook her studies. She met her first love in the movement, a Jamaican economics student named Donald Harris. Kamala Harris was the product of this extraordinary tale, of a woman who left behind home, in search of greater things.
She points out in her autobiography, ‘The Truths We Hold’, “These were my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family; they were her family –- and she was theirs. My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew her adopted homeland would see [us]… as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
Shyamala fought for the principles of inclusion, justice, fair play, the role of civil resistance and respect for the dignity of human lives in it, with a sense of moderation and compassion. These very ideals are rooted in our motherland’s struggle for independence and through the years, these fostered Kamala Harris’ upbringing.
Political figures sense that if Harris were to become the vice-President, she may be the most well-versed person in Biden’s team, who is familiar with Indian issues.
Harris still in touch with Indian roots
She has been visiting her grandparents’ home in Tamil Nadu regularly since her childhood and has often spoken about her Indian heritage. Having gone on to joke about how her love for idli sambar was because of her mother, Harris spoke of how her ‘Indian’ness was majorly influenced by this woman. In a memoir, Harris wrote “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”
In fact, along with this cultural affinity, Harris does share a geopolitical one too and has often vocalised her views on subjects concerning Indian politics.
While Nations worldwide debated the abrogation of Article 370 and long-lasting impact it would have, Harris after weighing in on the situation in Kashmir, was quoted saying “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.” This was in response to a question about Kashmir’s ‘human rights abuses’.
In December 2019, Harris came out in support of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, another Indian-American, whom Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had refused to meet. This supposedly due to her views on the Modi government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir. Jayapal had earlier moved a resolution on Kashmir in the House.
“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris tweeted.
What could Biden-Harris administration influence US-India relationship
Senior journalists have highlighted that the possible administration of Biden-Harris, will be of paramount importance in controlling the sway of the Indo-US relations. “While it was prudent (and opportunistic) for New Delhi to have invested in the narcissism of Trump, it may also be a moment to revisit and reflect on the idea that only the present incumbent can deliver on the promise of bilateral relations. ”
Scrutinising how the last four years of the Indo-US relationship has shaped up, it hasn’t been promising. Amitabh Mattoo, Professor of International Relations at the JNU says “For all the highs of the extravaganzas at Motera or Houston, the Trump administration’s policies have been premised on America First in a manner in which our immediate neighbourhood, especially Afghanistan, has been unsettled, and also has had a deep impact on skilled unemployment of Indian workers in the US under HIB visas”.
While it is still too early to predict the contours of what a potential Biden–Harris administration will evoke, the scene does seem favourable for India, if the pair come to power.
Kamala Harris strived to introduce reforms
Harris previously called out the political powers in the US for revoking the ‘right of spouses of H-1B visa holders to seek employment’. She wrote, “This is outrageous & will force immigrant women who are doctors, nurses, scientists & academics, among others, to abandon their professional careers. I called on DHS last year to withdraw this proposal & will continue to fight this.”
The green-card debate
Similarly, Harris had called for the elimination of country quotas for getting green cards. The US issued a total of 1,127,167 green cards in the fiscal year 2017. According to the prevailing system, it allows for citizens of any one country to be granted 7 per cent of all available green cards.
Prior to these country caps, there was a quota system which was based on national origin. This tied the number of immigrants admitted from any country to past census counts of how many immigrants of their nationality were already living in the US. However, this quota system was done away with as it opened the door to more immigrants outside Northern Europe than any other country. The country caps were intended to ensure that there was a diversity of nationality among those allowed to immigrate to the US. However, these were denounced too due to their discriminatory nature toward nations like India and China, which face much longer green card backlogs than any other country.
The bill — introduced by Sens. Kamala Harris was an attempt to address this issue, raising the cap for any country to 15 per cent for family-based green cards and doing away with it entirely for employment-based green cards.
The bill would effectively send nationals of India and China, who have been waiting for years for a chance to apply for green cards, to the front of the line. This would mean that other countries such as Canada and Argentina would be likely see increased wait times. The bill though failed on the Senate floor, was a part of the cluster of instances where Harris worked in the favour of the Indian people.
It remains to be seen exactly how presidential politics in the pentagon will play out. But it is safe to say, Harris could be a ray of hope for Indians.