Kamala Harris fever is gripping India – but not everyone is convinced

Stuti Mishra
·4-min read
US Democratic vice presidential nominee and senator, Kamala Harris (AFP/Getty)
US Democratic vice presidential nominee and senator, Kamala Harris (AFP/Getty)

With a week to go until the US election, the Democrat making the most headlines in India is not the main challenger Joe Biden, but his running mate Kamala Harris.

The prospect of an Indian-American being named vice president of the US is creating a huge splash back in the country where Ms Harris’s mother was born.

But while many here are already hailing her as a future president in waiting, there are also some concerns – particularly in nationalist quarters – that having Ms Harris in the White House might actually do little to smooth relations between Washington and Delhi.

Kamala Devi Harris, as she was named by her Tamil mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, has said plenty in the past year about her Indian heritage. Speaking to The Independent in Delhi, her uncle Gopalan Balachandran said proudly that “whatever she [Ms Harris] has learnt about India, she has learnt from my father [her grandfather] and my sister [her mother]”.

Though she has not spoken out at length on domestic Indian politics, Ms Harris has signalled a belief in an inclusive, pro-human rights vision of the country. After the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status by Delhi last year, she told a crowd in Texas that it was up to America “to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world”.

“She has been taught not to get hung up on religion or colour,” her uncle said.

The excitement around Ms Harris has sparked TV news coverage of everything from her childhood, to the places she has visited in India. A 2019 video that the Democrat made with comedian Mindy Kaling, in which they talked about their Indian heritage and cooked the south Indian favourite dosas, is still being widely shared among WhatsApp groups.

Shashi Tharoor, a senior MP with the opposition Congress party in India, said a Biden-Harris victory “would inspire Indian-Americans”.

He told The Independent: “[Ms Harris’s] first-hand knowledge of India and Indian culture adds shared affinities to the relationship. It’s clear India won’t be overlooked, let alone forgotten, in an administration of which she is a senior member.”

Support for Ms Harris in India also cuts across the ideological divide, says media studies professor and Observer Research Foundation fellow Maya Mirchandani. “When we see somebody from the community getting into positions of prominence in politics, it becomes a statement of pride. Very often the Democrat and Republican divide, even within the Indo-American community tends to break down.”

At the same time, the fact that Ms Harris identifies herself first as Black rather than Indian-American – her father is Jamaican – may have tempered the adulation she might otherwise have enjoyed in South Asia. “Indian-Americans are not entirely sure if they can appropriate her culturally and ethnically, because she herself hasn’t allowed that,” Mirchandani said.

That uncertainty manifests itself in different ways – Google Trends data show search in India for “what is the religion of Kamala Harris” spiked enormously in recent months, particularly around 12 August when Mr Biden named her his running mate.

It perhaps explains why statements attacking Ms Harris and mispronouncing her name from Donald Trump – who has at the same time carefully cultivated a “bromance” with India’s Narendra Modi – didn’t generate the outrage one might have expected here.

All things considered, there are plenty of people in India, not least those well connected to Modi’s ruling party, who would prefer Mr Trump to Ms Harris, whatever her roots.

Indian author and journalist Sandipan Deb describes Ms Harris as someone “who works only for herself” and as a “bad news for everyone, not just India”.

“She (Ms Harris) denies her Indian origins, except when it comes to raising funds and getting votes from Indian-Americans,” he told The Independent.

“Biden is probably more pro-India than Harris,” said Bharat Barai, an Indian-American businessman who played a key role in organising the “Howdy Modi” rally with Mr Trump and the Indian prime minister in Houston, Texas, in September last year.

“In all her career, she hasn’t done anything pro-India,” he said.

Ultimately, Mr Tharoor says the only Indians not enthusiastic about Ms Harris’s possible election are “those who realise that Kamala Harris will not be a rubber stamp for everything the Indian government does”.

While Mr Trump has been “uncritical of Mr Modi’s domestic politics”, Mr Tharoor welcomed the idea that Ms Harris was “bound to be a strong voice for democracy and human rights". “When you care about a country, you won’t be indifferent to it, and are more likely to take a stand on issues agitating the community,” he said.

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