United States Senator Kamala Harris’ run for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2020 presidential race, could split the Indian-American party faithfuls during the run-up to the nomination.
The candidacy of Harris, whose mother was Indian and father Jamaican, may have stirred underlying generational, and ideological fissures not just among mainstream Democratic Party voters, but also within the Indian-American community and possibly within other minority ethnic groups.
Where millennial Democrats may diverge along less or more Left-leaning candidates in the field, those in the somewhat older group in their 40s, including Obama supporters, could end up pitching for candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden if he joins the crowd, or even Texas Congressman Julian Castro, or first-to-declare Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And then there may be those who feel Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu-American to run for office and swear on the Bhagwat Gita, deserves their support. Other’s have been impressed by Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and yet others feel Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has been a long-time “India Friend.”
“There may be 22-35 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination ultimately, and we Indian-Americans are not a monolithic community,” concedes Shekar Narasimhan, founder and chair of the bipartisan Super-PAC, AAPI Victory Fund, and former Democratic National Committee member. “But here’s the thing – for once in our lifetime, we have a viable candidate (for President).” He dismisses, the candidacy of former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who he notes did not get more than 1 percent of the Republican vote when he ran for his party’s nomination. Harris on the other hand, is No. 5 on the list of Democratic contenders, Narasimhan says.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, described Harris as a “very impressive candidate,” but skirted around the issue of endorsing any Democrat for office. Not only was it too early, but he had at least 6 colleagues in the House planning a run for the party nomination. “But it’s really good to have a diverse range of people, and diverse range of views, so that voters in our party have a chance to choose the very best candidate against Donald Trump,” he says non-committal about his preference at this early stage.
“In my case it’s very important that the candidate set forth their vision for the country for 2024 and 2028 and beyond – and it is a vision for growing the middle class and being inclusive, not just on the Democratic side but also the Republican,” Krishnamoorthi told News India Times. With the number of candidates that will be in the fray, he said, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez told him the debates may be split into two stages. Harris, “Being of Indian descent, she is obviously a candidate a lot of Indian-Americans would be wanting to learn about,” Krishnamoorthi said.
“It’s wonderful that she (Harris) has joined and Tulsi has joined. Each person brings differences in terms of the norms – which is the history of this country – first Protestants, then a Catholic (John F. Kennedy), then the first divorcee (Ronald Reagan). So the more people run, each barrier gets clipped away,” said Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities.
“Kamala is already facing the ‘birther’ issue,” where like President Barack Obama, her American-ness is being questioned, Bhargava said, and Gabbard is being identified as having right-wing Hindu connections. “Kamala represents the future for the 2nd generation of Indian-Americans – an American-born, fully acclimated to the mainstream environment; whose mother tried to impart some Indian culture,” Bhargava says.
If Republican Nikki Haley enters the fray on the other side of the aisle, “We can take pride that we are not a marginalized, that we are part of the mainstream and that we vote on the record of that person and what they are going to do on issues you value,” Bhargava said. “I would support anyone I thought was aligned to my interest, my values, rather than just on ethnicity. But it makes me very proud that people of my ethnicity are there to diffuse the differences.”
Even if Harris does not fare well in the earliest primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, she would do well in South Carolina with its heavy African American voter population, observers contend. Then she goes on to Nevada, where according to Narasimhan, Latinos and Asian Americans make up 40 percent of the populations with Asian Americans alone making up 12 percent; After that its Super Tuesday at the end of March – California, Virginia, and North Carolina, where Narasimhan says he sees Harris winning a good standing in California.
“If she survives into March end, she could be the nominee,” Narasimhan maintains. “The bottom line is she is viable and at least positioned to win. And we (Indian-Americans) like winners.”
“I’ve been talking to alums of the Washington Leadership Program and they have been excited about her for a long time,” Harin Contractor of WLP, said of the young people who have attended this internship in Washington, D.C. “They admire her life of service, stories of her growing up, and the influence of her Indian mother, especially the women in our program are very attracted to her candidacy,” Contractor told News India Times.
But there’s another dimension to Kamala, says Amit Jani, founder of NJLead, an organization that helps prepare South Asians for political office. “A lot of people in the community may point to her not identifying as Indian. the fact that she was brought up by her Jamaican grandmother, and is more close to her Jamaican ties,” Jani observed. “At least one out of five Indian-Americans I have spoken to, mention how she hasn’t talked about her Indian heritage,” Jani says.
Harris for her part, has been following the playbook, another political activist said. Complaints that she had not acknowledged her Indian heritage enough, have been somewhat corrected over the last year or so, with some of her statements about her Indian mother’s strong influence, her childhood visit to India, etc. And she initiated her effort to become visible by being the Chief Guest at the high-profile non-profit Pratham USA event late last year. Now, she needs to build on that, say activists of all ages.
“Now Tulsi (Gabbard) talks openly about Hinduism. It will be interesting to see if Kamala will start talking about the Indian side of her background,” Jani, formerly in the South Asians for Hillary group, which now calls itself South Asians for America.
Jani believes Indian-Americans are now a political block to cultivate. “It will be interesting to see how she will approach the Indian community. If I was her consultant, I would encourage her to. Indian-Americans matter a lot – they are the fastest-growing ethnic group; have high socioeconomic status, are at federal and local levels, and a lot of politicians recognize that now they are more active, have more organizations, and more activists,” Jani asserts.
“She has work to do,” Narasimhan concedes about Kamala’s courting or lack thereof, of Indian-Americans. “For a considerable time she did not speak about her Indian heritage, which she began changing over the last year; Now she is appealing to the niches – Indians, Jamaicans, Asians, and in between, she’s written a book, raised the money….,” he notes. The Wall Street Journal reported Harris had raised $1.5 million within 24 hours of announcing her run.
“Now that the (Indian-American) community is acknowledging your heritage — you have to show up,” contends Narasimhan. “She’s got to show up,” he reiterates.
One of the first organizations to extend unqualified support to Harris, is the Indian American Impact Fund which declared its unqualified support for her, calling the announcement, “groundbreaking.”
“As the first viable Indian American candidate for President of the United States, she is a trailblazer for our community and a champion for our values. We applaud her decision and look forward to supporting her enthusiastically in the days and months ahead,” the Impact Fund said in a statement. This PAC is headed by New Jersey businessman Deepak Raj, who also heads Pratham USA.