The complex role of Kamala Harris amid India’s anguish

Vice President Kamala Harris is shown during the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 19, 2021. Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

Shortly after giving a May 7 speech detailing the administration’s effort to combat the coronavirus surge in India, Vice President Kamala Harris got on the phone for another conversation about the virus’s spread there – this time, to her aunt and uncle in her mother’s home country.

They told her they were healthy, according to several people with knowledge of the call, but that nearly everyone they knew had a friend or relative battling an infection.

As India has taken on the dubious title of worldwide coronavirus epicenter – with more than 26 million cases reported since Feb. 29, along with more than 307,000 deaths- Harris, the highest-ranking U.S. official of Indian descent in history, is navigating an issue simultaneously personal and political. And the verdict from the Indian American community is mixed.

In the United States, where vaccines are plentiful, inoculated Americans now have a green light to gather without masks in most places, a big step toward normalcy. But the country Harris’s mother left in 1958 is struggling with a woefully inadequate vaccination program, as hospital systems collapse under the pressure and thousands die each day, including a world-record 4,500 deaths last Wednesday. Hundreds of bodies have been found floating in the Ganges River.

Caught between those two worlds is a groundbreaking politician – the highest-ranking Asian American as well as the first Black person and the first woman to serve as vice president – who has spent her career deflecting efforts to define her solely through her identity, Indian or otherwise.

Harris has said little publicly about the devastation in India; her few brief comments have often come during events on other subjects, and she has rarely referred to her personal connection to the country during the crisis.

Indian Americans are deeply divided on everything from the rise of Hindu nationalism to the dispute over Kashmir. But the widespread catastrophe inflicted by the coronavirus has united the community in anguish, and many are looking for leadership from a vice president who shares their origins and anxieties.

More than 20 Indian Americans interviewed for this story – including community leaders, political activists, public officials and others – said conversations about Harris’s role in response to India’s suffering, and whether she should be doing more, have intensified in tandem with the crisis.

A man drives past a banner of U.S. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris at the entrance to the village of Thulasendrapuram, where Harris’ maternal grandfather was born and grew up, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, India, October 25, 2020. REUTERS/Sudarshan Varadhan

Some are disappointed that she has not been a more prominent advocate, especially after she celebrated her identity while wooing Indian American voters in 2020.

“It really teaches us the limits to representation,” said Sujatha Shenoy, a 53-year-old business student at the University of Chicago, who wrote a blistering column about Harris’s initial silence on the crisis. “She is positioned as a lot of things to a lot of people. If you say you are representing this specific facet, you have to speak up when that facet – the population – is hurting.”

Aditi Kharod, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, said she appreciated the rise of a woman of Indian heritage to the vice presidency, but that the representation “rang hollow” during India’s suffering.

Kharod blasted Harris’s response in the college newspaper, citing a tweet that Kharod described as “impersonal” and pointing to Harris’s description of the situation as a tragedy, which Kharod dismissively likened to saying, “That sucks.”

“I thought she might speak about it with some more emotion, considering she has family there,” Kharod said in an interview. “It would show that this is the reason why it’s important to have diversity at all levels of government.” As Harris began to address the crisis a little more, Kharod softened some of her criticism.

Harris’s critics say she could have used her platform to bring greater attention to India’s pain. They acknowledge the administration’s eventual relief efforts, but say she should have pressed harder to share vaccines with other countries, using her personal story to undercut an “America first” mentality. Beyond her low public profile, they argue there is little evidence Harris has done much behind the scenes.

But others warn against a critique that implies Harris is torn between America’s interests and India’s needs, characterizing that as a false choice. Harris’s actions on India, they say, are inherently limited by President Biden’s larger agenda, just as they would be for any vice president.

Some Harris supporters said any politician who is cultivating a broad national base could suffer from a reputation as a vocal advocate for one particular group.

“I think as an Indian American, what would be the most helpful thing is if she is a very good vice president,” said Shareen Punian, who held a fundraiser for Harris during the 2010 campaign for California attorney general. “That integrates us as Indians into the broader American community, and we don’t have to be singled out as being different.”

The White House declined to make Harris available for an interview for this story.

Two administration officials with knowledge of Harris’s actions argue that she has been an important part of the internal White House conversation about the India crisis. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive internal policy discussions.

The President’s Daily Brief, an intelligence update that Harris receives alongside Biden each morning, invariably includes information about the outbreak in India, and Harris has been involved in most of the higher-level conversations about the response, the officials said, including the decision to send oxygen and therapeutics to the country. The United States is also providing ventilators, personal protective equipment and raw materials for vaccines.

More recently, the administration threw its support behind a World Trade Organization proposal to waive intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines, allowing countries like India to quickly produce generic versions.

This debate is unfolding against the backdrop of an Indian American population that is expanding and becoming more established. The community has grown to more than 4.5 million from 2 million two decades ago, according to the Pew Research Center, and more than half of its members have lived in the United States for more than 10 years.

The group also leans heavily toward the Democratic end of the political spectrum. According to one study conducted shortly before the last election, 78 percent of Indian Americans planned to vote for Biden and 22 percent for then-President Donald Trump.

Whatever her private involvement, Harris has commented sparingly on India’s coronavirus disaster over the past couple weeks, as the administration has faced other crises. She joined fellow administration officials in tweeting support for India on April 25 and called the crisis “heartbreaking” at a virtual State Department event.

But her public statements have rarely emphasized her personal connections to the country, and administration officials could not cite a particular policy or action that bears Harris’s signature. She did not mention India’s battle with the pandemic in a Wednesday speech at the AAPI Victory Alliance Unity Summit, where the super PAC’s Indian American chairman introduced her as “one of our own.”

Several activists said they did not want Harris to share the fate of former president Barack Obama, who they said was unfairly hit by criticism from some African Americans that he did not sufficiently embrace Black causes. The activist Cornel West once described Obama as”a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs,” while civil rights leader Jesse Jackson criticized him for “acting like he’s white.”

Some warned against expectations that Harris embody – and give voice to – all the pent-up aspirations of the Indian American community.

Gopalan Balachandran, maternal uncle of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) talks to media outside his house in New Delhi, India, August 12, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

“We as Indian Americans have been shut out of the halls of power, as other minority groups have, and now that we have someone who’s got a name that is deeply familiar, has got family in India – that person represents this aspiration that we have that we want to be part of the conversation,” said Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “And I love that. I think that’s wonderful.”

He added, “But I think we have to just be thoughtful about how we translate that into specific expectations of specific individuals.”

Still, Harris’s low profile contrasts with the approach of the four Indian Americans in Congress, who are navigating some of the same political crosscurrents but have been among the loudest voices asking for aid to India. The quartet were among the first to call for American medical assistance to India, appearing in emotional segments on cable television well before the Biden administration decided to send surplus vaccines.

“I can’t remember in my lifetime an issue where literally every Indian American is affected – they have a cousin, they have an aunt, they have an elderly relative dying and in all these cases, they can’t go back to see them,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “There was visible advocacy by Indian American members of Congress in mobilizing all our resources.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., tweeted that “India needs our help – and it’s our moral responsibility to rise to the challenge.”

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., the longest-serving Indian American in Congress, said he raised the Indian situation directly with Harris during a recent meeting she held with Asian American lawmakers, as they discussed sharing vaccines and how to mobilize the Indian diaspora to help the nation of 1.3 billion.

While Harris may have a personal connection to India, Bera stressed, that does not mean U.S. policy toward the country is solely her responsibility. He added that he believes Harris is advocating behind the scenes, though he did not know specifics – an assessment shared by other members of Congress.

“I know she’s incredibly passionate about her Indian heritage and her Indian roots,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. “And I know she is fighting for assistance and aid and wants to make sure India, like any other hard-hit country, receives the assistance it should.”

Sangay Mishra, a professor at Drew University who has written about the political role of Indian Americans in the United States, said savvy Indian American activists want to avoid a debate over whether Harris is standing up sufficiently for her Indian heritage.

Adding to the complexity, Harris has openly and vocally embraced her Black identity, for example by attending the historically black Howard University and joining an African American sorority. But Mishra warned against parsing her loyalties.

“Some people try to push that kind of conversation, trying to frame her in exclusivist terms that she is either Black or she is Asian American,” Mishra said, but he believes more sophisticated activists “are not interested in pushing that narrative.”

In her 2018 book, Harris wrote about her Indian heritage and recounted the experience of growing up biracial in the San Francisco Bay area. But in interviews, she said she never underwent the kind of soul-searching journey that Obama, the son of a White woman from Kansas and a Black man from Kenya, described in his own memoir.

Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, whom the vice president has called her greatest influence, was born in a city now called Chennai on India’s southeastern coast. She attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and met Harris’s father, then a graduate student from Jamaica, at a civil rights meeting.

Gopalan and her two daughters traveled to India every other year when Harris was growing up. On the campaign trail, Harris made dosas with Mindy Kaling and joked about how both their families store Indian spices in Taster’s Choice coffee containers. In her speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president, she gave a shout out to her chittis, a Tamil word for aunt.

But Harris has also said her mother raised her and her sister, Maya, as Black women in a nation that often views race through a binary White-and-Black lens. Harris worshiped at a Black church as well as at a Hindu temple as a child. She had a front-row seat to civil rights marches from her stroller.

She and other Black children were bused to a relatively affluent White neighborhood, a detail she brandished in a debate-night attack on Biden during the campaign. At Howard, she pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., one of the nine original historically Black Greek letter organizations.

Whatever her identity, some Indian American activists say it does not obligate her to a particular role on India, noting that Biden, for example, is seldom asked to opine on issues related to Ireland.

Harris herself has tried to stifle any tendency to draw specific policy assumptions from her background.

“When I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with,” she said in a 2019 interview with The Washington Post. “You are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created.”

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