A Historic moment for Indian-Americans:The Veep debate

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., participates in the vice-presidential debate with Vice President Mike Pence at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The candidates were seated at a 12-foot distance and separated by plexiglass as a precaution against the coronavirus. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

October 7, 2020 will surely go down as a historic day for Indian-Americans in this country, a day when an Indian-American and Black-American woman, Senator Kamala Harris, D-California, engaged an incumbent Vice President Mike Pence, in a debate head-to-head and toe-to-toe as the nation, and  the world, looked on.

This was a first like no other in the past, and Indian-Americans have achieved many firsts since the first wave that came in early 20th Century and the second wave that came in the 1960s with the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

News India Times spoke to several Indian-Americans, mainly women, about how they felt while watching this debate, even if they disagreed with views expressed by Harris or Pence. It was not the debate as much as the idea of a woman, a brown one at that, who got to take a stand on issues of national importance.

Most of them felt a sense of pride that their community was being represented on such a global scale. Harris, one of them said, embodies both the aspirations of Indian-Americans and the hopes of Black people still struggling to gain the elusive equality after four hundred years of slavery. Though many argue she is not ‘truly’ an African American because her father was from Jamaica and her mother from India, Harris was brought up as a Black woman by her mother in an environment where not many Indian families surrounded her and the two daughters that she brought up single-handedly.


Democratic vice presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris answers a question as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence watches, during the 2020 vice presidential debate on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., October 7, 2020.  Morry Gash/Pool via REUTERS

A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll of the Vice Presidential debate reported Harris as the winner.

“Debate watchers were more impressed with Harris’s performance than Pence’s, with 69 percent saying her performance was “very good” or “somewhat good,” compared to 60 percent who said the same for him,” the poll showed. “They were also more impressed with the policies she outlined,” pollsters said. It’s noteworthy, though, that both vice presidential contenders got better marks for their performance than Trump did last week — just 33 percent thought the president performed well.

“As with last week’s presidential debate, it doesn’t look like the vice presidential debate moved the needle much,” the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll said.

In a flash poll conducted the day after the Oct. 7 VP debate by Politico and Morning Consult, 51 percent of the debate-watchers concluded Harris beat Pence.”

The one and only vice presidential debate before the Nov. 3, general election may have appeared lackluster compared to the volatile Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden Sept. 29, 2020. Add to that, the fact that Harris had more to prove and less to prove it with, in terms of never having held a national office during her upward career trajectory in California.

“It was powerful to see someone who looked like me on a stage before the whole world,” said Avani Ramnani of New York, a financial planner and investment manager. “Her points, her thinking, her passion really came through. I have two daughters, and it gave me hope for their future.”

“The Vice Presidential debate was significantly more civilized and organized than the previous Presidential debate,” noted Sheekha Upadhyaya, 24, a pharmacist in Long Island. “Senator Harris spoke very eloquently while clearly defending her position on most of the issues presented by the moderator.”

Upadhyaya, like a number of others felt Harris did not interrupt Vice President Pence as much as the other way around, and late polls showed a majority of those surveyed felt the same.

Those News India Times spoke to also stressed Senator Harris’ education and the value  Indian-Americans placed on it. A number of women spoke of their own daughters and how seeing Harris on a world stage opened up so many possibilities.

Harris did take an opportunity to mention her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, without revealing her name or her Indian heritage. Instead she went on quickly to say that she was the second ‘black’ woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and the first woman AG before that in California.

“Harris is skillfully bringing in her mother here, but no mention of her mother being from India. And she just described herself as a Black woman. She has played up her Indian side more recently but not tonight,” commented Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and health reporter with the New York Times, in the panel that commented simultaneously on the vice presidential debate.

Dino Teppara, a member of Indian Voices for Trump, echoed these views in his response to News India Times, noting that Harris did not mention her Indian background and in fact called herself a ‘Black woman’.

“President Trump is truly proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Indian-American community. From an arena overflowing with 50,000 Indian-American supporters to his appointments in the highest ranks of the federal government, he has done more for our community than any other President or candidate,” Teppara said, adding, “Instead of just serving up platitudes or relying on stereotypical images of the community, he’s actually working for us and truly deserves reelection.”

An American Story

Shyamala Gopalan Harris with her two daughters, Kamala Harris, left, and Maya Harris. Photo: courtesy Facebook Kamala Harris

Anju Bhargava, an ordained Hindu priest noted that it was Pence who at the start of the debate referred to it being an historic moment for Harris to be running for VP.

“But it all looked so natural – a brown/black person, very mainstream, and presenting an ‘all-American’ perspective. It was not a minority perspective or a ‘brown’ perspective,” Bhargava contended.  “She was not projecting a hyphenated personality, she was just herself. She was brought up at a time when there were not enough Desis to bring out her ‘brown’ identity,” Bhargava said explaining away Harris’ reference to herself as a ‘black woman’.

“I was very proud that an Indian woman was on stage. It was almost like ‘an American Story’. This is the land of immigrants, except for Native Americans. To me, the debate crystallized the beauty of America,” said Krishna Roy, an environmentalist and conservationist based in greater Washington, D.C.

The 90-minute debate, was split into nine 10-minute segments, and covered a lot of ground without much to show for it. It covered subjects ranging from the coronavirus, to racism, President Trump’s nomination of  conservative Amy Coney Barrett as Supreme Court justice; climate change; transparency about Trump’s health; whether he would accept the result of the election were he defeated; the economic recovery; policy toward China; abortion rights; recent police violence against black people, and  Obamacare.

Sticking To The Script

Both candidates appear to have stuck to the script they were told to follow – Pence insisting that Trump had turned the economy around, brought jobs back home, cut taxes, renegotiated trade deals, and stood up to China, walked out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, all for putting the American people first.

Harris consistently put forward Biden’s plans for various sectors and foreign policy. She returned repeatedly to the pandemic as a measure of the failure of the Trump administration.

There were a few sparks from Harris. When Pence spoke about trusting and respecting the American people, Harris shot back, “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” and at another time, reprimanded the Vice President saying, “I will not be lectured.”

Following the debate, Biden tweeted, “@KamalaHarris, you made us all proud tonight.”

And President Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence WON BIG!”

South Asians for Biden Tweeted, “We are excited for Senator @KamalaHarris to take tonight’s debate stage as the first Black and South Asian woman nominated as VP. As the daughter of immigrants, #SheRose to become a District Attorney, CA Attorney General, US Senator, and will be the Vice President. #AAPISheRose

Meanwhile, Republicans on Twitter contended Harris did not answer questions or prevaricated. And California attorney Harmeet Dhillon, the National Committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California tweeted, “Her constant hand gestures are meant to distract from the lack of substance.” Dhillon did not respond to a message requesting her comments.

Pence was criticized for his frequent interruptions, with 55 percent of debate-watchers agreeing that the vice president was more disruptive than Harris,” Politico reported based on its day-after poll with Morning Consult.

Strong Woman

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Zarna Garg, a New York City comedian, echoed those thoughts. While she saw Harris being on the debate stage as “a huge historic moment,” what was missing she told News India Times, was “an ounce of chivalry, whether she was a man or a woman.”

“Indian women are so used to overbearing men. We are world champions,” Garg joked.

Garg also lashed out at critics who felt Harris failed to burnish her Indian heritage on stage like she did the African American. “She needs to say what she needs to in order to win. And its not like she is denying her being Indian. She is all over the Web about her Indian grandparents. She does not have to shout it from the rooftops. We need to take the burden off her rather than add to it,” Garg emphasized.

“She is a strong woman. She speaks openly about her roots. And she seem very genuine, very charismatic, very much in control of herself. What was great was when she was speaking, the opposing candidate interrupted her a lot. She showed she is ready for the national stage and was setting the example by her actions,” said Adarsh Alphons, a philanthropist based in New York. Like other Indian-Americans, particularly those hailing from Southern India, Alphons, was ‘very proud’ to see Harris on the national stage. “What better way to represent the community?” he asked.

“Kamala Harris being selected by Joe Biden’s team is a historic moment,” said Ranju Batra, chairperson of the Diwali Foundation USA. “It really uplifts the status of girls and women around the world. Independent of what the election results is, it was a historic moment.”

“Kamala is Indian too. She has spoken about being Indian elsewhere. And she identified with black women and black people. That helps African Americans feel their nominee is on the ticket. I feel it’s a win-win situation for both,” Batra contended.

Tina Vaidya, director of HR at one of the largest cloud technology and business solutions company in the country, told News India Times, she was particularly moved watching Harris on television because of her two daughters, seven and eight. “Showing them the whole debate —  because it shows them what a woman can do. We did not have anyone like her when I reached voting age,” said Vaidya who is 37 and was born and brought up in the U.S.



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