NEW DELHI – Well before dawn on Wednesday August 12, 2020, the phone began to ring in Gopalan Balachandran’s home in India’s capital. It was his sister, calling from the other end of the country, and she had exceptionally good news to share: Their niece could become the next vice president of the United States.
When presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced that he had selected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate, he made history: Harris is the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to join a major-party presidential ticket in the United States.
The news also rippled around the world. Harris is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and she spent much of her youth in Canada, giving her selection an unusually international dimension.
Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, went to the United States from India at the age of 19 to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley. There she met Donald Harris, a fellow student from Jamaica who went on to teach economics at Stanford University.
Balachandran, Harris’s 80-year-old maternal uncle, laughed and proclaimed himself “very, very happy” with the news. Harris is “quick on her feet and a damn good debater,” he said. She is also well prepared to handle the nastiness of the upcoming campaign, he added. Harris “doesn’t take things lying down.”
When Harris was sworn in as a U.S. senator, Balachandran traveled to Washington for the ceremony. Now he hopes to return in January, to see her become vice president of the United States.
His sister Sarala Gopalan, a retired physician in the South Indian city of Chennai, told an Indian television channel that the entire family was thrilled by the news. She praised Harris as a kind and devoted niece.
“If I send her a message right now saying, ‘Kamala, I need you,’ the next day she will be there,” Gopalan said.
Indian politicians and commentators exulted in the selection. The fact that a person of Indian origin could be “a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency is thrilling,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, a politician with the opposition Congress Party.
Ram Madhav, a senior official in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, saluted the history-making nature of the pick. Another Indian political commentator said the selection represented a “triumph of diversity and democracy.”
In Tamil Nadu, the South Indian state where Harris’ mother grew up, there was special pride. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a local politician, praised the “inclusiveness” of the choice.
Harris – whose first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit – has said that after her parents’ divorce, her mother raised her two daughters with an appreciation of their dual heritage.
“My Indian mother knew she was raising two black daughters,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “But that’s not to the exclusion of who I am in terms of my Indian heritage.”
In her autobiography, Harris described how her mother – a gifted singer, civil rights activist and breast cancer researcher who died in 2009 – would often use Tamil, her mother tongue, to express “affection or frustration.”
Harris visited India regularly as a child and understands some Tamil, relatives said.
A spokesman for the Indian government did not respond to a request for comment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone to considerable lengths to cultivate a relationship with President Donald Trump.
Last year, Harris criticized the Indian government’s attempt to influence which members of Congress would attend a meeting on the disputed territory of Kashmir. She has said the United States is “watching” potential human rights abuses in the region.
Harris also spent a chunk of her childhood in Montreal, where her mother taught at McGill University and conducted research at the Jewish General Hospital. In her autobiography, she wrote that she recognized the move was “an exciting step” in her mother’s career, but it was a difficult transition for her, in part because the only French she knew was from her ballet classes.
“I was twelve years old, and the thought of moving away from sunny California in February, in the middle of the school year, to a French-speaking foreign city covered in twelve feet of snow was distressing, to say the least,” she wrote.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante congratulated Harris in a tweet. Westmount High School, an English-language public school, said it “couldn’t be more proud” of its alumna from the class of 1981.
There was also pride in Jamaica. Former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson said he and Donald Harris were classmates at the University of the West Indies. In the 1990s, Patterson appointed Harris to lead a unit developing a national industrial plan for the country.
He said Jamaica was excited by Kamala Harris’ selection.
“We have watched her grow,” he said. “She has been incisive, she goes to the heart of the issue that has to be resolved, particularly at this time when the U.S. itself is going through severe challenges – including, but not confined to, matters pertaining to race. It is good to have someone on the ticket who can look at that and who has ethnic origins.”
Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith tweeted her congratulations to Harris on her “historic” selection: “Best wishes from our ‘big country on a little island!’ ”
Jamaicans described Harris’s selection as the latest example of the island’s outsize influence on the wide world. The Caribbean nation has a population of less than 3 million.
“Anything that Jamaica is a part of, we are very proud,” said Clara Brown, a singer in Kingston, the capital. “To know we are such a small country and so much greatness comes from us, speaks to the caliber and quality and perseverance of Jamaicans.”
Richard Bernal, a former Jamaican ambassador to the United States, is a longtime friend of Donald Harris. He likened Kamala Harris’ selection to Colin Powell’s nomination to be U.S. secretary of state (Powell’s parents were Jamaican immigrants).
“We are people from a small country,” Bernal said. But Jamaicans “always feel they can accomplish anything,” That self-confidence has helped them “survive and thrive all over the world.”
– – – Story updated with addons