‘I knew Kamala would have a successful political career because I have consistently seen her progress over the years’

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Gopalan Balachandran with Kamala Harris in San Francisco. PHOTO: Gopalan Balachandran

Eighty-year-old Gopalan Balachandran, maternal uncle of Vice President Kamala Harris, was with her when she campaigned for the District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003, accompanied her to the swearing-in ceremony in Washington D.C. in 2017, and even witnessed the then Vice-President Joe Biden administer the oath of office to her as a freshman Senator from California. But, due to the pandemic, he couldn’t make it to the Presidential Inauguration in person in 2021, to witness history being unfolded as his niece became the first woman, and woman of color, South Asian and African American, to be elected to serve in the nation’s second highest office.

Until recently, Balachandran served as a Consulting Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, formerly known as IDSA, in New Delhi. He has a Ph.D. in Economics and Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, and is an expert on India-US relations. He has published extensively on the India-US Next Steps in Strategic Partnership program, which was established in 2004 by both countries, to work on three main areas: civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs, and high-technology trade. He has written a number of articles on the 2005 framework on India-US nuclear initiative that eventually became the 2008 India-US Civil Nuclear agreement, following the approval of the US Congress.

Balachandran is currently visiting the US to meet with his daughter, Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, after meeting his wife, Rosamaria Orihuela, and in-laws, in Mexico. His daughter is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland. Both, he and his daughter met with VP Harris recently in Washington D.C.

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“I visit the US frequently. The last time I came to the US was in 2016, and even witnessed Kamala being sworn in as the Senator from California. The then VP Biden administered the oath of office to her. I’ve been asked multiple times in India and in the US whether I thought Kamala would become the VP or President one day. I knew Kamala would have a successful political career because I have consistently seen her progress over the years,” Balachandran told News India Times in an in-person interview on February 25th, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

He said both Kamala and Maya are good lawyers and involved in dealing with issues of public interest.   In fact, Kamala’s sister Maya was the youngest dean of the Lincoln Law College in San Jose, and also served as the head of the California Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. During his visits to California, Balachandran always stayed with his sister Shyamala, and also met Kamala and Maya. Shyamala, a scientist who pursued cancer research, died of health complications in 2009.

“Kamala had very strong political views, and she held on to those. I was with her when she ran for District Attorney of San Francisco, and witnessed how she handled sensitive issues with finesse and courage.  So, I am aware that she has strong views on certain issues of social significance, which is what her mother Shyamala always said about her. I knew Shyamala was like that too,” added Balachandran.

According to Balachandran, he met Kamala for the first time in London, when she was a one-year old. He was studying in London at that time. He fondly recollects spending a few days with her, and even taking her to Kew Gardens among other places.  He recalled that Kamala, and her parents Shyamala, and Don Harris came to England, since Don was a visiting fellow at Cambridge. Back in the 1970s, while Balachandran was studying in the University of Wisconsin, he used to regularly visit them in Oakland, CA. Then Shyamala went to Montreal, Canada, where he also visited them.

“During my visits, as a small girl, Kamala would call me uncle and play with me, and do all sorts of mischief. Shyamala used to cook very good South Indian food. Both, my younger sister, Mahalakshmi, from Canada, and I always had a nice time at Shyamala’s house. She used to cook vegetable curry, sambar, rasam, yogurt curry, aviyal and so on.  But, I always found these foods missing from the fridge since both Kamala and Maya would have eaten it before me. They like South Indian food,” he recalled.

Balachandran said that he would meet them every couple of years, and every time he visited them he would see a great change in both Kamala and Maya in terms of their careers, personality and varied interests. He enjoyed spending time with them. His daughter, Sharada, also stayed with Shyamala for four years in Oakland, California. Sharada, who studied in India, USA, and Mexico, received a scholarship from the Mexican Government, and pursued her studies in Mills College, California.

Second from Left, Meena Harris, Sharada Balachandran, Kamala Harris, and Shyamala Gopalan with others at the Hindu Community and Cultural Center in California. PHOTO: Gopalan Balachandran

He said that Shyamala played a very important role in Kamala and Maya’s lives. She was a strong influence in his daughter’s life, and on most young people she came in contact with. She introduced both Kamala and Maya to the civil rights movement and other issues, and guided them on important values around principles and conduct.

Asked about Indian Economist Ajit Singh’s influence on Shyamala and Kamala, Balachandran elaborated “Ajit was good family friend. His parents lived in Chandigarh and my younger sister Dr. Sarala Gopalan was a professor at PGI in Chandigarh, where she met him. Ajit had strong political views. Shyamala and Ajit were good friends as well. He was brilliant and progressive,” adding “But, I don’t know whether Ajit had any influence. I suspect given Shyamala and Kamala’s strong views, Kamala might have decided to go to Howard University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, on her own volition.  I am sure, Ajit must have guided Kamala on some issues.”

Singh taught at Cambridge, UK, and studied at University of California, Berkeley, and Howard University, US. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame at Howard University’s Department of Economics. Harris who was the DA of San Francisco even called Singh to congratulate him while he was visiting Washington D.C.

According to Balachandran, his father, P.V. Gopalan, had a profound effect on Harris. She spent time with her grandparents in Chennai, India, and Zambia during her visits. Gopalan, who joined the Central Secretariat Service as a Junior Assistant, retired as a Joint Secretary from the Government of India. When Southern Rhodesia had declared its Unilateral Declaration of Independence and Zambia saw a lot of influx of refugees, Gopalan was sent to Zambia by the Government of India to handle refugee issues.

“The Zambian government requested somebody from India to help them in the rehabilitation of refugees.  Since my father had experience dealing with refugees from West Pakistan and East Bengal in his capacity as the Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Rehabilitation, India sent my father to Zambia. So he spent two years setting up various rehabilitation programs in Zambia, and was accorded with all privileges and rights of a diplomat. Both Kamala and Maya spent a few months with their grandparents in Zambia as their parents were in India to take care of some issues. During her visits, Kamala always liked to spend time with her grandparents and was not interested in doing sightseeing.”

Balachandran spoke about his strong family ties and said given the geography spread it’s always hard to meet everyone in a single place. But he fondly recalled that in 1991, all the children, grandchildren, and their entire families came together to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday in Chennai.

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