Indian-Americans mull impact of Sen. Kamala Harris after she drops out of presidential race

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U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) responds to a question during a forum held by gun safety organizations the Giffords group and March For Our Lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

Despite some strong differences of opinion within the Indian-American community about Sen. Kamala Harris’ ‘Indian-ness’ or lack there-of, hardly a day passed between her decision to quit the presidential race and speculation about whose running mate she was going to be.

This Dec. 4, Biden told reporters during a press briefing in Ames, Iowa, “Of course I would” in response to whether he might recruit Harris in the position he had occupied with President Obama during the two terms of the first black president of the country.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris gesture on the second night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

“Senator Harris has the capacity to be anything she wants to be,” Biden went on to say, Politico reported. “I talked to her yesterday. She’s solid. She can be the president one day herself. She can be the vice president. She can go on to be a Supreme Court justice,” Biden added.

However, speaking to News India Times, a reliable source within the Biden campaign who did not want to be identified, dashed it as mere speculation emphasizing that no decision was close to being made on who Candidate Biden would choose as his running mate.

Nevertheless, some of Harris’ strong supporters among Indian-Americans, such as Ramesh Kapur, a Democratic activist and fundraiser since 1986, believe the Senator would make the ideal partner for Biden. Kapur told News India Times he would continue to push for her VP candidacy.

“If Biden is the nominee then she is the right pick,” Kapur contended, even as his friends he said, are asking him if he is in mourning. Kapur’s reasons for pushing Harris as running mate is, “She has the drive. She can spend a lot of time in certain states like Florida and Ohio, and Michigan, where minorities are in significant numbers. And she is a black woman apart from being Indian-American,” Kapur says. “And I’m looking a bit long term – Biden in the White House for 8 years and then Kamala Harris runs for president.”

“Obviously, we wish she had stayed in the race,” said Deepak Raj, a venture capitalist in New Jersey and co-founder of Indian-American Impact Fund. “We will support her in all future endeavors. She has been a bright shining light and will be a role model for our community,” Raj added. He credited her with a history of fighting for the people throughout her career in public service. “I’m confident that she will remain active in national politics,” Raj said, and “We are proud of the Senator for all that she has already accomplished, representing the largest state in the Senate, and we congratulate her on a highly impactful fight for the highest office in our land.”

Shekar Narasimhan, founder of AAPI Victory Fund, expressed disappointment at Harris dropping out after a promising beginning. “I bet there will be a next time,” Narasimhan told News India Times, adding, “I hope Kamala gets to show her prosecutorial abilities during the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. That will position her well fr a VP nomination.”

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, described Sen. Harris as a “role model” as did several others interviewed for this piece. “Senator Harris is a role model for the Indian-American community whose campaign broke barriers and inspired a new generation to get involved in public life,” Krishnamoorthi told News India Times. “I applaud her leadership in the 2020 race and look forward to seeing her continued advocacy on behalf of the Indian American community and all Americans in the U.S. Senate,” he added.

“Like so many Democrats, I was disappointed to see Senator Kamala Harris drop out of the 2020 presidential race,” North Carolina State Senator Jay J. Chaudhuri, the Senate Democratic Whip, told News India Times via email.  “However, I know Senator Harris has a bright public service future ahead of her, and I look forward to continuing to follow it. She continues to do our community proud,” Chaudhuri  added.

Contrary to naysayers among Indian-American who allege Harris was picky where and when she spoke about the Indianness, Congressman Ro Khanna, D-California, credited the Senator of flaunting her roots after she dropped out of the presidential race.

@KamalaHarris California is lucky to have you fighting for us in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee. As an Indian American, I appreciate how you spoke about your roots.”

Congressman Ami Bera, D-California, on the other hand, has thrown his support behind Biden. “We need to nominate and elect a candidate who is ready to hit the ground running on Day 1, and that candidate, at the end of the day, is Joe Biden,” Bera said Dec. 3, according the Sacramento Bee. He did add he also strongly considered Harris and a few others, but ended up with Biden because of his history of working with Congress during the Obama years as Vice President.

 Identity Politics

Kamala Harris, left, stands with John McGaffie, center, his daughter Kenya, front center, her mother Shyamala Gopalan and her sister Maya outside the McGaffie home in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Sharon McGaffie via The Washington Post)

“I don’t think her dropping out has any impact,” on the Indian-American community, said Maryland Assembly Delegate Kumar Barve, the first Indian-American to be elected to a state house back in the 1990s. She ran a campaign based on identity politics. She had nothing new to say, she didn’t make a compelling case. … Most Americans saw her as an African-American,” Barve contended. He noted that he had not heard her refer to herself as an Indian-American during the candidate debates.

“She always came out as an African-American. She primarily talked of her Asian-American roots when she spoke to Asians,” Barve said, pointing to presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, “He isn’t running on his Chinese American heritage.”

Unlike candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, or Yang, or Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, with had “concrete” plans on what they want to do, “I can’t think of one unique thing that Kamala Harris was running on.”

“Kamala Harris was really courageous to drop out now instead of fighting to the end,” acknowledged Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, and former member of President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Communities. “She is a representative of the continuum of Indian immigration,” Bhargava said noting that Harris’ mother came to California when very few Indians were there, and brought up her daughters Maya and Kamala to embrace their African identity. Today, Indian-Americans are ubiquitous in California and Harris has to bridge that divide of her own experiences growing up.

Bhargava draws a distinct difference between the Indian-American identity portrayed by Harris and the Hindu persona that Rep. Gabbard, the first woman of the Hindu faith to be elected to Congress, publicized. And Gabbard is far from being of Indian descent.

Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the fifth Democratic debate, which was held in Atlanta on Nov. 20. (Photo: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys)

“Tulsi connected very early on with Hindus, who do see her as a voice. Harris had not identified with the Indian minority ethos and mind,” Bhargava said. “Gabbard had no hesitation in connecting and going to Hindu gatherings and owning them. Kamala had hesitations on that front.

Nevertheless, Bhargava conceded, more Americans now know of Harris’ Indian background. “We will see more of her. And how far she has come is a great achievement. Besides, a lot of 2nd generation Indian-Americans see her as a smart woman who rose to the top. I hope that we embrace her more and our community is enriched by her presence.”

Ann Kalayil, president of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute based in Chicago, saw a two-way street between Harris and the Indian-American community. “I don’t know if Kamala Harris identified herself as an Indian-American. It’s more than just saying ‘I’m a South Asian candidate’ depending on her audience.” Kalayil said. On the other hand, “We ourselves had an ambivalent attitude to the fact that she was half black. People were more receptive of Tulsi Gabbard who is not even Indian!” Kalayil added.

Those who were interviewed noted Indian-Americans, like other communities, were not homogenous in their political affiliations. “We are not unique in any way. It’s the reality of identity politics. If you play on identity rather than issues, it does not cut across,” Kalayil said.

“I supported her first. She’s my DNA,” asserted Democratic activist Ramesh Kapur, proving the point that Harris’ Indian origins were more important to him. “I’m not mourning yet. I am waiting for her to be vice president,” Kapur said. “To have a vice presidential candidate, when so many Indian-Americans are already in Congress – it’s such an achievement in a very short time.”

 

 

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