NEW YORK – Almost 10 years ago, on February 24, 2009, the political career of the then Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, cratered, nosedived, to depths where probably Atlantis now thrives. All because of a highly awkward and embarrassing rebuttal speech, in response to President Barack Obama’s joint address to Congress.
When the otherwise highly capable Jindal, a born-again Christian, took the momentous decision to run for President, six years later – the first Indian American to do so- it was a debacle in the making.
It became obvious within a few months that America’s wasn’t ready to express confidence in a brown man who had been ridiculed and compared to the amusing singsong character ‘Kenneth the Page,’ from NBC’s ‘30 Rock’ sitcom, after his horrid, lackluster speech.
Jindal’s campaign slogan, ‘Tanned. Rested. Ready’ was mocked, derided, as a weak tactic to quell criticism that he had for long kept his Indian American roots at bay, took no pride in it. Jindal finally was forced to pull out from the primaries, polling at around a miserable 1% in the Republican primaries.
Now comes along yet another Indian American politician to try buck the trend, become the first Asian American and first woman to handle the most important job in the world. California Democrat Senator Kamala Harris, who has Indian and African American roots, pitchforked herself into the 2020 Presidential race on Martin Luther King Day; a race which promises to be one like no other in the history of the United States.
What immediately sets Harris apart from Jindal for political hawks is that she’s already respected as a strong orator on the national stage; can handle and give backs taunts and barbs with gusto, has a strong social media following.
Harris’ prosecutorial style of relentless and ruthless questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing made it clear that she would be no pushover if it came down to a showdown with President Trump.
And unlike Jindal, Harris embraces her roots whole heartedly, thrives on projecting her Indian American and African American heritage, which nurtured and shaped her legal and political career.
In her memoir “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris writes at length of her now deceased mother, whose emigrated from Tamil Nadu, to California, to attend Berkeley, and later married an African American man. She writes of her upbringing, getting close to her Indian and African roots from an early age.
“Though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go. I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, … There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter,” Harris writes.
“My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots,” she writes. “Our classic Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue — which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”
Harris writes elsewhere: “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
With a crowded Democratic field in the primaries, Harris, will, no doubt, stand out as one of the most stark opposite personalities, compared to Trump. It would help her to be a notch above the crowd, as voters seek a different candidate who could perhaps bring back the spirit of bipartisanship again on Capitol Hill, if not extoll the virtues and benefits of diversity.
In the primaries, Harris would also likely benefit from the fact that when more women candidates are fighting for the same job, the masses would take her or one of the other female candidates more seriously for the job.
The Washington Post noted that there’s been only one time in US political history that more than one woman was a candidate for the same party’s presidential nomination. It was during the 1972 campaign: Rep. Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink, D-Hawaii, the first woman of color elected to Congress, ran against the African American Shirley Chisholm in the Oregon primary as an anti-war candidate. She dropped out after receiving only 2 percent of the vote.
Harris is the fourth woman this election cycle to declare a bid for the White House, after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Speculation remains that others, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, will join the race for the Democratic bid, noted the Post.
Experts on gender, politics and leadership say the multiple women running in the 2020 Democratic primary could help to normalize the idea of female presidential candidates – as opposed to them being cast as a novelty – making them seem more like of a part of the political process.
“What this affords is for the voter to see the distinctiveness of the women,” Deborah Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, was quoted as saying by the Post. “We’re going to see the differences, and we’ve never had that opportunity before on the presidential stage.”
In 2016, three professors published preliminary data in the Harvard Business Review that showed when a woman is the only candidate in a pool of men being evaluated for certain jobs, there’s little statistical chance she’ll be hired. Hillary Clinton can commiserate with that.
Based on both experimental studies and an analysis of university hiring data, the study found that when there were at least two women being considered, the odds of one of them getting hired went way up – some 79 times higher, the study found – a figure that goes far beyond the increased statistical chance of there simply being more women in the pool, reported the Post.
The study, said Stefanie Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of its co-authors, is based on the theory of tokenism – that when there’s one woman in a group of men, they are often seen as being representative of all women.
Only time will tell how far Harris goes.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)