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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

India shouldn’t expect anything special from Kamala Devi Harris

She’s an ambitious American politician who’ll likely do what she deems best for her political future

The euphoria in India over Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden’s selection of senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate is amusing. From politicians to plebeians, from newspaper headlines to tweets, legions have expressed their pride and joy over an “Indian" woman who could be vice-president of the United States come January 2021, and even president, given that the 77-year-old Biden may not seek a second term. That would place Harris as a front-runner for the 2024 elections.

Her Tamil Iyer genealogy has already been dissected. By the time this column appears in print, countless third cousins and neighbours of long-gone aunts would have been tracked down, and many of them would have happily recounted half- or fully-imagined details of the times they met the young Kamala on her visits to Chennai.

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Is this some sort of deep inferiority complex that our still-colonized minds suffer from, this need for constant validation from the Western world? Harris described herself as “African-American" in the US census, not “Asian- Indian". And that is entirely her choice, be it for personal or political reasons. She ticked that box, knowing fully well that her Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father had divorced when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother.

In her 2019 memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, she refers to her mother as “the reason for everything", and writes that “there is no title or honour on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter". She credits her mother for many of her political beliefs. However, she is officially an African-American and unfailingly refers to herself as “black". Some Indians are carping about this, but one can argue that she has followed the Hindu custom of choosing her father’s kula and gotra. And of course it makes much more sense for an ambitious US politician to be “African-American" rather than “Asian-Indian".

Other than her mother, Harris appears to have spoken little about her Indian roots, except on two occasions. One, when her campaign for Democratic Party presidential nominee was collapsing last year, and she cooked a masala dosa with Indian-American actor Mindy Kaling. Cynics construed this as a last-ditch effort to raise funds from rich Indian-Americans, since her campaign had run out of cash. Two, in a 2009 interview to India Abroad, when she was running for California attorney-general. Naturally, the magazine asked her about her Indian-ness.

Harris said that her mother “was very proud of her Indian heritage and taught us, me and my sister Maya, to share in the pride about our culture". She mentioned her grandfather P.V. Gopalan as one of the most influential people in her life. She said Gopalan “actually held a post in India that was like the secretary of state position in this country. My grandfather was one of the original independence fighters in India."

This is puzzling. Gopalan joined the Imperial Secretariat Service and rose through the ranks, finally being empanelled as joint secretary in the ministry of labour, employment and rehabilitation. His only international assignment seems to have been in the late 1960s, when he was posted in Zambia to help manage an influx of refugees from Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—which had declared independence from Britain. This is hardly US secretary of state- level stuff.

As for being an “original" freedom fighter, this is impossible, since Gopalan was born in 1911. And, according to an October 2019 Los Angeles Times article, Harris’ Indian “family members said there was no record of (Gopalan) having been anything other than a diligent civil servant. Had he openly advocated ending British rule, he would have been fired, (Gopalan’s son, Harris’ uncle) G. Balachandran said." So, like the Mindy Kaling dosa event, these claims may also have been an artful ploy to get Indian-American votes during a political campaign.

Indians must accept that Kamala Harris is an American politician, no more and no less. She may not even be the cleanest American politician around, if one goes by allegations levelled by investigative journalist Peter Schweizer in his Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elite. From being fined for spending beyond legal limits during her campaign for San Francisco district attorneyship, to apparently suppressing evidence of child abuse in the Church (San Francisco is perhaps the only major US city not to pursue such cases), to refusing to investigate dietary supplement firms like Herbalife, which coincidentally was a client of her husband’s law firm (Herbalife finally settled with the Federal Trade Commission for a staggering $200 million), she seems to be just another dyed-in-the-wool politico.

If Harris becomes vice-president or even president some day, India should not expect any special place in her heart for India. She will be an American leader, and she is likely to do what she believes, rightly or wrongly, to be best for America and herself. There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is our hopes, driven by emotions that only make us weak.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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