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The Indian-ness of Kamala Harris, the 'Female Barack Obama' Set to Contest the Next US Elections

By: Adrija Bose


Last Updated: January 23, 2019, 08:35 IST

File photo of Kamala Harris (Reuters).

File photo of Kamala Harris (Reuters).

Harris, in many of her interviews, has credited her Indian-American mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris for instilling in her the sense of responsibility that motivated her political career.

Kamla Harris loves idlis. And, sambhar.

When Harris announced that she plans to run for the President of the United States of America in 2020, most of the headlines identified her as 'African-American'. The Indian bit didn't make it to many newspapers. But she may, in fact, be more Indian that you or the Americans may imagine.

The 54-year-old's career is filled with an extraordinary amount of firsts. She was the first woman and the first person of color to be elected to both positions as district attorney in San Francisco and as attorney general of California. Often referred to as the 'Female Barack Obama' by her followers, the renowned prosecutor is now seeking to become the first African American woman to take on Donald Trump.

Harris, in many of her interviews, has credited her Indian-American mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris for instilling in her the sense of responsibility that motivated her political career. But for Harris, her mother has been more than an inspiration-- she has been a 'superhero'.

In her memoir, when she had written, “There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all”, she was referring to the courage of 19-year-old Indian girl (her mother) who moved to America for studies, defying traditions and culture. Shyamala moved to the United States to study endocrinology and did research on breast cancer. At the University of Berkeley, Shyamala met and married Donald Harris, from Jamaica.

Right after announcing her plans to enter the race for the White House, Harris posted a childhood picture with her mother saying "Thinking of my mother today. She was smart, fierce, and my first campaign staffer - and I dearly wish she was here with us for this moment. Her spirit still drives me to fight for our values."

When Harris’ father, Donald Harris, who teaches economics at Stanford, and her mother separated, Harris was 7 years old. Harris and her younger sister were raised by their Indian mother, in a black neighborhood during the Civil Rights movement. Her sister Maya went on to become a lawyer and adviser to Hillary Clinton. “It was really my mother who took charge of our upbringing. She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become,” she wrote in her memoir.

A video footage from a 2009 Oprah Winfrey episode shows her sayinf, "My mother who was a very strong influence on my life always said, Kamala, you may be the first to do many things but make sure you're not the last."

But Harris' Indian roots wasn't limited to her mother and idlis. Almost every year, Harris and her sister would visit her grandparents, uncles and aunts in Tamil Nadu.

In her memoir, she writes, “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … 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 (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”

Harris' maternal grandfather was deeply involved in India’s movement against colonial rule. And Harris credits her maternal grandmother for the crusading civic spirit that both her mother and she inherited.

In 2012, Harris first came to limelight when spoke in prime time at the Democratic National Convention. The following year President Obama apologized for saying Harris was not only “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough,” but that she “also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.”

In 2016, the night Hillary Clinton lost her bid to become the first female President of the United States, Harris made a history. She became the second African American woman to be elected to the United States Senate, the first from California. Harris has many things in her favour: She's bi-racial, has fought for marriage equality and abortion rights, and drove a hard bargain with big banks to win a billion-dollar deal for homeowners but the media isn't sure whether Harris will be embracing her Indian roots during her campaign. It's a catch 22 situation, after all.

A former Congressional aide, Zahir Janmohamed, had once written about his Indian-American friend Kiranjeet who stood for local body elections in Virginia. "Kiranjeet stayed away from talking about her roots and focused on issues she stood for. However, the conversations often deviated. and she would be asked, for instance, about her daughter's Indian name. She lost. In the next cycle, she ran again, this time embracing her Indian roots and talking about her immigrant parents. This time, people felt she was too foreign. She eventually pulled out," he wrote.

Janmohamed wrote that he had observed during his stint in the US Congress, that Indian-Americans who run for US office are often limited to two options-- One, to join the Democratic Party and "boast how your great-grandparents marched with Gandhi". The other, he said, was to join the Republican party and play down your ethnic heritage.

But it's not the best idea to run away from your identities also. Ask Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, faced a backlash when he declared that he wants to be known as American, not Indian-American. The trouble with Jindal was that his success as a politician in Louisiana, a conservative state, hinged partly in whitewashing his immigrant roots and Indian ways. So he had done that enthusiastically. He had changed his name from Piyush to Bobby and embraced Catholicism at a young age. The day he announced his hatred for the tag 'Indian-American', Twitter made the politician trend with #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite.

But Harris may have already proved her allegiance-- to Indian-ness.

first published:January 23, 2019, 08:30 IST
last updated:January 23, 2019, 08:35 IST