Could The Lotus Become POTUS?

By Rahul Singh | 19 August 2020
Church and State

(Image: Twitter: @JoeBiden)

Many Indians, including an estimated 20 to 30 million ethnic Indians living and working outside India – after the Chinese, the largest diaspora – are cheering the selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate in the forthcoming US Presidential election. The virtual Democratic National Convention is still in session as I write this, but a Biden-Harris nomination is only a formality. Biden apparently made his choice after singling out ten finalists, all women, and then choosing her. The 55-year-old Kamala is half-Indian and half-Jamaican, making her the first “black” Vice Presidential candidate in American history. Though she is not technically “black”, as in “African American”, she considers herself as such. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was an activist in the Civil Rights movement, along with her father, Donald Harris.

Shyamala and Donald met when they were pursuing higher studies in California, fell in love and got married. They had two daughters, Kamala and Maya. But they divorced when Kamala was just five years old. Both girls were mainly brought up by their mother, who seems to have been a remarkable woman (she died in 2009). She graduated from India’s Delhi University when she was only 19, and then went to the USA for further studies. It was the first time she was leaving her country. She completed her PhD at 25. Shyamala belonged to a tiny community from the south Indian State of Madras (now renamed Tamil Nadu), the Tamilian Brahmins, colloquially called “Tam Brahms”. It has produced three Nobel Prize winners and a world champion in chess, Vishwanath Anand, who was dethroned by the Norwegian, Magnus Carlson, the present world champion.

Interestingly enough, the Harrises decided to give their daughters Indian names, even though Donald was a Christian and belonged to the Baptist Church. Maya means “illusion” in Sanskrit and the Greek word “maiea”, pronounced almost identically, means “good mother”. Kamala means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit and is also another name for Lakshmi, the consort of the Hindu God, Vishnu. Lakshmi is also considered the Goddess of Wealth. In Indian mythology, Vishnu is one of the trinity of Gods: Brahma (the Creator), Shiva (the Destroyer), and Vishnu (the Preserver). When they were growing up, Kamala and Maya were taken to a Hindu temple and a black Baptist church by their parents. So, they have a mixed religions upbringing. But their mother had adopted black culture and her daughters were immersed in it.

Kamala went to high school in French Canada, as her mother was then teaching at Montreal’s McGill University. She then spent four years at Howard University, which is essentially black, after which she got her law degree from the University of California. She started her career at the District Attorney’s office in Alameida County. In 2010, she came to national attention when she was elected as the first woman and first black Attorney General of California, which in effect made her the top lawyer in the most populous state of the USA. In 2016, she ran – and won – a seat in the Senate. In her personal life, Kamala married a divorcee and a lawyer, Douglas Emhoff, relatively late in life. He has two children from an earlier marriage.

So much for Kamala Harris’ upbringing, education and career. She is 55 and Biden 77. Biden has already declared that if he wins the coming November election, he will only stand for one term as President. That would make Kamala the front-runner for the 2024 Presidency. Admittedly, US Veeps (Vice Presidents) have not traditionally carried much weight. George Bush (Sr.), when he was the Veep, joked that his functions were mainly to attend the funerals of important personages (he went to India for the funeral of Indira Gandhi). But in 1967 more heft was given to the US Vice Presidency by the 25th Amendment. It made the Veep the lawful successor if the President died in mid-term, became disabled, or resigned (which is how Gerald Ford became President after the resignation of Richard Nixon). In any case, based on what one has seen on TV in recent days of Kamala Harris, she is clearly no lightweight or person to be trifled with. She comes across as articulate and feisty, who can hold her own against even the most combative of foes.

The response to her nomination has already been very positive. Some $26 million was raised for the Democratic election kitty within 24 hours of the announcement of her candidature, which is more than Biden was able to gather in several months. A subsequent poll reveals that nine out of 10 Democrats approve her nomination. The USA prides itself as a nation of immigrants, as a land of opportunity where you can worship as you please. Which is why it has attracted people from all over the world, looking for better prospects, or facing discrimination in practicing their religion. And it has become a “melting pot”, though the African Americans – 12 percent of the population – are yet to be fully integrated. Kamala Harris, a daughter of migrants, and who considers herself a black, therefore has a ready-made constituency of voters.

She and Biden also have an eye out for the ethnic Indian vote. Though they number only about one percent of the American population, a little over three million, they are highly-educated and relatively prosperous. They are widely admired and respected, many of them being doctors and high-profile media personalities, like Dr Sanjay Gupta who has been speaking so authoritatively on American TV on the pandemic, and Fareed Zakaria, whose news programme every Sunday on CNN is watched by millions in the USA and in the world. President Trump felt he had the Indian vote in his pocket when he joined a 50,000-strong rally, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Houston, Texas last September. Trump followed this up with a hurricane two-day visit to India in February this year, when he addressed a gathering of some 100,000 cheering Indians in Modi’s home-city of Ahmedabad. The rapport between the two men was palpably visible.

But then has come the Kamala Harris nomination. The ethnic Indian tide in the USA could have turned in favour of the Democrats. Biden has also pointed out the key role he played in the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, a major breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Typically, as he does those who oppose him, Trump has characterized Harris as “nasty” and “mean”, though that won’t influence Americans much, as they are now used to such terms coming out of him.

But will the Biden-Harris duo be good for India, should they win in November? On the policy towards China, both countries are on the same wave length, whether under a Trump or a Biden Presidency. Ditto on the need to tackle terrorism, a menace that threatens India and the USA. The sticking point is really Kashmir, where there is a divergence of views. Kamala Harris has spoken out against New Delhi’s recent moves in Kashmir, namely the Indian government’s downgrading of its autonomous status and closer integration with India. She has also criticized India’s human rights violations in Kashmir, where an insurgency has been going on for close to three decades, strongly indicating she is her own woman and won’t bend just for the sake of getting more votes.

In recent years, ethnic Indians living outside India have increasingly moved from just earning more to entering politics. In the USA, apart from Kamala Harris, Nikki Haley was Trump’s former United Nations envoy and also a Governor of South Carolina. Bobby Jindal was a former Governor of Louisiana and at one time a Republican Presidential candidate. Haley and Jindal are the children of Indian immigrants. Five Democrats of Indian descent are in the American Congress. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose first wife (from whom he had four children) is half-Indian, has always had a soft spot for India, which he has visited privately several times. His Chancellor of the Exchequer, the most powerful person in the Cabinet, after the PM, is Rishi Sunak, the son of Hindu migrants who were born in Africa. A recent Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, is half-Indian, while the Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, is of Goan descent. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has more Indians of Sikh descent in his Cabinet than even Indian PM Narendra Modi. But if Kamala Harris becomes Vice President of the USA, she would be in line for the Presidentship in 2024. That would be the crowning achievement for a part ethnic-Indian, of somebody whose mother came from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The lotus could become POTUS.

Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes.

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