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Friday, April 16, 2021

Kamala Harris: Here’s why India needs a leader like her

On Saturday, the world saw her addressing her supporters sporting a confident and proud smile. Known as the “female Obama”, first time Senator Kamala Devi Harris has scripted history by becoming first woman, Black and Indian-American vice president of the United States. Harris was picked by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as his running mate in August, months after she suspended her own presidential dreams, saying she lacked the financial resources to continue her campaign. A fierce critic-turned ally of her former rival Biden, the 56-year-old California Senator is one of only three Asian Americans in the Senate and she’s the first Indian-American ever to serve in the chamber.

Kamala Harris: Here’s why India needs a leader like her

1. The woman of many firsts

Kamala Harris, the new VP, is famously known for her many firsts. She has been a county district attorney; the district attorney for San Francisco – the first woman and first African-American and Indian-origin to be elected to the post. She now has several firsts in her role as the VP too: the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Indian-American and the first Asian-American. When Biden chose her as his running mate recognising the crucial role Black voters could play in his determined bid to defeat Donald Trump, Harris was just the third woman to be selected as the VP on a major party ticket. Then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 were the other two contenders. But definitely, Harris was the most promising of the trio.

During the reign of former president Barack Obama, she was popularly called the “female Obama”. According to the US news outlets, a decade ago, journalist Gwen Ifill called Harris “the female Barack Obama” on the “Late Show With David Letterman”. Later, a small businessman from Willoughby Tony Pinto called her “a young, female version of the president”. She is considered to be close to Barack Obama, the first Black American President, who endorsed her in her various elections including that of the US Senate in 2016.

Kamala Harris
Image credit: US Senator Kamala Harris official website

2. The origin of Kamala Harris

Harris was born to her immigrant parents: a Black father and an Indian mother. Her father, Donald Harris, was from Jamaica, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist from Chennai, India. Harris, however, calls herself simply as ‘American’. After her parents divorced, Harris was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother. She later stated that her mother adopted the American black culture and immersed her two daughters – Kamala and her younger sister Maya – in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture but she also lived a proudly African American life. She often accompanied her mother on her trips to India. “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,” she wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold.

3. Birth and the early years

Harris was born in Oakland and grew up in Berkeley. She spent her high school years living in French-speaking Canada – her mother was teaching at McGill University in Montreal. Her mother told her growing up, “Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” which is what drives Kamala every single day, according to the Biden-Harris joint campaign website. “The first Black and Indian-American woman to represent California in the United States Senate, Kamala Harris grew up believing in the promise of America and fighting to make sure that promise is fulfilled for all Americans,” it says.

4. Education and work history

She attended college in the US, spending four years at Howard University, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life. After Howard, she went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings, and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. She became the top prosecutor for San Francisco in 2003, before being elected the first woman and the first black person to serve as California’s attorney general in 2010, the top lawyer in America’s most populous state. In her nearly two terms in office as attorney general, Harris gained a reputation as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party. She was elected as California’s junior US senator in 2017.

5. Love and marriage to Douglas Emhoff

Harris has been married to her husband Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer, for the past six years. She is the stepmother of two children, Ella and Cole who are her “endless source of love and pure joy,” the website says. When Kamala Harris makes history as the first woman and first Black U.S. Vice President, her husband Doug Emhoff will break his own new ground: as the original “second husband.”

Kamala Harris
Image credit: Twitter

Ms. Harris and Mr. Emhoff, who married in 2014 — she for the first time, he for the second — will also be the first mixed-race couple to occupy their positions. He is white while she is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. Both are 56. When Mr. Emhoff met Ms. Harris on a blind date arranged by friends, it was “love at first sight,” he later said. His children by his first marriage — Cole, named after John Coltrane, and Ella, named after Ella Fitzgerald — have embraced their stepmother as “Momala.” The contours of Mr. Emhoff’s new role as the nation’s “second husband” — some prefer “second gentleman” — have yet to be determined; he has been vague about his plans so far.

6. Harris, a true inspiration for many

President-elect Joe Biden has said that he would be honoured to be serving with Harris, who will “make history as the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country.” In her victory speech, Harris said that while she may be the first woman to occupy the vice president’s office, she would not be the last. Her victory indicates that no door is closed to Indian-Americans in public life in the country.

“Harris knows the Black American experience. She knows the South Asian-American experience. She knows the immigrant experience. She knows the aspirational power of the American dream…” wrote Neil Makhija, Executive Director of IMPACT, in an op-ed published by CNN during the presidential campaign. Around 1.3 million Indian-Americans were voters in this year’s election, with nearly 200,000 in battleground states like Pennsylvania and 125,000 in Michigan. It is believed that Indian-American voters played crucial role in the key battleground states.

7. The India connection

Back home, Indians are thrilled by the prospect of an Indian-origin woman occupying the second-highest political office in the US. This was evident when banners and placards of Harris popped up across the southern city of Chennai, the hometown of Harris’ mother, days after she was  picked as the US Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee.

The Indian American community was exhilarated by her selection. “Harris’ vice-presidential candidacy has galvanized a large section of the Indian American community to turn out to vote. On balance, while the Harris pick might not change a large numbers of votes (given the community’s historic Democratic tilt), her candidacy is linked to greater enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket,” read a survey report by Carnegie. “For India, who wins might not make any material difference in the long run, but in the near term, a Trump win is likely to benefit IT along with chemicals and tiles, whereas a Biden presidency would be better for pharma. We would hold on to our portfolio bias: global reflation, IT and pharma,” analysts at Edelweiss Securities were quoted by The Economic Times as saying.

Harris’ rise to the second-most powerful position in the US has sparked speculations in the Indian media and business sector over what it could mean for US’ relations with India. Navtej Sarna, who served as India’s ambassador to the US, while speaking to German Broadcaster DW, argued that a Harris victory would not really mean concessions to the India-US relationship. Sarna also told DW that the strategic logic of the India-US relationship is very strong, regardless of who wins the elections.

G Balachandran, Kamala Harris’ uncle and a New-Delhi based academic, in the past said that Harris’ commitment to human rights and her sense of justice is due to the influence of her mother and maternal grandfather. He had also expressed confidence that Harris would not let her Indian heritage influence her stand on human rights abuses in the country.

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