The rise of Kamala Harris as the first ever woman and non-white vice president of America comes at a time when the country is in the throes of deep socio-cultural toxicity. Perhaps nothing exposes more powerfully the country’s fault lines than the fact that notwithstanding his repeated and egregious transgressions over the last four years President Donald Trump received over 73.5 million votes, the second highest in US history. That number is second only to President-elect Joe Biden’s historic number of over 79.4 million, the highest ever.
The idea that in a broad sense nearly as many people still voted for an avowedly divisive, often openly racist and vehemently lying incumbent president underscores how toxic and unabashed America’s electorate has become. At the time of writing this President Trump continued to refuse to concede his clear defeat over two weeks after the outcome became clear. In fact, he continued to triumphantly declare in all caps on his Twitter handle that he won despite both the popular vote as well as the electoral college number (306 to 232 in Biden’s favour) show precisely the opposite. More than seventy percent within Trump’s own Republican Party believe that somehow the election was “stolen” from his despite zero evidence to support that absurd claim.
Tough ride for Biden-Harris
California Senator Harris’s rise comes in the midst of America witnessing over 250,000 deaths as well as over 11.5 million COVID cases, which are a direct consequence of the failure of the Trump presidency. As a 55-year-old daughter of Indian Tamil mother, the late cancer specialist Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Jamaican father, an economics professor, Donald Harris, she represents an extraordinary turn in America’s polity. Barely four years after America bid farewell to its first mixed heritage president in Barack Obama (Father being Kenyan and mother a white American), a significant population of the country has chosen to vote for a woman of mixed heritage as vice president with a clear shot at the presidency. In the deeply dichotomous rejoinder, however, a nearly equal number of Americans has also rejected her.
The glow of her having made history is not expected to last much after January 20, 2021 when President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris formally take over because they will inherit a sharply irreconciled nation. With Trump riding on his reinforced electoral base and unshackled from any semblance of decorum and presidential responsibilities—even though he displayed none while in office—he is expected to be a continuous problem for the Biden administration. Given the challenges Kamala Harris may not bask in her remarkable success from being the Attorney-General of California between 2011 and 2017 and then the first South Asian American Senator for too long.
There are expectations that President-elect Biden, who is already 78 and will be 82 by the end of his first term, will not seek a second term and in the process clear the way for Harris to seek the highest office in the land. If that comes to pass, it would be the most dramatic rise of a politician and that too a woman politician who is not white but of mixed heritage to have a genuine shot at the White House. By and large Harris has been celebrated by the Indian American community but there have been significant voices against her and Biden, from the Hindu right within the community, for their stand on the human rights in Kashmir. For the sympathisers of the Bharatiya Janata Party here in America, that one position alone neutralises her history-making accomplishment. Add to that the fact she does not necessarily project her Indian heritage as much as her black identity to the chagrin of many wrapped up in such narrow definitions.
Impact on Indo-US ties
It is a fact that Dr. Gopalan raised her largely as an African American even while keeping up strong family and cultural connections to Tamil Nadu. She created quite a stir when she specifically referred to chittis, Tamil for aunts in one of her speeches, and often speaks of idlis and culinary professions fall short for many Indian Americans who want her to be much more insistently Indian in her bearing and utterances, which is quite a ludicrous expectation.
For Harris’s detractors among the Indian American community, their icon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sanguine outreach and praise of the vice president-elect via Twitter has smoothened some of the rough edges. During a phone call with Biden on November 17, the prime minister said he conveyed “warm congratulations” to Harris. In a tweet, Modi said, “Her success is a matter of great pride and inspiration for members of the vibrant Indian-American community, who are a tremendous source of strength for Indo-US relations.”
With the pandemic raging, rampant joblessness and a shaky economy, not to mention deep societal divisions and serious problems of systemic racial injustices, the Biden-Harris administration will have no time to focus on India’s human rights record in Kashmir in any substantive way. There are no expectations that her observations before the election will have any significant impact on the way the Modi government approaches the new administration. This is notwithstanding that the prime minister had openly declared his support for Trump’s re-election in a diplomatic faux pas.