For over 2.65 million Indian Americans, Joe Biden’s vice-president pick is revolutionary, to say the least.
Among other things, Kamala Harris is the first person with Indian heritage to be on a major political party’s national ticket—a huge feat considering she’s among only a handful of Indian-origin leaders who hold public office in the US.
“Harris being nominated to vice president is going to excite and energise people. You’re going to have a record turnout from our community. It’s going to help flip Texas 22 blue,” Sri Preston Kulkarni, a US House candidate from Texas, told NPR.
“For me, it’s always been really important that you have someone who understands the experience of being marginalised within our communities,” 45-year-old Chicago attorney Madhuri Patel told Deccan Chronicle. Patel immigrated from Gujarat, India, at the age of six and grew up in predominantly white Iowa.
The diaspora has historically fundraised and voted for the Democratic Party. South Asians, most of them Indian Americans, were among Hillary Clinton’s strongest supporters with 90% voting for her in 2016.
But in the last three years, the scales have begun to tilt in the Republicans’ favour due to one key reason: the Donald Trump-Narendra Modi camaraderie. Trump has in the past confidently claimed, “I have more Indians than she has.”
Only election day will prove what’s true. But in the lead-up, just sharing stories of her trips to India and giving a shoutout to her chithis (aunties in Tamil) won’t be enough to convince the diaspora to vote blue.
The 55-year-old senator will be judged across various policies ranging from climate to immigration to police reform to Kashmir. Some strike a chord with the Indian American community more than others do.
Biden’s pick is a poster child of sorts for immigrant communities by virtue of her heritage alone. Harris’ mother is a cancer researcher who migrated from India to the US for her PhD. Harris has openly criticised Trump’s merit-based immigration plan as being “shortsighted.”
“What we are advocating for on behalf of South Asian communities are permanent protections for immigrants of all status, ensuring that no immigrants are left behind in Covid relief packages, ending the militarisation of borders and abolishing the detention system itself, and providing income support for everyone during this time,” said Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
Harris and Pramila Jayapal—another Indian-origin politician—reintroduced the Detention Oversight Not Expansion Act (DONE Act) to freeze the growth of ICE detention facilities and prohibit the construction of facilities a year ago. Then in April this year, Harris called for an investigation into inhumane conditions in detention centres at Otay Mesa.
Since 9/11, hate crime against Indian immigrants—especially Sikhs—has surged.
“We believe South Asians holding positions of political power in the US must be responsive to and take a clear stance on the transnational violence of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia and acknowledge the impact it has on South Asian communities across the diaspora, specifically those who are Muslim, Sikh, and caste-oppressed,” said Sridaran of SAALT.
Harris has been broadly fighting against hate crime. She has lobbied to make lynching a federal hate crime and introduced the Stop HATE legislation calling out the role of internet platforms in inciting real-life crimes. In May, she was also a part of the cohort that urged the department of justice’s civil rights division to address the surge in Covid-19-related anti-Asian discrimination.
However, her past with the Sikh community is a black spot. While serving as California’s attorney general in 2011, Kamala Harris defended a discriminatory no-beard policy that prevented an observant Sikh man from working as a state employee. Last year, over 1,100 people signed a petition asking her to apologise for this.
“[H]er record as an attorney in California is highly questionable,” Aditya Satsangi, founder of Americans4Hindus, an organisation that represents the interests of Hindus, told daily newspaper Tribune India. “She has in fact promoted corruption in California.”
Back in 2014, Harris’ office opposed the early release of prisoners because that would shrink the prison labour pool. She has also been accused of upholding wrongful convictions and side-stepping police misconduct.
Much like the broader population, Indian Americans, too, have questioned her stance on such cases.
“As a progressive organisation, Done Waiting believes that the criminal justice platform Kamala Harris adopted as Joe Biden’s running mate is insufficient to fully dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex,” Solomon Rajput, 28-year-old University of Michigan medical student and a progressive democrat running for Congress, told Quartz. “Their reactions to the recent turmoil of police brutality and racial justice protests have also inadequately addressed the systemic roots of white supremacy in our policing and prison systems. If Kamala Harris were to fully embrace a progressive and racially just criminal justice platform they would advocate to end qualified immunity and cash bail.”
Her anti-truancy programme from a decade ago that threatened parents with prosecution if their kids missed school has also drawn criticism.
“Criminalising parents will not solve the school to prison pipeline. There are other policy solutions such as, center family community engagement, that Kamala could have adopted that would have better reflected progressive values,” said Rajput.
Harris has been critical of Silicon Valley. For instance, she said Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act hampered her ability to combat sex trafficking. She’s backed a bill to give Uber and Lyft drives employee status.
On the other hand, she’s a potential ally for the Bay Area tech firms. Deep-pocketed entrepreneurs and investors have funded her campaigns before. Harris has not called for breaking up big tech companies or taxing the richest heavily. In fact, when asked about big tech’s antitrust issues—hampering tech development and abusive behaviour resulting from lack of competition—she said, “We cannot be shortsighted and I think that’s part of it. We have to allow these businesses to develop and grow.”
“This would be a con because it does not adequately address wealth inequality and will not push for a proportionate and equitable taxation plan,” said Rajput.
Last September, Harris unveiled a $10 trillion plan to zero emissions by 2045, which included revenue-raising endeavours such as creating a pollution fee and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. As a prosecutor, Harris made a career out of suing fossil fuel companies, and even she set up San Francisco’s first environmental justice unit to tackle environmental crimes.
“Climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing young progressives,” said Rajput. “We support Harris’s recent collaboration with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to address climate justice and hope she continues to prioritize an urgent agenda on climate change policy matters.” (Harris and AOC together introduced the Climate Equity Act to ensure that the government centres communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis in policy related to climate and the environment.)
Harris has time and again been critical of the situation in Kashmir after the Modi government revoked Article 370, stripping Kashmir off its autonomy. With the August 2019 move, the Ladakh district was splintered off into a union territory to be governed by the central government.
However, the Indian American community is largely in favour of Modi’s play. Several diaspora organisations like the Hindu-American Foundation, Overseas Friends of BJP, the World Hindu Council of America, and the Indo-American Kashmir Forum applauded the move.
In February this year, participants at a meeting at the Rajdhani Mandir in a Virginia suburb of Washington DC said that Article 370 promoted “corruption, terrorism and dynasty politics” and its abrogation will allow the people to take the region to new heights, The Week reported.
But luckily for Harris, the entire community cannot be painted in the same brushstrokes. Several members of the Indian diaspora have protested against Modi’s policies and held up placards that were critical of his stance on religion at the September 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston.