The nomination of Kamala Harris for vice-president on the Democratic ticket in the US presidential elections has sent India into raptures. Indians, Tamils, Tamil Brahmins, even AIADMK party men, have gone wild with joy. In their book, she has won already. Chitthis of the world are ecstatic at being under the spotlight. Soon, even the Beasant Nagar A-block Residents Welfare Association may pass a resolution that all ex-residents of this south Chennai neighbourhood, now in the US, must stand with her.
The predominant sentiment is of pride in “our girl”. Even the strategic community believes she is going to be “good for India”, for H1B visas, for trade, and generally for India-US relations, never mind that the elections are still ahead. As for Joe Biden, the presidential candidate, he is a footnote in all the debate about Harris and her Indian family.
What will certainly not be discussed at all, or as much, are the home truths about India that Senator Harris’s nomination and her extraordinary journey serve to highlight. For one, a majoritarian democracy like the one India has become in the 21st century could not have produced a Kamala Harris.
As a woman, and a member of a racial and ethnic minority in the US, Harris’s rise to the top levels of the American polity, like President Barack Obama’s, was possible because of a system that recognises and accepts diversity. True, the recent protests in the United States have demonstrated that America’s oldest fault line is not just alive, it has grown wider and deeper in many respects. But the country’s democratic instincts run deep too. What has also been evident over the last few months is an acute awareness about the dangers of white supremacism, and the institutional, political, media and civil society pushback to prevent its rise, and President Donald Trump’s own attempts to fan it.
Black political representation is not a rarity. Data on the Pew Research Centre site shows that despite uneven progress, Black political leadership in the US has risen over the last 50 years, and is today at par with the share of blacks in the population. In 2019, there were 52 black representatives, the highest number since 1965, comprising 12 per cent of the House — about the percentage of blacks, the largest racial minority in the US, whose share in the population is about 13.5 per cent. While there are only three black senators (including Harris) and no black governors, overall, the trend is more representative than less. This is the ecosystem in which Harris grew as a politician. Notwithstanding her Tamil Brahmin ancestry, the comparison to Harris’s political rise in the US has to be with the shrinking space today for Muslim politicians in India, and the lack of all kinds of diversity in non-political arenas as well.
In India, Muslims, who are the largest religious minority and form about 15 per cent of the population, are comparable in size to the black community in the US. But their political representation has been sliding over the decades, since the highest tally of 49 Muslim Members of Parliament elected in 1980. In 2019, 27 Muslim members were elected to the Lok Sabha, 4.97 per cent of the total 543 elected. The BJP fielded just six Muslim candidates. All of them lost. The 16th Lok Sabha had 23 Muslims. None of them were from the BJP. The party, the political vehicle of Hindutva and Hindu majoritarianism, has fielded a total of 20 candidates over the last 40 years and only three of them have won (Christopher Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers, IE, July 30, 2018). As of date, the 242-member Rajya Sabha has 16 Muslims, or 6.6 per cent. Non-Hindutva political parties are also increasingly fielding fewer Muslim candidates as they play catch up with the BJP.
Senator Harris’s Indian Tamil mother and her dad, a black Jamaican, both foreigners in the US, met as participants during the Civil Rights Movement that was sweeping the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Leave aside the counter-factual that had they been deported to their respective countries for participating in a protest, as a German student at IIT-Madras was last year for marching with others in the campus against the Citizenship Amendment Act, there would have been no Kamala Harris to celebrate from Chennai to Delhi. Marriages between Indians and black Americans are rare, frowned upon by Indian parents. Mississippi Masala, the Mira Nair film, is nearly 30 years old. While attitudes to inter-racial marriages across groups in the US have loosened much over this time, among Indians, marriage to a black person continues to be discouraged and looked down upon by family and community. To understand this, check how black people are treated in India, not just those who self-identify as black, but also those who are dark-skinned. Marrying a Dalit or a Muslim is enough to set off group violence.
Communalism is now so normalised in India that all too many people no longer deem it necessary to hide their bigotry, and even the lynching of Muslim men in the name of Ram and cows has not provoked the outrage it deserved. Communal “othering” is so pervasive that most Indians seem to have no problem with the Centre’s use of authoritarian tactics, including the longest internet ban in the world, to roll out constitutional changes in the Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir, without giving the people there a chance to express themselves on these dramatic changes that includes changing the rules to enable demographic change. Kamala Harris, on the other hand, is the Other and represents the othered, identifying herself primarily as a black person, so much that few in the US knew she was half-Indian until last year.
Her nomination speaks to the recent Black Lives Matter campaign. Despite the divide between black and brown in the US, the participation of Indians in the protests over George Floyd’s murder by a policeman was a development noted for its potential for blurring the constructed political separateness of the two. In India, many see police brutality as a necessity to rein in lawlessness, never mind if the police themselves break every law in the book while doing so. The policemen who killed the alleged rapists of a woman in Telangana were showered with flower petals. The UP chief minister has been seen to encourage “encounters” such as the one in which the dacoit Vikas Dubey was killed last month. Movies are made about so-called “encounter-specialists”, making heroes of them.
In her speech accepting her nomination on August 19, Harris spoke about the “the promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all”, and how her mother Shyamala Gopalan had taught her two daughters “to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility”.
She spoke of “a vision of our nation as a Beloved Community — where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love. A country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect. A country where we look out for one another, where we rise and fall as one, where we face our challenges, and celebrate our triumphs — together. Today… that country feels distant.”
She might as well have been referring to India, where a nomination of a person like her would have been swiftly denounced as minority “appeasement” and her party accused of “minorityism”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2020 under the title ‘Their Kamala, not ours’.