“She is making history. A lotus blooms for the first time in the White House. It’s amazing for me to see a woman of colour, of my heritage to be VP of America. I feel hope for this country and joy!” Our 10-year-old Indian-American granddaughter in New York rejoiced as Kamala Harris became Vice President (VP)-elect. Like millions of girls today in the US who look like her, she can “dream with ambition and lead with conviction”.
The biggest blow for gender equality in participation and leadership for women in government, a long-cherished goal in the feminist agenda, has been struck. Harris has shattered the second-highest glass-ceiling in the oldest democracy in the world. It is paradoxical that it took 244 years after American independence and 100 years since the Suffragette Moment to secure a right to vote for women in this crucible of the global feminist movement. Finally, Harris had the privilege of being chosen as America’s barrier-breaking woman of destiny.
Harris’s elevation to VP pushes the frontiers of diversity. Notably, she is the first biracial (South Asian and African), intercultural (Indian and Jamaican), interfaith (Hindu and Baptist) woman and daughter of immigrant parents to hold this post. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff (white and Jewish), is the first “Second Gentleman” and their “modern blended family” is a new role model. Hence, Harris represents intersectional feminism in an increasingly multicultural, pluralist America.
It is heart-warming that Harris credits her Indian heritage as a major motivator. In her rousing victory speech, she saluted her Indian mother as the “woman most responsible for my presence here today — Shyamala Gopalan Harris who believed deeply in America where a moment like this is possible”. She is a high achiever due to her upbringing by an intellectually vibrant, values-based single mother from India.
Her grandfather P V Gopalan and Shyamala’s civil rights advocacy and political consciousness shaped Harris’s political activism in an “incredibly formative” way. Shyamala told her “you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last”. She also ensured that Harris and her sister, Maya, visited Chennai often and introduced them to Hindu temples and mythology. Her Indian family, including her aunts (“chithis”), have been her emotional support system.
Some Indian-Americans complain that she emphasises her African identity over the Indian. Harris said that Shyamala “realising that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls”, raised them as “Black daughters”. She also attended the historically black Howard University. Her political identity captures the 38 million African-American constituency and the 4 million Indian-American constituency. When paying a tribute to all women of America on whose shoulders she rose, she singled out women of colour, but particularly honored “Black women’s” contributions.
Her strong career as a prosecutor led her to be the first Indian-American and African-American woman to be Attorney General of California (2010-2016). She distinguished herself by getting a $25-billion settlement for California homeowners, defending climate law, healthcare and fighting cross-border drug trafficking. In 2013, The Times named Harris as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”. She became the first Indian-American and African-American Senator in 2016.
Unlike most VPs who are mere shadows of their Presidents and fade into oblivion, Harris is likely to be different. A fierce critic and Democratic presidential race rival who lost to Biden, she praised Biden for having the “audacity” to make a “barrier-breaking pick”. She was the best choice for VP for her intellect, advocacy skills, affable personality, political savvy and her California resource advantage of influential hi-tech and media industry support plus her outreach to people of colour. Biden seems to have co-opted her consciously as a person he wishes to groom to succeed him.
Her elevation to VP is an American milestone with repercussions globally. It could impact India in two ways — for the standing and progress of Indian-Americans and for Indo-US relations in deepening people-to-people affinities, strategic partnership, global policy concentration and diplomacy. Therefore, she is likely to be an influential voice in decision-making in the White House. Also, if there is to be a 50/50 divide in the Senate, she would have to chair and exercise her casting vote.
Of course, the extent of her influence on US foreign policy will depend on the stature of Biden’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. Her support for multilateralism and leadership on global public goods like sustainable development, climate change and fighting the pandemic will be about making America great again by engaging and leading the world in global cooperation.
Beyond the symbolism of her election for gender equality, Harris promised that passing the long overdue Equal Rights Amendment in the US is her “first order of business”. She is expected to bring issues that impact girls and women, including their sexual and reproductive rights, economic empowerment and political participation and leadership, on the global platform in unprecedented ways.
Her statements on Kashmir and CAA in 2019 raised concerns in India. However, she will now hopefully live up to the promise of according “high priority” to the deepening of Indo-US relations, especially in security-strategic area, India’s UNSC membership and combating cross-border terrorism as promised in the Biden-Harris campaign document for the Indian-American community. Also, she will, expectedly, reciprocate the warmth with which India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have owned her as India’s daughter and celebrated her success as “pathbreaking”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 16, 2020 under the title ‘Yes, she can’. The writer is former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women