US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s choice of California Senator Kamala Devi Harris as running mate is remarkable in so many ways. Harris, born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, is a classic American story of immigration and integration, of course. At a time when President Donald Trump has sought to turn the US insular and less welcoming to immigrants, Harris’s choice offers an energising counter-narrative to a strain of populist politics that finds echoes across the world. It is also a defining moment for Black America pushed to the political and social wall, giving them a voice in the highest office. For the Indian immigrant community, too, after its success in technology and business, Harris’s candidature prises open spaces in politics and public affairs. The choice is also a testament to the robust institutional framework that binds the party structure in the US, in this case the Democratic Party, which enables leaders to welcome their rivals within and respond creatively to new social forces and realities to rally their base.
Harris, 55, was an ardent critic of Biden in her bid for nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Her powerful advocacy of race issues was in contrast to the understated response of Biden to campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. Sure, Harris is more centrist than Bernie Sanders and progressives may find her too cautious but her formidable record as an attorney-general and her hyphenated history growing up Black and Jamaican-South-Asian brings to the Biden ticket a rare energy and an excitement and a strong counter to Trump’s politics.
For all the understandable celebration in India about Harris’s rise, it should not be forgotten that hers is more an American story than an Indian one. Biden is not an unknown in New Delhi, he was Barack Obama’s deputy for eight years. Whether the Biden-Harris ticket wins, only November will tell but the Democrats seem to be on an upswing — remarkable for a party that was written off barely months ago. Yet, Harris wades into a deeply polarised domestic political landscape when Washington’s long-held assumptions on economics and foreign policy are being upended. For Biden to choose her from a wide field of Democratic candidates is also an admission that independent of personal preferences, a leader may need to respond to broader social resonances and engage with pushback from civil society for change to ride the tide.
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