Is Kamala Harris Doing Much for India? What Indian Americans Think

Indian Americans are not convinced with Kamala Harris' approach towards India's COVID-19 crisis.

Indian Diaspora
3 min read
Is Kamala Harris Doing Much for India? What Indian Americans Think

When Kamala Harris paid tribute to her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an Indian immigrant, in her victory speech on winning the US presidential elections, the Indian American community erupted in celebration at the historic moment.

With Harris' political ascendancy, Indian Americans found representation on a global scale. But along with her meteoric rise to power, the weight of expectations shot up too.

In an interview to The Washington Post, over 20 respondents, including community leaders, political activists, public officials and others, said conversations about Harris’ response to India’s suffering and her involvement have amplified as India reels under the second wave of COVID-19.

Not Vocal Enough

“She is positioned as a lot of things to a lot of people. If you say you are representing this specific facet, you have to speak up when that facet — the population — is hurting," said Sujatha Shenoy, a 53-year-old business student at the University of Chicago, to the Post.

Another student, 22-year-old Aditi Kharod said despite Harris occupying the seat of vice president, the representation "rang hollow" for her mellow response to the crisis.

In March, when India started witnessing an unexpected rise in cases, a number of countries pledged help to India. The Indian American community too, jumped in to help. From doctors offering online consultations, to organisations sending medical aid, a number of well-known Indian Americans and their businesses offered support to India.

Around the time, Indian-American Congresspersons like Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Ami Bera pushed the Biden administration to mobilise aid for India. But amid all the clamour for help, Kamala Harris' cursory response to the crisis at an online event organised by the US State Department left Indian Americans dismayed.

"The surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths in India is nothing short of heartbreaking. As soon as the dire nature of the situation became apparent, our administration took action."
Kamala Harris at a diaspora event on Covid relief for India

Harris' diplomatic response to the US administration's support to India was not what the community hoped for. According to The Washington Post, Indian Americans wanted Harris to "undercut her 'America first' mentality" and "bring greater attention to India's pain".

“I thought she might speak about it with some more emotion, considering she has family there,” said Kharod, a recent graduate from North Carolina university. “It would show that this is the reason why it’s important to have diversity at all levels of government.”

Unfair Expectations?

Some others said the position of US vice president has its boundaries and Harris could only act within the limits of Biden's larger agenda. They felt Harris shouldn't be subjected to the criticism that Barack Obama was put through by the likes of Jesse Jackson – of not embracing his Black identity enough.

“We as Indian Americans have been shut out of the halls of power, as other minority groups have, and now that we have someone who’s got a name that is deeply familiar, has got family in India — that person represents this aspiration that we have that we want to be part of the conversation,” said Ashish K Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

He added, “But I think we have to just be thoughtful about how we translate that into specific expectations of specific individuals.”

America First

Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Kamala Harris has been vocal about her American identity. She has spoken multiple times of her Black heritage and the inspiration she draws from her mother and aunts in India, stressing how people have often tried to box her identity.

In an interview to Washington Post in 2019, she said:

When I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with. You are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created.
Kamala Harris
Harris calls herself simply “an American”, which according to some of her supporters is the best way to remain true to the community, without being a vocal advocate for one particular group.

However, according to the administration officials, Harris has been involved in high-level internal White House conversations about India's crisis and the US government's response.

Ami Bera, the longest-serving Indian American in Congress, told The Washington Post, that Harris has been advocating behind the scenes, and that having personal connections to India doesn't necessitate being solely responsible for US policy towards India — an assessment shared by other members of Congress.

"Whatever her identity, some Indian American activists say it does not obligate her to a particular role on India, noting that Biden, for example, is seldom asked to opine on issues related to Ireland," the Post notes.

(With inputs from the Washington Post)

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