Playing the ‘Indian Card’: Why Identity of Harris, Gabbard Matters

Although Harris is popular for her progressive views, Gabbard has managed to corner more ‘Indian’ votes.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (L) and Senator Kamala Harris (R).
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In recent years, India-US relations have grown under aligning realpolitik – the threat of a rising China, mutual economic interests, and their leaders’ identical populist rhetoric against Islamic extremism. This may change as Modi struggles to retain power in the upcoming Indian general elections, and President Trump’s popularity continues to wane with the rising Democratic challengers for the 2020 presidential race.

The Democratic stage is already crowded with presidential hopefuls. Indian-Americans, usually a politically silent minority, are overjoyed at the prospect of Indian-American Senator Kamala Harris and Hindu-American Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard throwing their hats in the ring.

More Than Another Obama

Kamala Harris, 54, born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, declared her decision to run for the US presidential race on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on 21 January 2019. Harris is the first Indian-American woman to become a Senator, the first Indian-American woman to become a San Francisco district attorney, and the first Indian-American woman to become California’s attorney general.

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A recent Daily Kos straw poll of 28,000 voters found Senator Harris leading the Democratic nominees by 27 percent, followed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and ex-Vice President Joe Biden at 18 percent and 13 percent respectively. Gabbard was further down the list at just 1 percent.

When asked at the Howard University press conference whether she identifies as an African-American or an Indian-American, after her bid, Harris bluntly replied that she identifies as “a proud American”.

Harris has honoured her African-American roots by declaring her presidency on Martin Luther King Jr Day. Furthermore, she has fashioned her campaign colours and typography as a tribute to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president in 1972.

News outlets had frequently compared Kamala Harris to Barack Obama, long before she decided to run for president. Both share multi-racial backgrounds, are young senators, and good orators. Some however, have criticised the title of “Female Barack Obama” in describing Senator Harris’ beliefs and personal accomplishments.

“It's also symptomatic of a lazy habit that infantilises high-profile women in America and abroad, and skims over the personal details and unique circumstances that shaped them,” writes Holly Thomas for CNN.

Straddling African and Indian Identities

In her memoir The Truths We Hold and her campaign tweets, Harris has repeatedly credited her Tamilian mother, a breast cancer researcher who raised her and her sister as a single mother since Harris was seven, as a major influence in her political career.

Despite her growing popularity, Harris has been unable to connect with Indian-Americans as well as Gabbard has. Indian-Americans are wary of her projection as more of an African-American candidate than an Indian-American one.

The diaspora has not forgotten Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American to run for president, who spent a majority of his campaign distancing himself from his Indian-American roots, eliciting a Twitter backlash with #BobbyJindalSoWhite.

The Asian American Voter Survey conducted in 2018 by AAPI, found that only 52 percent of Indian-Americans held a favourable opinion of Senator Harris, and 20 percent did not recognise her. Other Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, performed better with 56 percent, 80 percent and 68 percent respectively.

Senator Harris has spoken up on immigration reform and the rapid rise of hate crimes against South Asians, issues that affect the Indian community. Since 2016, there has been a 45 percent rise in hate crimes against South Asians according to a report by South Asian Americans Living Together (SAALT).

Based on her campaign video and campaign promise “For the People,” it is likely that Harris’ campaign will focus on domestic policy over foreign policy. “The core of my campaign is the people. It is the people, and understanding that we all have lives that are complex,” replied Harris at a press conference at her alma mater Howard University. Unlike Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign against “endless war” or Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s campaign centered on climate-change urgency, Harris has not pigeonholed her campaign into a narrow focus this early in the election.

On foreign policy, Harris has only stated that “we cannot conduct foreign policy through tweets.”

Tulsi Gabbard Has the ‘Hindu’ Card

Tulsi Gabbard, the four-time Hawaiian Congresswoman and Iraq war veteran, has built her campaign around “the issue of war and peace,” particularly anti-interventionism. In a sea of Democratic candidates expounding domestic policies, Gabbard’s campaign stands out for her focus on foreign policy.

However, the 37-year-old remains a polarising figure in the Democratic Party, largely due to her close ties with ‘authoritarians’ abroad, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and her controversial statements on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion.

Indian-Americans, largely Hindu, rejoiced when Gabbard became the first Hindu to take her Congressional oath on the Bhagavad Gita. Gabbard, while not of Indian origin, converted to Hinduism in her teens and has been a proponent of her beliefs since.

Indian news channels like India Today have called her “India’s favourite congresswoman” and Telegraph India has called her the Hindu-right’s American mascot. She has close ties with Modi, amply highlighted in the foreign affairs section of her campaign website.

Furthermore, according to The Intercept, one-third of the donations to her campaign from 2011 to 2018 came from donors with Hindu names. Of these, at least 105 donors were current and former officers and members of US Sangh affiliates and their families.

In an interview to Quartz in 2016, Gabbard denied any affiliation to the RSS, and denounced the use of her photos at Indian events for “promotional reasons” by both sides.

Gabbard & Harris’s Contrasting Rhetoric

Ideologically, Gabbard’s rhetoric against “radical Islam” fits neatly with the Hindu right-wing. In 2014, during her visit to India, Gabbard told NDTV that America had failed in its “very clear” mission to defeat “Islamic extremism.” She has decried President Obama’s policy of not linking terrorism to “radical Islam” on numerous occasions.

In contrast, Senator Harris has vocally criticised the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and the surge in hate crimes against Muslims in California.

Harris told Breitbart, “Rhere are extremists who are using religion as a cloak to commit terror and terrorist acts. And I think it would be a mistake for any of us to mistake the religion for the terrorists. They can be distinguished. And they should be in our language as well as our policy approach.”

Another Indian-American contender to Trump could be from his own party. Nikki Haley, the past US Ambassador to the UN, is one of the few Trump appointees who managed to resign gracefully from the White House.

Speculations abound that her resignation in October 2018 was a precursor to her run for the Republican nomination. Haley has, however, denied these rumours.

While Harris’ foreign policy positions remain a mystery, India can expect further deepening of economic and security interests under both Gabbard and Haley, were they to rise up the election totem pole and win.

(Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Boston, USA. She specialises in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues. She tweets @BansariKamdar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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