Dear all from Kamala Harris's village, don't bring out the laddoos


This was from the time that Kamala Harris, now vice-presidential candidate on the Joe Biden ticket, was trying to be US president. She had gone on a show that had a very large African-American audience and there, had laughingly admitted to smoking weed as an undergraduate and listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg. While her very strict stance on drug possession later on as prosecutor, seemed immediately to be at odds with her being so chill about having smoked a then illegal-substance herself (a fact pointed out in a heated exchange during one of the primary debates by Tulsi Gabbard),what was perhaps more incongruous were the hip-hop artists she had claimed as having listened to, since none of whom were making records when she was in college. To put it in an Indian perspective, it is like saying you love Hindi music and your favourite artist, in the 90s, according to you, was Arijit Singh.

Critics called out the apparent falsehood, citing it as an attempt to pander to her African-American vote-bank by inventing a past that probably never existed. Some others defended her saying that she had been quoted out of context, and that's not exactly what she said, but what I took away from all of this---she, like most Indian-American desi teenagers of a certain age trying to meet high parental expectations, was possibly listening to Carnatic and Indian classical music, and her claiming to be deep into hip-hop music, rather than inauthentic politician-speak, was more wish-fulfilment, what she wished growing up had been, rather than what it was.

I am joking of course, but let's face it. Growing up as an Indian American is tough. As a child in the 80s, I spent a few years in the US and Canada because of my father working there. I went to junior school, where the fact that I wasn't allowed to date or hang out at the mall and had to go home direct from school to study and the fact that my hair was combed a certain way and my mother insisted on lathering my cheeks with Vaseline, added layers to the bullying I was already subject to because of my skin colour. Between the parental desire to bring you up 'Indian', and the world outside being 'American', boys and girls in their most formative years get torn apart, leading them to either embrace their identities with a passion, or more commonly, reject them totally, as they grow up.

And this is for those who grow to be engineers, doctors and lawyers. If you want to become a politician, where getting the approval of others is a precondition of being in your profession, things are even worse. Piyush Bobby Jindal converted to Christianity while in high school and went on to conduct exorcisms, yes you read that right, exorcisms, and Nicky Haley identified herself as Caucasian during voting registration. Now, for both of them, this possibly made sense, because the Republican party, at its core, identifies Americanness as "white and Christian", and to break into the exalted power circles of this party, particularly from the south, where both Bobby Jindal and Nicky Haley were, it possibly made sense to hide as much as possible who they were, failing which, to thoroughly reject their faith and origin.
The Democratic party is different though, it is arguably much more 'big tent', but it has an expectation of the immigrant narrative -- huddled masses escaping persecution abroad, sliding below barbed wire, looking towards exceptional America as a beacon of freedom, and then finding heaven in the 'greatest country on earth'. "My mother is a top-level medical researcher" or "My dad is a university professor" just does not fit into that story of deprivation. Which is why most Indians trying to make a name for themselves in the Democratic hierarchy are tempted to invent a narrative of victimhood, even when it may not exist.

The 'Indian' identity, by itself, is not a big vote-catcher in the US, in the way African-American and Hispanic are, because Indians are not that big a population segment, nor do they contribute millions of dollars to campaigns as a group. So while the Marco Rubios and the Ocasio Cortezes will never ever miss an opportunity to talk about their Latino/Latina heritage, the Indian-identity US politician has little incentive to. This is why the Pramila Jayapals and the Ro Khannas come across politically the way they do, for in the Democratic party, specially in the ultra-progressive corner in which they operate, taking pro-India positions brings a definite downside, with no corresponding benefits. One need not look beyond Tulsi Gabbard, who, because of her Hindu faith, has swayed pro-Indian, been pilloried in some progressive media circles for that (Hillary Clinton called her a Russian agent), but has not significantly politically benefited from her consistent pro-India stance in the Democrat party, to the net effect that it has affected her career negatively.

In her defence, Kamala Harris does not deny her Indian heritage in the way of a Bobby Jindal, nor does she emphasise it much either, because, as I said, it can only hurt, not help. Except, during the Democratic presidential process, she had to make a video with Mindy Kaling eating masala dosas and it was obvious she was desperate for support, any kind of support, and within a few days, she had dropped out.

The identities Kamala Harris owns and runs on, of being black and woman, are identities that align with the progressive section of the Democratic party, even though her record is mostly that of a middle-of-the-road moderate Democrat. Her strong 'Lock 'em up and throw away the keys' criminal justice record would please most desi uncles and aunties. and she gave away her Indian roots by being proud of her very very desi policy of threatening parents with jail time if their children missed school.

Of course, the problem here is with Indians, or rather our desire to appropriate as their own anyone with Indian roots, regardless of whether that person chooses to reciprocate their association or not. To even expect Kamala Harris to 'support India on Kashmir' is nonsensical, of course she does not. The Democratic party has never quite recognised India's concerns and aspirations, so how different would she be, and if anything, I would say her statement on Kashmir was the least inflammatory among the ones made by prominent Democrats. This was because she is a moderate Democrat, whose progressiveness is a strategic garb rather than foundational, the way it is for a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren or a Pramila Jayapal or a Ro Khanna and there must have been some other more political reason for her mild language on Kashmir, but it's not because she has a corner in her heart for her mother's country. She possibly doesn’t and shouldn't be expected to either.

Make no mistake, Kamala Harris is a historic candidate. She might go on to become America's first female and second black president, and right now, she brings much to the presidential ticket that Biden does not---youth, intelligence, oratory and her identity as a black woman, an identity that is on the right side of history. But her Indian-ness is irrelevant to her story, kind of like the recipe of the masala dosa she had with Mindy Kalling in that YouTube video. And if no one in Kenya distributed 'laddoos in the native village' because Obama's father came from Kenya, we should do the same for Kamala Harris.

If you asked her, I guess, she would want that too.

Arnab Ray, known more popularly by his moniker Great Bong, is an author, blogger and podcaster.

(To download our E-paper please click here. The publishers permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Free Press Journal

www.freepressjournal.in