Can Kamala Harris be Biden’s political successor?

She may consider herself Black, and take oath of office on the Bible, but during her run for California attorney general, Kamala Harris asked her aunt in Chennai to offer coconuts to Lord Ganesh for good luck

M.R. Narayan Swamy Dec 27, 2021
Title: Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman; Author: Chidanand Rajghatta; Publisher: HarperCollins India

She may consider herself Black, and take oath of office on the Bible, but during her run for California attorney general, Kamala Harris asked her aunt in Chennai to offer coconuts to Lord Ganesh for good luck. No, Kamala is no hypocrite; she is a true part of the multiracial, multiethnic and multi-religious melting pot called America. Pundits feel that if all goes well, she could transit to the Oval Office one day; incumbent Joe Biden has hinted at the possibility, even addressing her as "President Harris" in a verbal gaffe that was dubbed a "Freudian slip" and "subconscious foretelling" on social media. 

Kamala is already standing in for Biden as president, says veteran Indian journalist Chidanand Rajghatta in this riveting biography. She is loaded with politically risky grunt work unprecedented for a vice-president. She is involved with Biden’s biggest decisions besides wading into foreign policy. She has logged more miles than most vice presidents. Now media outlets are even assigning beat reporters for Kamala. “All the evidence suggests Kamala will be the most consequential and powerful vice president in US history.” 

Kamala’s is a remarkable success story considering that it was not until the 1980s, when she was on the verge of graduating, that her mother Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil from India whom she worships, could take up US citizenship and vote. Her now late mother was many years ago followed around in a supermarket with suspicion. 

Iyer no more!

Although Shyamala’s initiation into the Black community predated the arrival of the Jamaican who became her husband, she gave her daughters names from Indian mythology in part to help preserve their cultural identity. On her birth certificate, Kamala’s middle name is listed as Iyer. Two weeks later, her parents filed an affidavit to change her middle name to Devi. It is now Kamala Devi Harris. 

“In Indian society, we go by birth. We are Brahmins, that is the top caste,” Kamala explained. “For Brahmins, the bloodline is the most important. My family, named Gopalan, goes back more than 1,000 years.” 

Identifying herself as Black didn’t come easily. Many Blacks did not think she was Black (or African American) enough, just as Indians and Asians did not think she was South Asian enough. Some questioned her claims of Black heritage. But Kamala had no doubt as to who she was. “I’m Black, and I’m proud of being Black… I was born Black. I will die Black.” Rajghatta observes: “She expressed her Blackness so vigorously that it often eclipsed her Indian heritage.” 

Kamala protests in Canada

It was in Canada that Shyamala instilled in her daughters an academic rigour and discipline that would put them on a high achievement path. It was in Montreal that Kamala first displayed her penchant for demonstrative politics, mobilizing children to protest in front of their apartment building because the owner had banned them from playing on the lawn. In the 1980s Kamala courted her first arrest, protesting against Reagan’s policies almost every weekend. As she matured politically, she became bitterly anti-Trump. She made a mark in Howard University, Washington DC, the seat of Black academia. Though it was in California that Kamala sharpened her political chops, Howard and internships laid the foundation for her future career in government. 

Women running for office in the US have been held to a different standard than their male counterparts. After all, beneath all the modernist, progressive trappings, the US remains racially conservative in its hinterland.  

It was in 2002 that Kamala launched her first campaign for electoral office and became the first woman district attorney in San Francisco. In January 2011, by when her mother had passed away, Kamala was sworn in as attorney general of California. The decision to become a prosecutor for the government rather than a public defender is one she finds herself explaining to this day. Her first electoral retreat came in December 2019 when she announced her exit from the Presidential race. But she kept forging ahead. 

Kamala’s rise to power as a woman of colour led many to label her the ‘Female Obama’, a term she didn’t care for. She is a political animal of the East and West Coast, not Middle America, which forms the bedrock of the Republican base. Kamala represents the changing demographic of America, a gradually browning country. Although the US was 80 per cent white in the early 60s, it is tipped to become white minority by 2043. 

Dirty foes

False narratives have been repeatedly used against Kamala by her political foes, including conservative Republican women. She has been accused of rushing to the radical Left, wanting to socialize medicine, called a political insurgent and accused of instigating riots. After Biden picked her as his running mate, she faced attacks more severe than anything any woman had endured. She was dubbed a “monster” and a “mad woman”. She was called “horrible” and “nasty”. Her Indian name was made fun of. Demonizing a Black or brown woman was always easy for the Trump campaign. It was quickly forgotten that Trump gave $5,000 to Kamala during her first bid for attorney general in 2011 and $1,000 in 2013 during her re-election. Ivanka Trump contributed another $2,000 in 2014. 

But Kamala was always unapologetic about her choices, her style and her mannerisms. She was single for the longest time, entered an interracial marriage when she was 50, bore no children, and drew together a diverse family that embraced Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Christian, Hindu and Jewish members. She was also vivacious, chirpy and animated. She was not only not intimidated by men; she actually unsettled and overawed bullies. 

Why did Biden pick Kamala? After all, he was elected senator in 1972 when she was in primary school! According to Rajghatta, what she brought was star power, and political, executive and legislative experience. She was an effective debater, even a counterfoil to Trump. Kamala appealed to rank and file Democrats and fat cats on both coasts. She was well-connected to both Silicon Valley and Hollywood on the West Coast, and to Wall Street and the political establishment on the East Coast. 

But Rajghatta, one of the longest-serving foreign correspondents in Washington, asks a critical question: Can Kamala sustain the momentum and accelerate a transition to the Oval Office? Only Kamala – and history – can answer that query. 

Title: Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman; Author: Chidanand Rajghatta; Publisher: HarperCollins India; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 599 

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist)   

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