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It is Vice President Kamala Devi Harris now

Kamala Harris had every strength that Joe Biden was looking for at the time and notwithstanding their rough exchange during one of the Democratic presidential debates where the former seemed to chide the latter over issues of racial justice the two eventually joined hands to create history.

There are sections within the Indian American community that have not just antipathy but even contempt towards Vice President Harris. Ironically, many of these voices are strongly aligned with the Hindu right and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even as someone at its helm, namely Prime Minister Modi, has taken a pragmatic and even an enthusiastic approach toward her.

BUY-SELL | HELP WANTED | MATRIMONIAL

By Mayank Chhaya, Special to Hi India

Barely four years after she first became a United States Senator, Kamala Devi Harris has now risen to be the first ever woman and that too of a mixed Indian Tamil and Jamaican heritages to become the country’s vice president. 

In her spectacular rise she resembles a similar trajectory of Barack Obama who went on from being a US Senator to President in a little over three years. Although she failed to win her Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2020, a confluence of socio-cultural circumstances ensured that she was chosen by former Vice President Joe Biden to be his running mate. Helped in no small measure by a relentlessly toxic and destructive President Donald Trump the Biden-Harris combine is for now firmly ensconced in Washington. 

Four years of assault on every aspect of America’s society and its democratic institutions created a groundswell that handed the Biden-Harris ticket an astonishing 81,283,098 votes, or 51.3 percent of the votes cast. Biden is the first U.S. presidential candidate to have won more than 80 million votes which is where the presence of Kamala Harris played a significant role in bringing out a huge number of non-white votes to decisively give the mandate to them.

Harris’s consequential life began in 1990, when joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Her mandate was to prosecute child sexual assault cases. It is an illustration of rise through the ranks that she served as a managing attorney in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and also as chief of the Division on Children and Families for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. 

In 2002, there was already a buzz in the Bay Area about the emergence of this new face San Francisco’s legal and political firmament. Sure enough, in 2003 Harris was elected District Attorney of San Francisco. It was apparent to anyone who cared to see that she was building up a substantive profile by doing things like creating, what her official biography calls “a ground-breaking program to provide first-time drug offenders with the opportunity to earn a high school degree and find employment. The program was designated as a national model of innovation for law enforcement by the United States Department of Justice.”

Seven years later she became the state’s Attorney General giving her the impressive perch of presiding over the country’s largest state justice department. As her biography explains, “She established the state’s first Bureau of Children’s Justice and instituted several first-of-their-kind reforms that ensured greater transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system.”

Harris distinguished herself in that top law enforcement position by winning a $20 billion settlement for Californians whose homes had been foreclosed on. Add to that a $1.1 billion settlement for students and veterans who were taken advantage of by a for-profit education company and her reputation as fierce fighter for ordinary Americans was cemented. To expand her brief, she went on to defend the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare in court, enforced environmental law, and was a national leader in the movement for marriage equality, as pointed out by her biography.

There are sections within the Indian American community that have not just antipathy but even contempt towards Vice President Harris. Ironically, many of these voices are strongly aligned with the Hindu right and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even as someone at its helm, namely Prime Minister Modi, has taken a pragmatic and even an enthusiastic approach toward her.

It was becoming clear by 2015 that Harris was perhaps destined for a much bigger national platform. In keeping with that in 2017 she was elected a US Senator, a job in which she emerged as a tough, non-sense figure who subjected much of the Trump administration policies to a sharp scrutiny and its top officials to some unsettling and searching inquiry. Throughout her three years or so in the Senate Harris kept broadening her interests to cover issues immigrants, refugees and DREAMers or immigrant youths who qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Her official biography highlights some of other works thus: “On the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, she worked with members of both parties to keep the American people safe from foreign threats and crafted bipartisan legislation to assist in securing American elections. She visited Iraq, Jordan, and Afghanistan to meet with servicemembers and assess the situation on the ground. She also served on the Senate Judiciary Committee. During her tenure on the committee, she participated in hearings for two Supreme Court nominees. 

As Senator, Vice President Harris championed legislation to reform cash bail, combat hunger, provide rent relief, improve maternal health care, and address the climate crisis as a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Her bipartisan anti-lynching bill passed the Senate in 2018. Her legislation to preserve Historically Black Colleges and Universities was signed into law, as was her effort to infuse much-needed capital into low-income communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

With that as the backdrop and Biden enlisting the now House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat as his chief outreach to the decisive African American vote, Harris’s profile became compelling as the running mate. Former President George W Bush told Congressman Clyburn “you know, you’re the savior, because if you had not nominated Joe Biden, we would not be having this transfer of power today.” Clyburn said Bush added that Biden was the only Democratic candidate who could have defeated President Trump.

In that dynamic, Kamala Harris had every strength that Joe Biden was looking for at the time and notwithstanding their rough exchange during one of the Democratic presidential debates where the former seemed to chide the latter over issues of racial justice the two eventually joined hands to create history.

Harris accepted Biden’s invitation to be his nominee on August 11, 2020 and in a little over five months erased unpleasant memories of her having to drop out of the Democratic primaries for not garnering enough support to become its nominee. 

In a choice fraught with symbolism Harris chose Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a trailblazing professional of Latin American origin, to administer her the oath of office on January 20, a crisp but somewhat wind-stirred winter morning in Washington. The 56-year-old former senator from California broke the glass ceiling that has kept women from rising to the country’s two highest offices of president and vice president. 

Congratulating Vice President Kamala Devi Harris India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet and I quote “It is a historic occasion. Looking forward to interacting with her to make India-USA relations more robust. The India-USA partnership is beneficial for our planet.”

Barely two weeks after the heart of America’s democracy, the Capitol Hill, came under a violent and shameful attack from hordes of angry misinformed mobs, the country retrieved some of its honor. President Joseph R Biden Jr. who was sworn in immediately after her used the occasion to make a firm but soothing speech to America that is dangerously divided and fractious in the aftermath of the presidential election which voted out President Trump.

On day one, as promised, President Biden signed a flurry of 17 executive orders through which he moved aggressively to dismantle a significant portion of Trump’s often regressive policies. He unveiled a mammoth $1.9 trillion rescue package, released a 21-page national strategy to combat the coronavirus, returned America to the World Health Organization, extended a federal moratorium on evictions and asked agencies to prolong a moratorium on foreclosures on federally guaranteed mortgages, returned America to the Paris climate accord and undo some of the harshest immigration policies of his predecessor. An important part of that dismantling was the preservation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

Vice President Harris is intrinsic to the highly ambitious agenda that President Biden has set for himself. From all available indications it is clear that she will not be a ceremonial appendage to the president but truly consequential partner as he goes about delivering on his promises. In that context the fact that Harris’s will be the tie-breaking vote in the 100-member Senate divided evenly between the Democrats and the Republicans gives her an even greater profile as vice president. Legislation is going to be a crucial part of the new president’s job and within that the vice president as chair of the Senate will be a powerful tool for him. The Democrats already have the control of the House of Representatives where Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be able to drive all of the Biden agenda without much difficulty even though her party has a thinner majority this time around.

Tie breaking votes are quite common in the Senate but in Harris’s case they afford her perhaps an unprecedented opportunity to shape America’s long-term future. Her predecessor, former Vice President Mike Pence, broke 13 ties, many of which to clear Trump’s Cabinet picks. For Harris, the tie-breaking vote could mean, apart from pushing Cabinet picks, helping move big ticket items such as coronavirus-relief bills, and electoral reforms.

While President Biden, at 78 which makes him the oldest first term president, generally remains fit, the 22 years that separate him from Harris works to her advantage when it comes to doing not just heavy legislative lifting but even some substantive foreign policy and domestic policy lifting as well. It is in this context that her diverse experience both in the senate and before that in California will come in handy.

From India’s perspective and that of the Indian American community her success, while a source of joy and pride, comes somewhat calibrated given her and her party’s views on human rights, particularly in the context of Kashmir. For instance, On August 5, 2019, Prime Minister Modi’s government revoked Article 370 that gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special protected status. The revocation upended decades of status quo on the country’s most troublesome, turbulent and violent part. Just a month late Harris was asked about that and she said, “We are all watching”. She has been known to hold a strong opinion on Kashmir even though her exposure to the highly complex issue is limited and remote at best. 

Another troubling feature from her recent past as far as relations with India go is the strong stand Harris took on the abortive meeting between India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and a Congressional delegation when he visited Washington in December, 2019. Jaishankar canceled the meeting because the delegation included Representative Pramila Jayapal who had introduced a resolution in Congress calling on India to end restrictions imposed on Kashmir in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370. Jaishankar did not want to meet if Jayapal was part of the delegation, a decision that Harris had strongly criticized. 

There are these angularities that the vice president bring when it comes to India-US relations. However, as Prime Minister Modi pointed out in his tweet his government is looking forward to working with Harris “to make India-USA relations more robust.”

While there are sections within the Indian American community that have not just antipathy but even contempt towards Vice President Harris. Ironically, many of these voices are strongly aligned with the Hindu right and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even as someone at its helm, namely Prime Minister Modi, has taken a pragmatic and even an enthusiastic approach toward her.

Perhaps there is a realization on Modi’s part that Kamala Harris now has a shot at the presidency in 2024 should Biden opt-out on grounds of age.

Mayank Chhaya is Chief Editor of Bharat FM, a rapidly growing new Indian American radio station out of Chicago, Cincinnati and Phoenix.
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