Harris needs to rely on more than heritage to succeed with Indian American donors, voters: observers

Kamala Harris

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Indian Americans have donated $3 million to presidential campaigns so far in the 2020 campaign, , according to a story published by the Washington Examiner Monday. Two-thirds of that figure went toward Democratic hopefuls, mostly to California Sen. Kamala Harris, 54, whose mother was a Tamil Indian and her father Jamaican; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is not Indian American but is a Hindu, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, home to the highest percentage of Indian Americans of all U.S. states

Harris raised more than $387,000 from Indian Americans through June. Despite Harris dominating Gabbard in a slew of early primary polls, the first Hindu elected to Congress, boosted by her pro-Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stance, was only a touch behind with $374,000. Booker’s active role in his local Indian American community helped him attract $248,000. Former Vice President Joe Biden, in comparison, earned $173,000 since he entered the race in April from the community who’s seen him take part in annual White House Diwali celebrations.

The Examiner identified four Indian Americans as Democratic members of the House of Representatives: Ami Bera, California; Pramila Jayapal, Washington; Ro Khanna, California; and Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois.  On the Republican side, former United Nations Ambassador in the Trump administration and ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is said to be a likely candidate for the White House in 2024.

The approximately four million Indian Americans representing less than 1% of the U.S. population, with nearly 50 percent of voting-age Asian Americans voted in 2016 elections, with about 1.5 million of those being Indian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Democratic Maryland House delegate Kumar Barve, who in 1990 became the first Indian American elected to a state legislature, told the Washington Examiner: “It’s definitely a generational shift.”

“Indian Americans came here, they were professionals, they were upper-middle class, and a lot of them really didn’t need government services in those days, and so they had less of an incentive,” Barve said. “Their children began to be interested in politics because of public service and what they learned in school.”

But he said Harris isn’t guaranteed the Indian Americans community’s support, a sentiment reflected in the fundraising numbers, according to the Examiner. “It’s a plus-point certainly, but I think that most Indian American voters are going to vote for whoever they think has the best chance of beating Donald Trump.”

Harris, whose first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit, hasn’t made her Indian ancestry a central part of her campaign, the Examiner reported.  Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, called it a smart choice given the breakdown of African American and Indian American voters in the country but said it was “a source of a little bit of unhappiness in the Indian American community,” according to the Examiner report.

“While she has not denied her Indian American heritage and has spoken quite warmly about her mother, she identifies on the campaign trail as African American because this is a matter of political savvy. She recognizes this is where she’s going to pick up votes,” Ganguly told the Examiner.

Ganguly suspects the senator is “losing out on some of the funding from Indian Americans” but is optimistic she could make up ground by “being present,” he told the Examiner.

“For example, in Silicon Valley for crying out loud,” he said. “All she would have to do is show up at one of their gatherings and maybe make some nod toward her mother, and immediately she would win considerable support from significant segments of the community.”

Harris attributes her liberal leanings to her parents, who were civil rights activists who met in Berkeley, California, during the 1960s, the Examiner reported. Harris has also credited her maternal grandparents. P.V. Gopalan was a diplomat involved in India’s independence movement before spending time in Zambia resettling refugees after Great Britain relinquished control of its colony, according to the Examiner story.

“My grandfather, having been a freedom fighter in India and a very progressive person, put my mother on a plane, a transcontinental flight, which was unheard of in those days, 1959, to go and study at Berkeley,” Harris, who says he inspired her to enter public life, said at a Washington fundraiser hosted in May by Manan Trivedi and wife Surekha, the Examiner reported.

“There I would be, this young girl, holding my grandfather’s hand, walking with them as they would debate and discuss with incredible passion the importance of democracy,” Harris told Indian American leaders at the 2018 Impact Summit in D.C. of her grandfather and his peers, the Examiner reported.

In her 2019 memoir “The Truths We Hold,” Harris described her grandmother Rajam Gopalan as “a skilled community organizer.” “She would take in the women who were being abused by their husbands, and then she’d call the husbands and tell them they’d better shape up or she would take care of them. She used to gather village women together, educating them about contraception,” she wrote, according to the Examiner.

In the book, Harris wrote that her mother raised her and her younger sister Maya to be “confident, proud black women” knowing her “adopted homeland” would view the pair as “black girls,” regardless of their mixed background, according to the Examiner.


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