Once an editor of a major Indian newspaper told me that the Americans would never elect Barack Obama as US President because he was black and he was not exactly a Christian. He also explained why he thought so. Americans are racists and they would never allow such a person to come anywhere near Presidency.
How wrong he was! Obama not only became the President, he also had a second term in the White House. What’s more, he is rated as one of the five great presidents the US ever had. The 45th is arguably the worst president. Where was the racism the editor hinted at? It was in his mind.
When the Democratic nominee for the Presidency, Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate, there was great enthusiasm in India. This stemmed from the fact that her mother was a South Indian who migrated to the US in search of greener pastures.
A commentator even went to the extent of claiming that having been brought up on Idli and Dosa, Harris could not have been anything but an Indian. He even argued that she could be given the Person of Indian Origin Card which would entitle her to many privileges in India.
Significantly enough, the ruling establishment from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downwards, has not been overtly enthusiastic about her nomination. This was because of the general perception in India that Democratic Presidents had not been favourably inclined towards India, unlike the Republican ones.
The real reason was that Modi and Co. had aligned so much with the Trump administration that they did not want to annoy the US President who cheaply argued that he had better women of Indian origin to support him. The BJP thinks that Trump did a favour to India when he turned a blind eye to what it did to Kashmir.
They are also grateful to Trump who kept quiet when criminals were allowed to make mincemeat of law and order in Northeast Delhi when the American leader was on Indian soil. In contrast, Atal Bihari Vajpayee as foreign minister behaved better when he cut short his visit to China when the Chinese began a war against Vietnam while he was there.
In fact, Trump did not make a comment even when a journalist accompanying him asked a question about the violence reported from Northeast Delhi. Other than this, Trump does not seem to have done any favour to India or to Modi, though the BJP leader thinks differently.
Look matters more for Modi as can be inferred from the kind of inexhaustible wardrobe he has and the attention he pays to the dress chosen for every occasion be it the laying of the foundation block of silver for the Ram temple at Ayodhya or needlessly organising a gala programme in Gujarat to boost the image of Modi in an election year.
It was Trump’s wickedness at play when he questioned Kamala Harris’ right to become the Vice-President of the US. She has as much right as he has to become the President. In fact, his paternal grandfather was a Bavarian who started his career in the US, first, as a barber and, then, as a brothel owner and hotelier. His wife is of Slovenian origin.
In the US, anyone born in America is eligible to become a citizen with voting rights and eligible to contest for any post. In a nation of immigrants, it is foolish to talk about ancestry. When I visited a government high school in the US, the Principal showed me a world map on the wall with markers to identify more than 120 nations.
She said her students were children of people as varied as a Sri Lankan and a South Indian and they could trace their nationality to over 120 nations. If America is one of the easiest countries to get citizenship, India is one of the toughest in this regard. Unlike the US, any citizen of India, natural or naturalised, is eligible to hold any office in India. Yet, what happened in India?
Few people may remember that Sonia Gandhi had three or four chances to become the Prime Minister. In fact, following the assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress emerging as the single largest party, the leadership of the Congress was offered to her, virtually on a platter. She refused the offer, enabling PV Narasimha Rao to become the Prime Minister.
There was an occasion when she staked a claim to form the government. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, in sync with the BJP, pulled the carpet from under her feet. Later, he explained that he could not allow a “foreigner” to become the Prime Minister.
The Indian tradition is that once a person marries into an Indian family, she becomes an Indian. The people of Ayodhya questioned Sita’s chastity when she returned to Ayodhya after her husband defeated Ravan in whose captivity she was but nobody mentioned her nationality. She was born in Nepal!
In 2004 when the Congress got enough seats in the Lok Sabha to form a government, BJP leader, the late Sushma Swaraj, threatened that she would shave off her hair and would sleep on the floor as long as Sonia Gandhi remained the Prime Minister.
The venom-filled lady had no clue that Sonia Gandhi had a better plan — to nominate Dr Manmohan Singh to the post. However, the point that she was not allowed to become the PM, despite being a better Indian than most Indians, could not have but bugged her.
Those who claim that Harris is more Indian than American are also the ones who say that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are more Italian than Indian.
Yet, it was Modi, not Sonia Gandhi as head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), who capitulated to the Italians on the question of an Italian sailor shooting to death two South Indian fish workers catching fish in the Indian waters!
Modi must draw a lesson from the US Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden. Kamala Harris was his rival in the Democratic Party. In fact, she withdrew from the campaign only when she realised that she did not have much of a chance to become the party nominee in the 2020 November elections.
Yet, Harris is remembered for the vicious attack she made on Biden for his political beliefs and his personal conduct, especially in the context of his tendency to put his hands on younger women, be it on a public platform or in a private party. When he is introduced to teenaged girls, he also has the tendency to warn their brothers about the dangers of boys falling in line for their company.
Yet, Biden chose Harris as his running mate. Elections everywhere are unpredictable except in Russia and other autocratic countries where the results are decided before the elections begin. In America, the unpredictability is worse. Nobody in his senses believed that Trump, who cannot correctly put together a simple sentence with a subject and a predicate and whose misogynistic conduct is abominable would ever come to power.
In fact, even Trump could not have imagined that he would be elected to stay in a house about which President Kennedy said at a dinner meeting he organised for all the American Nobel Prize winners: “Never before in the history of the White House have so many geniuses assembled under its roof except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”.
That is why politics is defined as the art of the possible. As of now, Joe Biden has a better chance than Trump but like Modi who is capable of changing the electoral mood by bringing in extraneous factors like surgical strikes, he has been trying to change the rules of the game.
Trump is now busy undermining the US Postal Service, one of the most efficient, though it is used more to exchange trash than to send first-class mail, because of the finding that postal ballots favour the Democrats. In a tough contest, every single vote counts. That is why his attention is now on the UPS.
Should Indians go ga-ga over Kamala Harris? Everyone knows that in the US, the post of Vice-President is just ornamental. However, the incumbent is just a breath away from the President. That is why the post is important. However, it is not the first time that an Indian immigrant comes to prominence.
Chengara is a small place near Pathanamthitta where I grew up. Once I accompanied my uncle to Chengara from where his wife came. I liked the place, especially the tea garden, owned by the British before Independence. A person from that small place, CV Devan Nair, became the President of Singapore.
On my last visit to the US, I met a person from around the same place who is like a District Magistrate in a county in Houston, Texas. One term that Americans, whether Malayali or Punjabi, does not like is “Pravasi” (non-resident Indians). They are Americans who chose to live and die in America.
That is how Indians should see Kamala Harris. There is a belief that Biden has chosen her to grab some Republican votes. I do not have an insight into American politics but it can be safely said that Trump enjoys the support of the Modi Bhakts. I was also surprised to find pastors of Indian origin supporting him. In a way, I should not have been. When Mahatma Gandhi was in South Africa for 20 years, he was not bothered about the apartheid practised there.
His argument was that Indians like him should not be treated as the Blacks because they came from privileged backgrounds and were subjects of the British. In short, he wanted to be treated like the white. He did not argue against apartheid.
It is a different matter that today Gandhi is an icon for the black movement in America. His statue stands prominently in the Martin Luther King Museum at Atlanta. In America, few of them align with the African-Americans. They think they are more white than the white.
Kamala Harris has many qualities, desirable in a politician. I realised this when I thumbed the pages of her autobiography “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey”. I found it hagiographic. Her mother came from a privileged background in India and so was her father, a Jamaican by birth. She describes her childhood in glorious terms. One episode that struck me was a small passage:
“My mother would laugh telling a story she loved about the time when I was fussing as a toddler. “What do you want?” she asked, trying to soothe me. “Fweedom!” I yelled back.” When I read it, I remembered the autobiography of Abdul Kalam, the former President, who wrote more about the priest of the Rameshwaram temple than his own father and how he travelled to a temple in the Himalayas than to Chennai after an interview in Delhi. She writes every word with a purpose.
It is for the American people to decide whether Joe Biden had done the right thing by fielding Kamala Harris, instead of an African-American woman of substance. It is also for them to decide whether the Biden-Harris team should be chosen, instead of the Republican nominees. In politics as in international relations, there are only permanent interests, not permanent friends.
All the discussion about Kamala Harris as a game-changer for India is ridiculous as she would be an American, first and foremost. To see her as an Indian is as silly as to see Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as Italians.
Come November, Kamala Harris will be chosen or rejected on the basis of the American perception about Joe Biden and his running mate who have the job of undoing all the wrongs Trump committed as President. Let us be good spectators, rather than combatants!
(The author can be reached at: email@example.com)(Published on 24th August 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 35)