By Shivaji Sengupta
On Tuesday August 11, Joe Biden announced that Senator Kamala Harris will be his running mate for the November presidential elections. That announcement was supposed to have come in the first week of August. It came in the second week. The Democratic Convention starts on the Monday,17th August.
Predictably, the media is awash with this news, complete with congratulations and criticism from Massachusetts to Mumbai. For most readers of this newspaper, I am sure Ms. Harris holds a special place. Born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she stands to be the first Indian-American and the first African American to be nominated a vice presidential candidate. Only two American white, and no Black men, have ever been chosen as running mates to presidential hopefuls. So Indians in America must be pleased. I am.
And what a stir Kamala Harris has created in India! Politicians and commentators have praised Biden’s choice. “The fact that a person of Indian origin could be a proverbial heartbeat away from the [American] presidency is thrilling,” writes Shashi Tharoor of the Congress Party, now in the opposition in Parliament. Ram Madhav, a senior official in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, congratulated America on the historic choice. Another commentator praised the selection as a “triumph of diversity and democracy.” In Tamil Nadu, the South Indian state where Harris’s mother grew up, the reception of the news was special, with politicians and Kamala Harris’ relatives singing her praise in unison. Calls went from Chennai to Delhi at 2:30 A.M (exactly when Joe Biden was announcing his decision at 4 PM): “Wake up! Our niece has become the Vice President of the United States!” – a bit premature perhaps but exciting, nevertheless.
The Indian government, however, has not responded to the announcement at the time of this writing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his wisdom that he alone understands, has gone out of the way to cultivate his relationship with Donald Trump (curry favor may be a better description). Moreover, Ms. Harris has been openly critical of the government’s attempt to influence which members of Congress would attend a meeting on the disputed territory of Kashmir after Modi abruptly terminated – Trump-like – some of the rights of the Kashmiris. Kamala has also said the United States is following carefully potential human rights abuses in the region.
The story of her life is gripping. We learn of Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to the University of California, Berkeley, at age 19 to do a Ph.D.in cancer research, right after obtaining the bachelor’s degree from the University of Delhi. Shyamala’s parents were modern and well educated. Grandmother was a community organizer. Grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, was a senior administrator in the Indian government and was posted to Zambia to organize that country’s labor ministry. Shyamala married Donald Harris, an African-Jamaican man studying for a doctorate in political science at the same university. Both her parents were civil rights activists. Indeed, that’s how they met, because of their mutual commitment to human rights.
Shyamala Gopalan passed away in 2009. Donald Harris is Professor-Emeritus in Stanford University. With parents like these, young Kamala had an excellent start to life. She did not have to struggle in the same sense as many African Americans in politics have had to.
However, Kamala Harris’ achievements are impressive. A graduate from the famous Howard University, founded only a couple of years from the proclamation of 1864 that freed the slaves, she has a law degree from the University of California at Hastings. After passing the bar she practiced law in San Francisco, and, in time, was elected as its District Attorney; thence, to Attorney General of California, the first African American in the United States to have that honor in the largest state of the country. Reputed to be tough as nails, yet touchingly humane, she was a successful “top cop” with strong principles. For instance, Kamala Harris does not believe in the Death Penalty. When a popular police officer who was a public hero to the people of San Francisco, was shot and killed, Kamala Harris refused to bring the death penalty against the assassin, giving rise to much public discontent. She attended the officer’s funeral where Senator Diane Feinstein criticized her for withholding the death penalty. It didn’t change her mind.
The criticisms, and downright mudslinging have started. Some are pointing toward Critics the set of “bland, idealistic statements” she has made in her book, The Truths We Hold (2019), and elsewhere, about reforming criminal justice. As California’s Top Cop (attorney general) some people are saying, Senator Harris’ idealistic statements do not match her actions as A.G. She has been severely criticized for not being liberal enough when it came to crimes and misdemeanors, particularly of Black people. People have criticized Harris for being overly tough on crime. I do not agree. As DA she had to implement harsh the federal laws which, ironically, Biden helped write in 1994. As DA she had little opportunity to change them. But when she was elected attorney general of California, she did have a strong influence on judicial policy making and she revised and changed many laws protecting the poor and the disadvantaged.
Politics these days calls basic humane attitudes “progressive,” without considering the implication it has for the opposite of progressive, conservative. Nevertheless, I will use the term ‘progressive,’ to stay abreast with the times.
Ms. Harris has indeed been a progressive lawyer and attorney general in California. Here are some of her achievements: She did not prosecute for possession of marijuana for personal use. She founded the Coalition to End of the Exploitation of Kids. Formed task force, committees, and went after criminals involved in sex trafficking of children. Formed a reform group, Second Chance for Young Adults with Lateefa Simon the prominent social worker from California. Started a program called Back on Track that found jobs for young convicted offenders who, upon their release, could participate as a way of rehabilitation.
People often confuse tough legal actions to be conservative, as if taking humane positions on social issues automatically precludes taking tough legal decisions against criminal acts.
Here is what Kamala Harris wrote about upholding the law and also making changes. I quote from her autobiography, The Truths We Hold:
For too long, we’d been told there were only two options: to be either tough on crime or soft on crime—an oversimplification that ignored the realities of public safety. You can want the police to stop crime in your neighborhood and also want them to stop using excessive force. You can want them to hunt down a killer on your streets and also want them to stop using racial profiling. You can believe in the need for consequence and accountability, especially for serious criminals, and also oppose unjust incarceration. I believed it was essential to weave all these varied strands together.
There are other questions: how will Kamala Harris affect Biden’s chance to win the elections? By selecting Kamala, Joe Biden seems to have made a conscious decision to give up on the far left and radically progressive elements of the Party, the supporters of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders, in favor of the ethnic, especially Black voters. How will she stand up to the harsh and often unfair criticism that Trump and his allies are already levying against her?
Majority of the voters seem to believe that Kamala Harris will help the Democrats to win back the White House. She is intelligent, bright, extremely well-versed and well informed in contemporary politics; knows the law, and is a tough opponent. When Donald Trump was asked what he thought of Biden’s choice, he seemed to be at a loss for answer,; fumbling, he said she was her first choice for attorney general of California. Only after that, did Trump seem to find his latent nastiness and started becoming vicious. Thus far, the Republican strategy seems to be to cast Biden and Harris as a far left duo, that if elected they are going to ruin the country with lawlessness, raise taxes and defund the police. The allegations haven’t stuck. Claiming California’s “Top Cop,” to be in favor of defunding the police is a bit ludicrous!
The second question seems to be, will Black people vote for Biden with Kamala Harris on the ticket? It is well known that large swaths of Black people in the country demanded that Biden choose a Black woman to be his running mate. Harris, with her Indian lineage, is not one hundred per cent Black. (Incidentally, so wasn’t Barak Obama – with parents from Kenya and Kansas, he was half white). Will they go for her? Again, the answer seems to be yes. Shyamala Harris’ two daughters have been brought up as Black. They are fond of jazz and soul, enjoy soul food, worship in Black churches, and have many Black friends.
Most importantly, however, it is Kamala Harris’s long history of not backing away from confrontation, her iron-clad convictions on basic humane values, and complete confidence in the American Constitution, make her a ready, willing an able running mate. What the opposition is describing as “nasty,” “ambitious,” a president in waiting, is because of her tendency to challenge others when they clash with her peremptory values. This is what is behind her defiance of Joe Biden during the first presidential primary debate. Biden is from a different generation from Kamala Harris. Her disagreement on his compromise with segregationist southern senators over bussing is to be expected. Imagine a father and a daughter in a heated conversation at the dinner table over bussing children to another district. Would it make the father and daughter enemies? No. The first primary was held with Biden and Harris competing for the privilege to represent the Democrats in the presidential elections, a privilege Biden wrested away from the thirteen other Democratic candidates. Harris argued tenaciously and effectively, with some drama. Biden understood that, and did not hold it against her. The opposition’s attempt to make it a propaganda against Kamala Harris and the Democratic ticket is simply dirty politics. Nothing more. Kamala says she expects hostility from the opposition. She is ready. “I am a fighter,” she said in a recent interview. She is African American. She is Indian. Above all, according to her own self-identity, she is American.
One of Kamala’s heroes, Thurgood Marshal, the first African American justice of the Supreme Court, once said: “We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. . . . We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust.”
Senator Kamala Harris, hopefully the next vice president of the United States, is Justice Marshall’s echo.
By Shivaji Sengupta