Kamala Harris' Identity Is a Complicated Discussion for Indian Americans

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Harini Krishnan (R), the co-California state director of South Asians for Biden and a former campaign delegate for Democratic Vice Presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, poses with a cardboard cut out of Harris with her daughter Janani Krishnan-Jha ahead of the third day of the virtual Democratic National Convention at her home on Aug. 19, 2020 in Hillsborough, California. (Michael Short/Getty Images))

When presidential candidate Joe Biden announced California Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick, there was an outpouring of support from many Indian Americans who pledged their votes and dollars to the campaign. But since the news broke, Indian Americans have been having complicated discussions about Harris' identity.

Many Indian Americans tend to lean left and vote for Democratic candidates, says AAPI Data founder and director Karthick Ramakrishnan. He says almost 68% of Indian Americans favor Joe Biden. Now that Harris, who was born in California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father, is on the Democratic ticket, he believes that support will only get stronger.

"We're probably going to see a lot of movement among Indian American donors increasing their support for the Democratic ticket," Ramakrishnan said.

His research shows that Santa Clara County has the highest population of Indian Americans in the United States. Because of that, he believes a lot of money will flow from the county to the Biden-Harris campaign.

But apart from their financial support, some Indian Americans have mixed feelings about Kamala Harris. Ramakrishnan says some members of the Indian American community were skeptical about how much she talked about her Indian heritage during the presidential campaign.

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"She did not want to lead with her identity," Ramakrishnan said. "Whenever she was asked about it, she would gladly answer and talk about her Indian heritage, but it's not something that she wanted to lead with." He believes that during her vice-presidential campaign she'll be able to talk more freely about her background.

While on the presidential campaign trail, Harris did some campaigning targeting Indian Americans, including talking with Hasan Minhaj on the show "Patriot Act about her Indian heritage and making dosas with Mindy Kaling in a campaign video that became popular after extensive shares on Facebook by Indian aunties and uncles.

Social media shares do not necessarily translate into votes for every Indian American. Pugal Anbu with the SF Bay Area Tamil Manram, a local group for Indian Americans from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, believes that Harris' Indian identity isn't enough to sway right-leaning Indian Americans who plan to vote for President Trump in November.

"I personally see this as a battle between right wing versus left wing ideology," Anbu said.

The Trump campaign has also been reaching out to Indian Americans. Trump visited India in February and hosted a "Howdy Modi event" in 2019, in which Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met crowds in Houston. Anbu says Modi and Trump fall along the same political lines.

"Back in India, our prime minister, Narendra Modi, represents nationalism and right-wing policies," Anbu said.

Anbu believes Indians who already lean to the right aren't likely to change party lines solely because Harris is Indian, and Harmeet Dhillon, the national committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California, agrees.

"My identity has nothing to do with my position on most issues: taxes, health care, education," Dhillon said.

She also argues that, from a politician's standpoint, there aren't enough Indian Americans in the United States to sway an election in either direction.

"They can be helpful in financing, in certain messaging and grassroots organizing in those communities, but [the] 1% or 2% we're talking about here are not enough to turn out the vote for your 51% that you need," Dhillon said. "Pandering to them for political gain is not a winning proposition in the long term."

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Pugal Anbu agrees — Indian Americans aren't going to vote in unison — noting there is Kamala Harris on one side and Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and former Republican governor of South Carolina, on the other.

What excites him is that he's slowly seeing his community represented on both sides of the political spectrum — that gives him hope that maybe someday he can see his teenage daughter up there, too.

"So far, she was interested in other activities like dance and music, now she seems to be listening to political news too," Anbu said.

He's trying to encourage her to look up to Harris and other Indian American politicians who are making it big, and maybe run for office herself one day.