Can Kamala Harris sway Indian-American voters? | Americas | North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 16.08.2020

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Can Kamala Harris sway Indian-American voters?

Many Indian-Americans see the choice of Kamala Harris as the Democratic running mate as a symbol of progress. However, most of them were likely already planning to vote for Joe Biden in November's presidential election.

In the most recent US presidential election in 2016, Indian-Americans presented a mostly united front. Around 85% voted for the Democratic Party, according to AAPI Data, which publishes demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Then-candidate Donald Trump, who had targeted Indian-Americans with an ad that featured him speaking Hindi, was only able to convince a small number of voters to back the Republicans.

Read more: Republican Anti-Trump campaigner: Trump presidency 'an utter disaster'

In the 2020 election cycle, both presidential candidates are paying attention to Indian-Americans. They currently make up just over 1% of the US population, but they have become increasingly active as a constituency and donors in recent years. Plus, they're one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the country.

In a statement aimed at Muslim American communities, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has criticized Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his poor treatment of the Muslim minority in his country. Trump, on the other hand, has launched an online advertising campaign with pictures of his February visit to India. He has promised to work closely with India and build on the friendship with Modi. Last September, Trump invited Modi to Texas where a political rally under the slogan "Howdy, Modi!" attracted tens of thousands of participants. 

Harris is 'an impressive and powerful speaker'

But now the Democrats have Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in Chennai, India. "It's exciting that a woman of color is on a major party ticket for the first time," said Sangita Gopal, who grew up in Kolkata and came to the US as a PhD student about 30 years ago. Gopal has followed Harris' career for a long time, ever since her brother, who works as a lawyer in Washington, told her about the rising politician from California.

Kamala Harris questions Brett Kavanaugh

As senator, Harris questioned Brett Kavanaugh during his late 2018 confirmation hearing

"She's an impressive and powerful speaker," Gopal told DW, recalling Harris' questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing for the US Supreme Court in late 2018. 

A friend, Gopal said, has been so impressed with Harris that she is now volunteering for the Biden campaign. Gopal also plans to vote for the Democrats in November, but her support has nothing to do with Harris' politics — for her, Trump is out of the question. The professor of cinema studies, wife and mother of an 11-year-old daughter would have preferred to vote for the progressive candidate Bernie Sanders.

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New politicians could inspire new voters

Will the choice of Kamala Harris convince any die-hard Indian-American Trump fans to vote for the Democrats? It's unlikely, said Rishi Bhutada, one of the founders of the Hindu American Political Action Committee (HAPAC), which counts some 3,000 subscribers to its mailing list. Trump supporters, he said, are motivated by economic factors. 

Kamala Harris Familie Leben

Kamala Harris (left, with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala) was born in Oakland, California

But the fact that Biden has chosen Harris as his running mate could change who will come out and vote in the first place, Bhutada told DW. "I do think the biggest effect of Harris being on the ticket is that those who generally don't vote might be more engaged now," he said.

Read more: 2020 election: Will mail-in ballots work smoothly?

The HAPAC has not yet decided which candidate to support in the upcoming vote; it still wants to hear back from both parties regarding its policy questionnaire. Bhutada wants to know, for example, how the candidates intend to tackle hate crime or how they will support the Indian government in the fight against terrorism. The HAPAC, which the Texan leads on a voluntary basis with five other fellow campaigners, hasn't made any donations to Harris campaign. In the past, the advocacy group has supported politicians from both parties, focusing on each candidate's policies.

A milestone, regardless of policies

Harris is seen as a solid candidate for the Democratic Party — she neither stands for a radically new agenda, nor appears too conservative.

But her identity as the child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, and her identity as a black woman, is a rare case in the American political landscape, and unprecedented for a position as powerful as that of vice president. 

So it's hardly surprising that the US Indian community is celebrating this moment. Mindy Kaling, a prominent producer and actor, filmed a cooking video with Harris in November 2019 in which she expressed her enthusiasm for the politician.

Comedian Hari Kondabolu feels "lukewarm" about Harris, but admits her candidacy is still "an important moment for many people." The comedian is known, among other things, for a critical documentary about the Indian character Apu in the long-running TV series "The Simpsons." 

Political scientist Anita Chari, of the University of Oregon, also sees the symbolism in Harris' success. She argues it's important that someone like Harris, who has ties to both the Black population and those of Indian origin, is part of the party leadership.

Read more: How California became Donald Trump's most hated state

"What I love about her and her candidacy is that there's this way in which Indian-Americans, South Asians, can show solidarity around her while also using that as a necessary point of conversation to really tackle and combat against racism in the Indian and South Asian community," she said.

Chari, who grew up in Chicago as a child of Indian immigrants in the 1980s, has also observed a slow, gratifying change. "There's been a lot of invisibility around Indian-American culture within the United States for a very long time and that's been changing in the last five years," she told DW. Harris' immigrant background, she added, could help her fight the hostility the immigrant community has seen from the Trump administration.

"I think she's been a very perceptive and intense critic of Trump, and a voice that has stood out."

A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Hindu American Political Action Committee. This has now been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.