Posted on August 14, 2020

Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian-Origin Politicians in the West

Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, August 14, 2020

Should Joe Biden defeat President Trump in November, the United States would have its first female vice president, its first Black vice president and its first Asian American vice president all at once. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), announced as Biden’s running mate on Tuesday, is the daughter of immigrants — her Indian mother and Jamaican father met while university students in California. Her identity doesn’t define her politics, but it’s already shadowing the campaign.


“It’s a real affirmation that the Indian American community and politicians of Indian origin have arrived,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), whose parents immigrated from India in the late 1950s, told Today’s WorldView. “It sends a message that folks that look like you are in the highest office.”

That inspiring immigrant story has tempered, to a degree, the suspicion among U.S. progressives over Harris’s perceived moderate politics, as well as her controversial record as a tough-minded district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California. “Despite well-deserved criticism from the left of some of their policies, [former president Barack] Obama and Harris represent the cosmopolitan, interracial democracy that a majority of Americans aspire to live in today,” wrote Manisha Sinha, a professor of African American history at the University of Connecticut who is Indian American.


Harris is part of the small but noteworthy “samosa” caucus — five Democrats of Indian descent who have seats in Congress. Their ranks may grow after elections in November, as an increasing number of people of South Asian origin across the political spectrum hold positions in government. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. envoy and a former governor of South Carolina, and Bobby Jindal, a former governor of Louisiana and onetime Republican presidential candidate, are also the children of Indian immigrants.

But it’s not just about America. Should Harris become vice president in January, she’ll be stepping onto a political stage in the West that over the past decade has become more crowded by leaders of Indian heritage. In Canada, where those of South Asian descent make up an even larger proportion of the overall population than in the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has more ministers of Sikh faith than that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In Europe, their emergence has arguably been all the more striking: The most recent former prime minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, is half-Indian; Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa is of Goan descent, and in 2017 was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, India’s highest honor for members of its overseas community; and Rishi Sunak, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer and rumored Tory heir apparent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is the son of Hindu Punjabi migrants who were born in colonial Africa.

To an extent, this reflects a simple demographic reality. South Asians make up a fifth of humanity, and successful and significant communities in the diaspora exist throughout much of the world. {snip}