How Kamala Harris bloomed US politics

Dubai - Chidanand Rajghatta, a veteran Indian foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C. for over 25 years, unpacks the engrossing political journey of the American Vice-President, who has broken several glass ceilings in one shot


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 2 Dec 2021, 2:53 PM

US Vice-President Kamala Harris made history on November 19. She became the first woman, albeit briefly, to be given presidential powers while Joe Biden underwent a regular health check. Harris, 57, was in control for 85 minutes, while Biden was placed under anaesthesia for a routine colonoscopy on that Friday. She is, well and truly, a heartbeat away from the presidency. However, Harris can be a bundle of contradictions.

Black voters considered her not Black enough. Her South Asian heritage — her mother Shyamala Gopalan (1938-2009) was an Indian-American biomedical scientist — has often been deliberately played down much to the annoyance of Indian voters. While many other voters did not have a clue about her.

Chidanand Rajghatta, a veteran Indian foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C. for over two decades, is a natural fit to decode Harris’s epochal ascent, which includes several firsts such as the first African-American and the first Asian-American vice-president.

wknd. spoke to Rajghatta about his most recent book Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman. He is also the author of Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason and The Horse That Flew: How India’s Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

I guess the title of your book is derived from American poet Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman. What’s phenomenal about Kamala Harris?

We have to separate Kamala Harris the person from Kamala Harris the politician. The jury is still out on her performance as a vice-president; we are too close to history and current events. But her growth as an individual and her rise in politics and public life is truly phenomenal. You have to remember two things: one, it is very difficult for women to come up in politics without spousal or familial or dynastic connections. Most women politicians in the US, and indeed in many parts of the world, have had family political legacy. Harris not only lacked that but she was also a child of immigrants, and immigrants of colour at that. Her parents came to the US as students, and her upbringing was that of a first-generation immigrant child. For someone like that to rise to the office of the vice-president and be within a heartbeat of the Presidency is truly phenomenal.

How do we separate Kamala Harris the person from the politician as the 49th vice-president of the US?

We are all individuals first before we belong to the title or job we hold. A personal journey through life traverses several milestones and job descriptions. Kamala Harris is not just a politician but also an activist, an attorney, a daughter, a sister, a mother. She is the sum of many parts and experiences, and vice-president is just the latest avatar and possibly not the last either. Her role as a politician is still unclear because she wasn’t even a Senator for a full term. So, why is there so much curiosity around her, which goes beyond the subcontinent, where she partly traces her origin to? The curiosity comes from her having won an office that has been denied to so many women before her. Remember the two previous Vice-Presidential candidates — were both white women and they did not succeed in winning. And then Hillary Clinton was denied a win that would have given her the White House and made her the first female President in US history. So the US has been waiting a while for the first female Vice-President and the first female President. Harris has broken the first glass ceiling and there is a sense, an expectation, that she could breach the final frontier too. So, there is a lot of curiosity about who she is, what made her what she is. The fact that she has been in the public limelight for a relatively short period — unlike say Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi — makes her a subject of greater curiosity. Not much was known about her before she became vice-president.

How difficult was it for somebody like her to achieve what she has achieved?

I think it has been very difficult. Not so much the vice-presidency, for which she was nominated by Joe Biden despite her failing to win the presidential nomination and not winning any delegates, but there elected offices before that. Remember both the office of senator and office of attorney general the two previous races she won, are statewide elected offices, and California is a large state. With a population more than that of Canada or Poland. For a single woman of immigrant origin with no political heritage or legacy to win such a big statewide office is quite a feat. The fact that her presidential campaign failed to ignite and she came up short should in no way diminish what she had achieved till then.

How is Californian politics more intense than the rest of the US?

California is the largest state and economically more influential and weighty than any other state in the US. It has been said that if California was a separate country, it would be the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world. It has a $3 (Dh11.02) trillion economy, almost as large as India’s. It is also home to Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Its politics has always been effervescent and dynamic. For her to break through a state that has produced not only strong colourful men, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to name two, but also formidable women — Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein — is quite a feat.

Where does her political consciousness come from?

Most of it comes from her parents, who may not have been in politics, but were activists who were very much part of the political agitation in Berkeley in the 1960s. They came from a left-liberal tradition and their activism left a deep imprint on Harris. There were also other figures such as the economist Dr Ajit Singh and Dr Amartya Sen, who were her parents’ friends and contemporaries, who were a significant influence in Harris’s life.

How much did her mother Shyamala Gopalan-Harris influence her?

Her mother absolutely is the most profound influence in her life. Everything she is goes back to her mother, who raised her and her sister Maya almost single handedly, The outspokenness, the resilience, the courage to chart her own path despite daunting odds, all comes from her mother, who, as some people who have read the book have told me, was as phenomenal, if not more than Harris.

Give us a sense of her mental toughness. How she couldn’t be bullied by Donald Trump?

Absolutely… remember she first came up politically in California against overwhelming odds, a relative newbie in a state dominated by big players with big money backing. She was repeatedly derided and denigrated as a squeeze of Willie Brown, a Democratic bossman in the state. She withstood and overcame all sexist attacks and systemic patriarchy, eventually rebuffing Willie Brown itself. In fact, it is her toughness, her ability to clap back at domineering men that is said to have influenced Biden to pick her as a running mate because she would not be bullied by Trump. She showed her toughness in the brief four years she was in the Senate when she chewed up a number of Trump aides during hearings.

Will she be the Democrat candidate in the next US presidential cycle?

Very hard to say, and at this moment, it does not seem likely. She has a Herculean task ahead of her as vice-president with all the heavy duty work she’s been tasked with — from managing the border crisis to handling the Covid-19 vaccine programme to voting rights to heading the national space council at a time China has clearly grabbed the lead in some technologies. The weight of her job, which seems to be an overload, will leave her very little time to position herself to snag the Democratic nomination, which requires a lot of deft footwork and heavy lifting. If she was handling one or two issues she could have showcased some success and positioned herself better. But some of the work she has been entrusted with seem almost intractable, and she will get panned for failure if she decides to run for the nomination. Candidates who have sat on the outside will find it easier.

More news from Books