Being Indian-American Today: Reflecting on Kamala Harris’ rise to Vice President

MEDIA WATCH--As we approach January, 20 2021 inauguration day for president elect Joe Biden and vice president elect Kamala Harris, it’s the perfect time to consider what this means for the Indian diaspora across the U.S.

A drive for achievement and success is a quintessential Indian-American trait, implanted in our brains by parents who preach the benefits of education, the rewards of academic success. While traditionally this was largely in medicine, engineering, and related scientific and technical disciplines, it’s heartening to observe the next generation of Indian-American kids. They have broken loose and begun to make a name for themselves in the liberal arts and entertainment, and hopefully, are about to burst through in a big way on the political scene.

Many Indian Americans have made their mark after immigrating to this country. We have at least four Nobel Laureates, Hargobind Khurana in Medicine (1968), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in Physics (1983), Venky Ramakrishnan in Chemistry (2009), and Abhijit Bannerjee in Economics (2019). Several major corporations in the US, such as Google (Sundar Pichai), Microsoft (Satya Nadella), MasterCard (Ajaypal Singh Banga), IBM (Arvind Krishna), Palo Alto Networks (Nikesh Arora), Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) and Wayfair (Niraj Shah) have Indian American CEOs. Indira Nooyi was Pepsi Cola’s CEO from 2006-2018, and the first Indian American female CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company. 

Indian American journalists like Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta are household names across the globe. And we have novelists like  Soman Chainani and Ethiopian born Abraham Verghese, film and television stars like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj, and other artists of Indian American heritage who have made a name for themselves on the US landscape. Indian-American children pop up as winners in interesting contests across the country. In particular, they have collected championships at National Spelling Bees, and Speech and Debate tournaments. Just recently, a 15 year old Indian-American inventor and scientist, Gitanjali Rao, was named Time’s Kid of the Year.

Indian Americans have also had a huge impact in Medicine in the US. It has been estimated that 1 in 7 American Physicians is of Indian descent. It was my privilege to be mentored at the University of California, San Francisco by an outstanding cardiologist and teacher, the late Professor Kanu Chatterjee; many of his former students are renowned heart specialists across this country. Numerous Indian American physicians are currently involved in the frontline battle against COVID-19. So it comes as no surprise that Joe Biden has appointed three of them to his COVID-19 task force, namely Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General under Obama who will chair it, and Dr. Atul Gawande and Dr. Celine Gounder who are on the team.  

When I arrived in the US in the early nineties, it was an exciting time in politics. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were challenging the incumbent team of George HW Bush and Dan Quayle. The Clinton-Gore duo went on to win that election, dominating US politics for eight years. But Indian American voices seemed absent from political discourse, even as other immigrant communities were making gains. Fast forward several election cycles, to the final year of the Trump administration: a seasoned politician from Delaware, with a long track record as a senator and then Obama’s Vice President, clinches the Democratic nomination. Joe Biden then proceeds to pick the first biracial woman of African American and Indian descent to be his running mate, and goes on to decisively win the election by over 7 million in the popular vote, and 306-232 in the Electoral College.

Kamala Harris is part Indian, the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, who arrived in the US from Chennai, India, when she was nineteen years old as a student at Berkeley. She met Kamala’s father Donald Harris there; they married and had two daughters. Kamala entered politics early after her training in law, and worked her way up from District Attorney in San Francisco to Attorney General and then the junior Senator of the State of California. When she was selected as Joe’’s running mate, many felt it was commendable that in a political sphere dominated by white men, a biracial woman had been picked for the job.

Some in the Indian community complained she was not Indian enough. Some felt that she had not done her best to support marginalized groups as a District Attorney and Attorney General. And many wondered if her achievements, as with Barack Obama’s, would be mired by America’s distrust of those different from the “norm.” But then again, all the racism and bigotry that persists as an undercurrent in our great nation notwithstanding, perhaps we do have the ability as a people to embrace change every now and then. And that is the sentiment I choose to espouse in welcoming her ascent to the second highest office in the land, a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

Over the years, we have seen a few Indian American politicians on the national scene, some more widely known than others. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American, the first Indian American,and the first member of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected to the United States Congress. He served in the US House of Representatives from 1957-1963. There is a current group in Congress, who call themselves the Samosa Caucus, that includes Premila Jayapal (Seattle), Raja Krishnamoorthy (Chicago), Ami Berra (Sacramento) and Ro Khanna (Silicon Valley). But Kamala Harris’s rapid rise to Senator and then Vice President is a phenomenon in itself, and even though she is only half-Indian, like many fellow Indian Americans of my generation, I choose to celebrate it. Having been raised by her Indian mother, it’s reasonable to assume that some Indian values rubbed off on her and blended in a unique fashion with those she acquired from her African American relatives.

So, why does it matter? Aren’t we all Americans, and isn’t race immaterial? I wish it were, but the reality is that it is not. Politicians, the media, and even our own employers categorize us by age, gender and ethnicity; that’s the reality of American life. So if the headlines scream, “first Black, first Indian woman becomes Vice President,” then I’m delighted to join the chorus of those who rejoice in this accomplishment as a step forward in our complex and fascinating national journey.

(Krishna Sudhir, MD, is a cardiologist, working as a senior executive in the MedTech industry in Santa Clara, California.  He is the author of The Prince of Typgar Series, modern fantasy fiction inspired by traditional Indian mythology. His debut novel, Nujran and the Monks of Meirar, was published in 2017, and the sequel, Nujran and theThe Corpse in the Quadrangle, released in 2020. For more information visit www.krishnasudhir.com or connect with him on Facebook and Instagram.)