“I want you to know that Mother India embraces you as one of their own,” Ramesh Kapur exclaimed to the delight of the roughly 30 Indian-American donors gathered at his home in Winchester, Massachusetts, on a chilly January day in 2016. Kapur is a longtime Democratic fundraiser, and the recipient of his rhetorical embrace that day was Kamala Harris, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Harris’ crowd-pleasing response—she threw up her hands and loudly exclaimed, “Yes!”—convinced Kapur of her Indian-American bona fides, he says. This year, he plans to raise $10 million from Indian-American donors for Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Will the rest of the Indian-American community coalesce around her, too? Harris, whose late mother was born in India, is the first Indian-American candidate to make a serious run at the presidency. (Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, never cracked the upper tiers of a massive Republican field in 2016.) But her public image so far has been more closely associated with the other half of her heritage, that of her Jamaican father: She is the most prominent African-American woman to make a serious run at the presidency in recent decades, and the only one in the 2020 race so far.
As her candidacy takes shape, polling and interviews suggest that the Indian-American community is still making up its mind about whether, and when, to get behind Harris. The University of California, Riverside’s, Karthick Ramakrishnan conducted a poll of Asian American voters in October 2018, a few months before Harris announced her presidential run, and found that more than half of Indian Americans said they viewed her favorably—but also that one in five Indian-Americans weren’t even aware of her connection to the Indian-American community.
In conversations with 17 Indian-American fundraisers, political activists and voters, most told me they are proud and excited to see Harris in the race. On Wednesday morning, the Indian American Impact Fund, an influential political action committee, is endorsing Harris in the 2020 presidential race. “She is a tested leader who has demonstrated, throughout her career, a strong commitment to our community’s progressive and pluralistic values,” says Aruna Miller, executive director of the PAC. “Her being Indian-American—we’re thrilled about that.”
But many of the Indian-American sources I talked to said they see Harris as just one of many possible candidates and are not yet ready to throw their support to her, instead withholding their endorsements and votes until they see more of her and her competitors. Harris also faces another surprising challenge: Some religiously driven Indian-Americans are backing Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a non-Indian candidate, and a long shot, who is a practicing Hindu. (Harris is Christian.)
Asked to comment about her appeal and outreach to Indian-American voters, Harris submitted a statement to Politico Magazine: “I want to ensure that this campaign is a reflection of the America I hope to represent in the White House—from staff to supporters to the voters we engage and mobilize. That’s how we will build a broad coalition unified behind the vision of an America that restores truth and justice.” She cited the influence of her Indian grandfather, a diplomat, in helping her to appreciate the “importance of democracy and a government that represents the people—all the people.”
Indian-Americans are a relatively small proportion of voters—about 4 million in the United States—and they skew Democratic. Seventy-seven percent of Indian-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they’re also a growing and increasingly engaged population, with high turnout rates. In 2016, Indian-American turnout was 62 percent, just above the country’s overall turnout rate of 61.4 percent and surpassing the rates for both Hispanics and African-Americans, as well.
Indian-Americans are also among the most affluent voters in the country, making them a powerful potential donor base. They are estimated to have raised at least $10 million for Clinton’s campaign. In the 2018 midterms, their mobilization helped to catapult a record number of Indian-Americans into Congress, such that, for the first time, Indian-Americans constitute 1 percent of House membership, in line with their representation in the general population.
In public statements and appearances, Harris doesn’t shy away from her Indian heritage. Just minutes into her announcement rally in Oakland, California, she told the crowd, “My mother, Shyamala, came from India to study the science of fighting disease.” In her memoir, The Truths We Hold, Harris writes that “there is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter.” The same day she announced she was running for president, she tweeted a photo of herself as a young child with her mother in traditional Indian garb.
At the same time, Harris wrote in her memoir that her mother “knew that her adopted homeland would see [my sister] Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.” Harris chose to attend Howard University, a historically black college, where she was a member of the African-American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. She has actively engaged black voters on the 2020 campaign trail, speaking, for example, at the Charleston Black Expo, a showcase for African-American entrepreneurs, in South Carolina earlier this year. While none of this detracts from her Indian-American identity, it might help to explain why many Indian-Americans aren’t aware of it.
Lack of awareness of Harris’ Indian background could depress her support particularly among older, first-generation immigrants who have spent the better part of a lifetime without a single Indian-American in Congress and, according to Miller, identify strongly with candidates who share their heritage. “Their identity as an Indian is very strong and still very connected to the old country,” Miller says. “Whereas the younger generation … there’s probably a little bit more disconnect to the old country, to the old traditions, to the old ways of identifying who you are.”
The younger Indian-Americans I spoke with, who have watched the rise of Indian-American politicians like Jindal, Nikki Haley and Ami Bera, tended to be more ambivalent about whether Harris’ heritage would influence their votes, focusing instead on the issues they care about, like immigration, civil rights, education and the environment.
Shelly Kapoor Collins is head of Shatter Fund, a venture firm that invests in female entrepreneurs and of which Harris was an early supporter. Collins says she was inundated with calls, many from Indian-American women, wanting to support Harris after the senator announced her bid for president. But while Collins and Harris joke around in Hindi—Harris will tell Collins “acha, thik hai,” which in Hindi roughly translates to “OK, cool”—Collins’ says her support for the senator is based on shared values, not shared heritage. “I would support Kamala even if she weren’t half-Indian,” she told me. “That has never factored into my decision to support her.”
Ashwini Venkatesan immigrated to the United States from India in 2005 and is now a naturalized citizen working as a tech professional in the Bay Area. “I like her, but I’m not super-excited,” she says of Harris, adding that she hasn’t examined the candidates’ agendas closely yet. “Just being a woman or half-Indian doesn’t do much for me. Environmental issues and education are my main priorities, and I don’t see much initiative from Kamala Harris.” (Harris has proposed a $315 billion, 10-year plan to boost teacher pay.) Venkatesan says her husband, Venkat, sees things differently: “He thinks anything Trump says against her would be disastrous, and that she’ll excite all of these key demographics—women, Asians, African-Americans.”
Aastha Jha, an economics and public policy student at University of California, Berkeley, told me she made a point of attending Harris’ announcement rally in Oakland with four South Asian friends. “I figured that this was the first time an Indian-American was running for president, and it was literally just blocks from where I live,” she says. She identifies with Harris—like Harris’ father, her own father is an economics professor—and is excited about the prospect of an Indian-American president. But she’s not sold yet. “I’ve heard a lot of concerns about her time as attorney general and the policies she was in favor of, especially when it comes to criminal justice,” Jha says. “There’s a bit of flip-flopping now, which is turning some people off. And I want to see more of her stances on social policies, like education and health care.” (Jha says her family members are big fans of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with whom Jha herself is “intrigued.”)
The lack of an Indian-American political consensus isn’t surprising, according to Sunil Adam, editor-in-chief of India Abroad, a weekly publication covering Indian-American affairs. “One cannot generalize with accuracy at all,” he says. (Republicans, including Trump, have worked to cultivate Indian-American voters, too.)
For many Democratic Indian-American voters, like Democrats generally, electability in 2020 is top of mind. “There’s no data that I’ve seen that makes me believe that our voters want anything different as a top priority than to get Trump out of office,” says Varun Nikore of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on voters of Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage whose coveted endorsement is expected after the organization’s presidential forum this coming fall. “I think that the amount of thought and discernment that’s going to be done by Indian-Americans and Asian-Americans is going to be high. There is no lock that just because Kamala is Indian that Indians are going to naturally come out in droves for her.”
That point was underscored when Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna—who represents the district in Northern California with the highest concentration of Indian-Americans in the country—endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Khanna, who did not respond to a request for comment, also endorsed Sanders in 2016 over Clinton.
Adding to the uncertainty, Adam says, is the uncomfortable fact that not all Indian-Americans look favorably on the other, arguably more prominent, half of Harris’ identity. “Attitude toward race is a big factor. You could say that we look down upon African-Americans and consider ourselves a little more superior,” he says. “For some people, once the black element comes, it automatically dilutes her appeal.” Indian racism toward African-Americans is well documented, though it’s unclear how widespread these attitudes are among Indian-Americans or whether they would affect voting patterns.
Then there’s Gabbard, another Democrat running for president, who is well known in the Indian-American community. Gabbard is Samoan-American, but she is a practicing Hindu. “There are a large group of Indian-Americans who are Hindu who identify with their religion stronger than their country of origin,” says MR Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, a nonprofit that works to increase Indian-American civic participation. “The more conservative of the Democratic-leaning Indian-American voters will probably go more with Tulsi. And the more liberal, secular kind of crowd will go with Kamala.”
Samir Kalra, who is active in the Hindu-American community, says he is seeing enthusiastic support for Gabbard, who sits on the House India caucus and has been a vocal supporter of stronger India-U.S. relations. “She’s done a lot to reach out to the Indian Hindu American community,” he says. But whereas Gabbard currently sits at the bottom of most major polls, Harris is toward the head of the pack, generally in fourth behind three white men: Joe Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg.
Harris has made an effort to reach out to Indian-American voters, as well. Last fall, she was the keynote speaker at a New York fundraiser for Pratham USA, an NGO that works to improve education for children in India. More recently, she served as an honorary co-host for a congressional briefing on immigration detention hosted by South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT. Earlier this year, she and Republican Senator Mike Lee introduced a bill to get rid of per-country limits on employment-based green cards, a move that would help Indians in particular, who often face visa backlogs. In her Washington office, Harris also appointed Rohini Lakshmi Kosoglu as chief of staff—believed to be the first South Asian to hold that position in the Senate.
Anurag Varma, a lawyer and Democratic donor who founded the now shuttered Indian American Leadership Initiative, a PAC created to increase Indian-American representation in government, recalls getting a phone call from Harris during her bid for attorney general of California in 2010. “She called us and said, ‘Can I have breakfast with you guys?’ So, we had breakfast and she essentially said, ‘Wherever and whenever you need me, I’m here to help the next generation of Indian-American candidates,’” Varma recounts. “Her commitment to the Indian community was obvious, and it is sincere.”
Ultimately, Indian-American voters who oppose Trump might decide that it is a safer bet for the general election not to nominate a woman, especially a woman of color. Or, Indian-Americans might clamor to support a different emerging front-runner because, as India Abroad’s Adam puts it, “we associate a lot with success.” Like others, Varma believes Indian-Americans will evaluate Harris on her platform above all—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “In the early 2000s, the goal was literally to have Indian-Americans as lawmakers, full stop. The fact of being Indian-American weighed heavily,” he says. “Now, the fact of being Indian-American is important. However, it’s less and less the deciding factor.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine