Gopalan Balachandran spent Wednesday night glued to the TV screen, cheering for his niece, Kamala Harris, from his south Delhi home. “She has given women across the world a reason to dream,” he told me early Thursday morning, referring to her bid for the US vice-presidency on a Democrat ticket.
As results trickle in state by state and shift in favour of the Democrats, Balachandran can’t stop smiling. At the time of writing this article, Democratic candidate Joe Biden seemed within reach of the White House, with 264 electoral votes. President Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent, was at 214.
“Even without the win, she has achieved something so rare. How often have you seen women running for such high positions?” says Balachandran, 73, a consultant at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.
The 2020 US presidential election has been special for many reasons. Despite a record number of daily covid-19 cases, the US witnessed the highest turnout in 120 years for Tuesday’s election. The other defining moment has been the growing political voice of Indian-Americans, who comprise slightly more than 1% of the population and less than 1% of all registered voters, and their support for Harris.
A Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data shows that Asian-Americans are the fastest growing segment of eligible voters among the major racial and ethnic groups in the US. Their number grew by 139%between 2000-20, to over 11 million. When it comes to party identification, 50% of Indian-Americans are most likely to be Democrats and just 18% Republicans, shows the 2018 Asian American Voter Survey by AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders).
The September Indian American Attitudes Survey, based on the online responses of close to 1,000 people, showed that 72% of registered Indian-American voters intendedto vote for Biden in the 2020 presidential election, while 22% would back Trump. In Tamil Nadu’s Thulasendrapuram village, where the grandfather who inspired Harris with his stories was born, people have been praying for her success.
While this is not the first time an Indian-American has been in a leadership position in the US government, a woman of Indian origin running for one of the top posts is “breaking the glass ceiling”, says Ohio’s Anita Somani, a surgeon who is a member of the Doctors For Biden network. “She has given people the hope or the idea that you can be more, you can do more,” she says.
This is especially true for women, adds Anjuli Mishra Cameron, a Minnesota-based social science researcher who studies the impact of policies on immigrants and refugee populations in the US. “This Halloween, many little girls dressed up as her. It’s nice to see youngsters getting inspired by her. She’s already leaving an impact with her views on civil rights and equality.”
Like her late mother, Harris has always been vocal about civil rights, which explains her strong following, especially at a time when the US is seeing widespread protests over racial and economic injustice. In speeches and her memoir, Harris proudly talks about the influence her mother has had in shaping her ambition to “go inside the system and change it”.
Some Indian-Americans remain sceptical. Mrinalini Kumari, the New York-based co-chair of Indian Voices For Trump, says Biden’s selection of Harris hasn’t done “much favour for the party”. “She has been far more vocal about her Jamaican roots (her father came from Jamaica) rather than India. I would have loved to support an Asian-American but she flip-flops a lot,” says Kumari, who believes the Trump administration is about “good income, safety and security, economy, family, lowering taxes”.
Regardless of who wins, says Minnesota’s Sudhir Singh, president of the International India Chamber of Commerce, Harris has “given people self-confidence that you can achieve anything, if you want to. She’s going to be an inspiration for generations to come.”