Photo courtesy of The Economic Times

The looming presidential election of the first week of November, 2020 draws some resemblances to that which confronted John F. Kennedy in the build up to the November 1960 presidential election. Although the agencies that test public opinion ahead of the voting in the election seem to indicate that the majority of the voters support the Democratic team, these public opinion polls could be deceptive. Donald Trump claims that he has the backing of a “silent majority” not fully represented in these opinion polls.

What are the prospects of the Biden-Harris team? A more liberal and more left-wing candidate for Vice President may have been desirable on some grounds, but may not serve to bring in the votes that would otherwise go to Trump. Moreover, Biden’s election strategy has traditionally been gentle; Harris has brought in an aggressive prosecutorial dimension that has clearly already unsettled Trump. He has launched several, strong, personal attacks on her, even questioning her eligibility, on grounds of domicide, to be Vice President. On economic issues, there’s little difference between Biden and Harris. On the other hand, Harris has shown a history of militancy on some issues, whereas Biden’s expertise is on building and sustaining consensus.

Harris began her career in San Francisco as an assistant to the District Attorney, who she succeeded in due course. Her policies have not always been consistently progressive, while she has risen gradually to be the district attorney of San Francisco and, later the Attorney General of California. She went on to seek a senate seat and is now a Senator representing California.

During the course of the presidential primary she chose to attack Biden on his stand on racism for opposing bussing of school children to achieve school integration prescribed by the Supreme Court so as to implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She did this so spiritedly that it almost knocked Biden out of the race. He eventually won and, despite much opposition from his supporters, chose Harris as his running mate. It is likely that he saw her potential in countering his rival President Trump, and that was the skill that tipped the scales in favour of Harris.

Of particular interest to Sri Lankans, Indians and other South Asians is that Harris’ mother was an ethnic Tamil, a Brahmin from Chennai with an academically and professionally distinguished family background. The dominant figure in that family was Kamala Harris’ maternal grandfather, a senior and widely respected civil servant. That he permitted his daughter Shyamala (Kamala’s mother) to enroll at Berkeley and to set out alone for Berkeley at the age of 19, and later to marry Donald Harris, a Jamaican of African descent, speaks much both for Shyamala’s spirit and her parent’s liberal outlook.

At Berkeley, Shyamala, as well as Donald Harris, engaged in civil rights activities while pursuing their respective academic programmes. They married and had two girls, Kamala Devi and Maya, both of whom were brought up as Blacks. Shyamala and Donald Harris, broke up after some time, when the girls were yet young, but Shyamala continued to bring them up as Blacks. In due course they enrolled at Howard University. In the meantime, Donald Harris moved to take up a teaching appointment in Stanford University.

Howard University, is the leading black university in the USA and has an outstanding reputation. Nobel prize winning writer Toni Morrison, former Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall, and former US Ambassador to the UN General Assembly, Andrew Young, are among the distinguished alumni of Howard. But despite its excellent academic reputation, it did not attract good talent from the Asian and, particularly, Indian elite, many of whom appear to have deep seated colour and race prejudices. It is likely that the academic records of Shyamala and her husband were such that the girls could have gained admission to Berkely or Stanford or an Ivy League University but they opted for Howard University. This speaks to the liberal political orientation passed down from generation to generation from Kamala Harris’ grandfather.

Kamala Devi Harris is the first person of part-Asian origin in any two person team contesting the presidential election. Her Asian ancestry is irrelevant to her policies in the event of her election as Vice President. She has never given any indication of her South Asian origin being relevant to her politics. Early on in her role as DA, she claimed to be a “good cop” and was a very successful and rather hard prosecutor. She continued to be a successful prosecutor but in course of time she got interested in certain liberal policy issues which sometimes influenced her actions as a prosecutor. In particular, she has shown some concern in gender, LGBT, and child-related issues. She has also opposed the death penalty, even as a prosecutor. Although inconsistent, she has been taking more liberal issues in the latter part of her career. Her record in the senate has been more to the left and more liberal, than her record as a prosecutor.

On domestic race issues she has a variable record but on Palestinian issues she has been consistently pro-Israel. Although Kamala Harris has identified with the oppressed sections of the US population, such identification and sympathy has not extended to oppressed people overseas. In particular, she has been supportive of the Israeli government and has even visited Israel officially to reaffirm US support for that government. But she has never identified with the Palestinan population or criticized Israel’s policies in relation to the Palestinian people. She is now married to a Jewish man but her bias towards Israel as against Palestine, predates that marriage.

As noted earlier, there have been some welcome changes in Kamala Harris’ politics since she entered the Senate. Perhaps if she becomes the Vice President that trend will continue both on domestic and foreign policy issues. This will be tested in due course if and when Biden and Harris win the election due on November 3, 2020.