“She has a good head on her shoulders”, says Kamala Harris’ maternal uncle Gopalan Balachandran, an academic based in Delhi, when asked for his first reaction to the news of Ms. Harris being picked as U.S. Democratic presidential contender Joseph Biden’s Vice-President candidate . The phones have been ringing continuously at his house since Wednesday morning, with calls to congratulate him and the family, Mr. Balachandran told The Hindu .
Ms. Harris, the first Indian-American and first African-American woman on presidential ticket, belongs to a family of achievers from Tamil Nadu. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who brought up Kamala and her sister Maya as a single mother, a Ph.D. at 25, cancer researcher and civil rights activist in California, was unusual in more ways than one. (It was through her activism that she met and married Economist Donald J Harris, who is an acclaimed academic at Stanford.)
Mr. Balachandran, who also studied in the U.S., says it was rare to find members of the Indian community fighting for racial equality at the time. “Indians were largely apolitical then,” he says. Their father and Ms. Harris’ grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, worked on rehabilitation of refugees from East Pakistan in India. Later, because of his experience, he became an advisor to the Zambian President and lived in Lusaka, while his wife Rajam built a reputation for her social work.
Mr. Balachandran, a former consultant at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in Delhi, returned to India after a Ph.D. in Economics and Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin. He was Development Correspondent at The Hindu and remains a commentator on a wide range of issues.
When asked if their family is exceptionally talented, he demurs and says, “Not really, we simply have made the best of opportunities that we received”. Mr. Balachandran says he and their family have always been proud of Ms Harris’ achievements throughout her political career. In particular, he remembers her decision as District Attorney not to support the death penalty in California, even in a case where a policeman was murdered. “I was worried for her safety, as she took such a strong stand, but she just said, ‘we will see what happens.’ She stuck to her stand. She is not dogmatic but has her head on her shoulders.” In later years as State Attorney General, she was also criticised for policies that led to “over policing” and was accused of failing to prosecute police officers, even as African-American prison rates remained high.
Ties with India
As an analyst of foreign policy and strategic issues, Mr. Balachandran, known as “Bala Sir” to scholars at IDSA, also feels that she will bring her strong position on human rights issues to U.S. relations with India, were she to be in office. “I think the U.S.-India relationship has gone far beyond any one personality’s impact on it, but I think Kamala would do her best to strengthen it.”
However, he acknowledges that her criticism of the government’s policies and the Democratic Party’s stand on events in Jammu and Kashmir, the Citizenship (Amendment)Act, as well as the riots in Delhi are likely to ruffle feathers in South Block. In particular, Ms. Harris took a strong position in favour of Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had authored a U.S. House resolution on restoring the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, which New Delhi saw as intrusive. When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee due to Ms. Jayapal’s presence last December, Ms. Harris tweeted that it was wrong for any “foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill.”
Mr. Balachandran says that culturally Ms. Harris remains connected to her roots in India, both through her upbringing and visits to Chennai. Her mother had won a presidential gold medal in India for classical Carnatic music singing, which Ms. Harris writes about in her memoirs The Truths we hold: An American Journey . She also writes of her grandfather as one of the “earliest and most lasting influences” in her life, who corresponded with her regularly until his death in 1998. When her mother passed away in 2009, Ms. Harris made a trip to India to immerse her ashes in the Bay of Bengal, according to family tradition, her uncle recalls.