She will bring her strong position on human rights issues to U.S.-India ties, he says
“She has her head on her shoulders all right”, says Gopalan Balachandran, Kamala Harris’ maternal uncle, 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.
Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American and first African-American woman on presidential ticket, belongs to a family of achievers from Tamil Nadu. Her mother, 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.
Her mother’s brother, 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 Kamala 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 government, while his wife Rajam built a reputation for her social work.
Mr. Balachandran, a 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”. When asked about Ms. Harris, Mr. Balachandran said he has always been proud of her achievements through 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 not prosecuting police officers enough.
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 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.