South Asian. Asian American. Brown. Indian.
While all these labels accurately characterise her ethnicity from her mother’s lineage, Kamala Harris only identifies with the last one. Her intersectionality makes for eye-catching headlines and click-bait, but she does not appeal to the entire South Asian diaspora so much as she does to Indians and Indian-Americans.
Harris’ nomination as vice-president of the United States has been seen as the political epitome of success for communities of colour. She knows her multiplex identity has earned her a strong vote base among the Black and Indian communities.
It would be a misnomer, however, to assume that Pakistani-Americans, among other South Asian-Americans, will be of significant support to her. Her vote bank primarily constitutes Indian-Americans who celebrate her Indian identity more than any other categorisation of her within wider geographical communities.
“I don’t think Harris would hold any particular sway with Pakistani-Americans simply by virtue of her South Asian identity, which is Indian, not Pakistani,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre.
“In fact, her views on India—which tend to be quite supportive of US-India partnership—could turn off Pakistani-American voters, or at least those that take an interest in India-Pakistan relations and foreign affairs more broadly,” Kugelman explained.
Pakistani media was quick to laud Harris last year for publicly voicing support for Kashmiris and urging India to end restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir. While that stance may strengthen her image among some Pakistanis, Kugelman analysed that her comments on Kashmir were “emphatic but relatively minor in frequency”, a gentle reminder that politicians’ verbal support may not show signs of tangibility.
“If she were to become vice-president, her views on Kashmir would take a backseat to bigger, more prominent foreign policy matters—from the US-China rivalry to US policies in the Middle East and many things in between,” Kugelman said.
He explained that although a White House with Harris as VP may show a stronger willingness to criticise India more vociferously, their basic policy would be the same as the current administration’s: a deepening rivalry with Beijing necessitates a closer US partnership with India—a nation that sees eye to eye with the US on the China issue.
Pakistani-American voting patterns and party preferences are undetermined as of now, but the entire population cannot be treated as a monolithic voting bloc. According to the National Asian American Survey, 88% of Pakistani-Americans voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 elections. If Harris capitalises on these statistics, she can craft a voter base that secures her and Biden’s position in the White House.
Although Pakistani-Americans may throw their support behind the Biden-Harris ticket in the upcoming elections, it is certain that her “South-Asian-ness” does not speak to them. Harris’ primary support comes from Indians, and she will continue to celebrate and capitalise on her Indian identity to rise to political power.