By Anjana Pasricha
Waking up at 5 a.m. to see a message of “congratulations” flash on his phone and then reading the news that his niece, Kamala Harris, had been picked by presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as his running mate was a moment of pride and elation for Gopalan Balachandran.
The 79-year-old academician, who lives in New Delhi, believes that Harris’s Indian heritage and family culture has played a key role in shaping the Asian American politician.
Harris’s choice comes with many firsts: She is the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to join a major party ticket for a presidential election in the U.S.
“I knew she was quite ambitious in the sense that she always wanted to run for public office and achieve something, and that spirit she took from her mother. So this was inevitable,” Balachandran, the younger brother of Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, told VOA. “The women in our family are extremely strong, the men not so much,” he laughs. “She can handle the campaign.”
He recalls his family’s values of openmindedness way back in the 1940s and 1950s when India was still a deeply traditional society — that progressive culture allowed Harris’s mother to move to the United States when she was 19 years old to do doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.
“At that time the number of unmarried women who went from India to the U.S. was miniscule. But our family always said do what you want, study and then carve out your own path.” It is a message, Balachandran says, Harris absorbed deeply while being raised by her mother, who separated from her Jamaican-born father when she was five.
Since her childhood, Harris regularly used to visit her maternal grandparents in the southern city of Chennai and her uncle and aunt in India. In interviews, she has spoken of the influence her grandfather, a civil servant, had on her.
“Kamala has also picked up human values from the family. She used to always tell me — I just do what any normal human being should do,” says Balachandran, who visited her when she ran for senator from California.
He recalls how the four brothers and sisters, including Harris’s mother, pursued their own paths — he married a Mexican, his younger sister did not marry, while another sister who lives in Canada married but had no children.
Harris’s first name also connects her to her Indian heritage. Kamala means lotus flower, whose symbolic significance in Indian culture point to its deep roots — the flower and its roots grow underwater while its petals rise above the surface.
Balachandran’s hopes from his niece: if she becomes vice president, she will help raise “global positive awareness” of the United States at a time when China is also vying for global leadership.
For countless Indians, who have watched with pride the successful journey of the Indian-American community in the United States, the selection of Harris marked yet another milestone in the journey of people with Indian heritage.
“It shows the diversity of the U.S., that anybody can rise to the top, whether it is in politics or other spheres,” says Varun Mehta, a retired professional, whose two daughters live in New York and Los Angeles. While Indians have made their mark in the technology sphere, heading companies such as Google and Microsoft, politics is a new arena to conquer. “It’s a good moment for Indians.”
Expressions of pride also came in on social media. A prominent leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, gave a thumbs up sign on Twitter after noting that Harris could be the first woman of Indian descent to be nominated as an official vice-presidential candidate.
But at a time when there are fears of a rise in Hindu nationalism in India, some drew attention to the broader significance of the choice of Kamala Harris as a vice presidential running mate.
“We should recognize that Kamala Harris isn’t just of Indian descent. She epitomizes what the world should be — borderless and interracial,” prominent businessman Anand Mahindra wrote on Twitter.
But in her family in India, it was simply a day to rejoice. Balachandran exchanged a happy early morning phone call with his sister, Sarala Gopalan, both hoping they would see their niece sworn in as vice president.
“If I send her a message right now saying Kamala I need you, the next day she will be there,” Sarala Gopalan told an Indian television news channel, describing her as kind and affectionate.
And after the flurry of calls Balachandran received on the selection, he jokingly says he plans to print visiting cards saying “G. Balachandran, the favorite uncle of Kamala Harris.”