Tulsi or Kamala: Indian-Americans are conflicted about potential choice in Democratic primary

Tulsi (Holy Basil) and Kamala (lotus) have special significance in Hindu mythology. Their namesakes, Hindu-American Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Indian-American Senator Kamala Devi Harris, also have a special appeal to the Indian community in the United States.

With both of them set to enter the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary contest, it is a windfall of pride with a twist of irony for the Indian-Americans. With whom and how the Indian-American community, which is predominantly Hindu, will throw in its lot, will be the most interesting side show of the primary.

As of now, a number of Hindu-Americans across the country say they are excited about Hawaii Congresswoman Gabbard’s 2020 presidential run and have vouched their support to her campaign. The 37-year-old Gabbard, the first Samoan-American and the first Hindu member of the United States Congress, is all set to officially announce her candidacy.

The 54-year-old Sen. Harris, who is currently on a book tour, is also poised to announce her run over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. The latter’s candidacy, which has been widely anticipated and discussed, will have lot more weightage than the former’s, considering that Harris is a high-profile senator from the largest state in the Union representing 40 million people, while Gabbard represents a district that has a population of less than 700,000.

Both candidates, however, have significant profiles in their respective legislative chambers.

Gabbard, is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. Since she was elected the first Hindu-American to the U.S. Congress in 2012, Gabbard almost immediately became a favorite of the Indian-American community, particularly Hindu-Americans. In an interview with India Abroad during that time, she said “this embrace [from the Hindu-American community], I suspect it is because they appreciate the timeless and universal nature of our Hindu Dharma.”

Tulsi or Kamala: Indian-Americans are conflicted about potential choice in Democratic primary

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is sworn in to the 116th Congress with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill, Jan. 3 (The New York Times).

Gabbard is said to have fully embraced Sanatan Dharma after serious deliberation and contemplation in her later teens, and not because her mother was a practicing Hindu, she’s said in the past. “As a Vaishnava, my perspective of Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma comes from the Bhagavad Gita,” she said. She has been studying the Bhagavad Gita since childhood and has, especially beginning in her teenage years, tried to apply the Bhagavad Gita’s principles of karma yoga and bhakti yoga to every aspect of her life. 

Although she’s been touted the first Indian-American senator in the U.S., there is a lot of conjecture about Harris identifying herself as a Hindu-American or an Indian-American. Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris was a Tamilian from India, while her father Donald Harris was an African-American from Jamaica. Harris and her sister Maya, have been raised by their single mother, deeply rooted in Indian culture and lifestyle.

While Harris understandably identifies herself as an African-American in the political context, she is personally, and perhaps equally understandably, very Indian in her personal lifestyle, and is very close to her Indian extended family.

Harris, in her book “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” details what she inherited from her mother, and from her upbringing. “Though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go. I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, … There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ daughter,” she writes.

Experts believe that Harris is at an advantage in what appears to be a crowded Democratic field, and could have an edge over others in states like Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and her home state of California.

According to Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, there is a lot of enthusiasm from the community for Harris who would be in first Indian-American running for president. “The first time there’s a viable Indian-American for president is a pretty big deal. Generally there’s a lot of enthusiasm for her, for her story,” he told McClatchy.

In her new memoir, Harris touches upon her personal journey — growing up in Oakland as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, as well as about rising through the ranks to become the District Attorney of San Francisco and later the chief law enforcement officer of the state of California, before serving as a senator.

During her keynote at the annual gala of Pratham’s New York chapter on Sept. 28, 2018, Harris shared personal anecdotes about events that shaped her thoughts and her ideals. She reflected on her visits to India, where she accompanied her grandfather, who had fought for India’s independence, on his morning walks, and on her growing-up in California with an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. She spoke about her family’s lineage as well as their commitment to “standing up for what’s right” and urged those in attendance to join the “collective fight” against hate and division.

Tulsi or Kamala: Indian-Americans are conflicted about potential choice in Democratic primary

Sen. Kamala Harris campaigns with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who is running for governor, in Irvine, Calif., Nov. 3, 2018. (The New York Times)

“Hindu-American voters, like most voters, vote for who they think will do the best job, so policies will matter, as will track record,” Suhag Shukla, executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, told India Abroad. “We are a diverse community with diverse political affinities,” she said, adding, “Where a particular candidate has stood on issues such as civil rights, access to education, healthcare, fair immigration, national security, and the U.S.-India relationship — areas which have traditionally captured the interest of many in the Hindu American community — will inform their decision more than anything else.”

She feels that as our community becomes more involved in the political process, the natural outcome is that there will be people of shared religion or shared ethnic background competing against one another. “This is a good thing,” she said. “The more involved we are, the stronger we are as a community and the better able our country is to live up to its promises.”

Meanwhile, many Hindu-Americans told India Abroad that it’s too early in the race to decide, and that at the end, it’ll be their platforms and their political agenda, which will decide who gets their vote. But a few like Saumitra Dubey, a civil engineer in Atlanta, Georgia, told India Abroad that if the decision has to be made between Gabbard and Harris on religion alone, then “it’ll have to be Gabbard, as she can do something for the Hindu-American community, which has been largely ignored.”

Aminta Kilawan-Narine, cofounder and Board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is of the opinion that although everyone at Sadhana is “inspired” by Harris’ run, she believes that Harris may not identify as a Hindu-American. “We are proud of the diversity that the national political sphere is taking,” she said. “Harris is a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants; a large portion of our Sadhana base includes Diaspora communities from India and the Caribbean, where Harris’ parents are from,” she said.

Gaurang Vaishnav, executive vice president, Global Indians for Bharat Vikas and Advisory Board member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of North America, meanwhile, without commenting on Harris’ faith, said it would be interesting to see how the two women — a Hindu-American and an Indian-American — would fare in the primaries. He however is sure that most Hindu-Americans would support Gabbard.

“Faith is important,” he said. “Having a law-maker who understands the teachings and values of Hinduism is very important.” But according to him, it is not just Gabbard’s Hindu faith that makes her a favorite of the community. “She definitely has potential,” he said. “She is not your run-of-the-mill politician.”

A survey, conducted in partnership with Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, showed that almost 20 percent of Indian-American voters had “never heard” of Harris, while another 10 percent “don’t know” how they feel, and another 16 percent had an unfavorable opinion of her. According to an AAAJ press release, the survey presented the results of interviews conducted by telephone and online from Aug. 23, 2018 to Oct. 4, 2018. Over 1,316 Asian American registered voters were interviewed.

Meanwhile, according to a recent straw poll released by the group She the People, Harris leads the field of potential 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls among politically involved women of color. “Harris virtually swept the field of would-be candidates in the poll, claiming more than 71 percent support. Trailing in second place was Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) with a little more than 38 percent,” the survey said. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in third, drawing 25 percent support from the group of 264 women of color leaders, campaign staffers, political strategists, organizers and activists. 

Experts believe that if Harris is going to tap into the Indian-American community for financial help, she is going to have to do more.

In an interview with India Abroad prior to the Nov. 6 election, Longtime Democratic Party activist and fund-raiser Shekar Narasimhan, who is the founder and co-chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Victory Fund, said he believed that “Kamala is doing a much better job now in terms of reaching out to the community and also associating and identifying as an Indian-American.” He added that “for a period of time, it was not clear to many Indian-Americans if she even wanted to be identified as an Indian- American.”

Tulsi or Kamala: Indian-Americans are conflicted about potential choice in Democratic primary

Suhag Shukla

He said symbolic things matter to the community. “Does she wear a sari? Does she use her middle name? Does she talk about her mother? Suddenly she has started doing that and I am very pleased that she is doing that and showing up at Indian-American events and publicly talking about her Indianness, even though earlier privately she has spoken to us about her Indian heritage.” “Hindu-Americans are happy that there is a candidate who aligns with their way of thinking, who believes in the same values as them,” Vaishnav said. He said that Hindu-American groups have always canvassed for Gabbard since she was a senator in Hawaii, so their support for her should not be misinterpreted.

“As the first Hindu American elected to Congress, Rep. Gabbard naturally enjoys the support of many Hindu-Americans, Shukla has earlier written on the HAF blog. “Now with several more Hindu and Indian-Americans in national and state office, they too receive similar levels of support from HAF leaders and the wider community. The Hindu-American community supports candidates from both major political parties, including candidates that represent this country’s diversity of race, religion, and political persuasion.”

Kilawan-Narine agrees with Shukla. “We are proud that this Congress is so diverse with more women than ever before and that more Hindus are embracing public roles. This brings a new level of visibility to Hindu communities in the U.S.,” Kilawan-Narine said.

“We hope Hindu-American politicians will use their platform to advance our faith’s progressive values of oneness, nonviolence, and service.”

Although Hindu-Americans have supported Gabbard since the start of her political career, many believe that support has increased substantially since Modi’s election.

And while most Hindu-American groups say they will support Gabbard’s bid for presidency, the progressive factions among them seem divided. “We are inspired when members of our community rise to such leadership,” Kilawan-Narine said. “Since Tulsi is Hindu, we are hopeful that she will rise to the highest ideals of Hinduism (Vasudaiva Kutumbakam — oneness of us all), and continue to distance herself from Hindutva and all forces and entities motivated by hatred.”

Several articles have called Gabbard out for her pro-Modi stance and support of the so-called right-wing nationalists. At a time when members of both parties worry about the rise of autocrats, dictators, and nationalist movements around the world, critics have accused her of embracing the same elements.

Tulsi or Kamala: Indian-Americans are conflicted about potential choice in Democratic primary

Gaurang Vaishnav

In a Dec. 28 article in The Sludge, Eoin Higgins wrote that “despite her popularity with some liberal Democrats, Gabbard’s connections to right-wing groups both at home and abroad have raised eyebrows.” He mentioned her connections to India, “the world’s most populous Hindu nation, including to the country’s Hindu nationalist movement.”

Last year, Branko Marcetic, in an article on Gabbard in Jacobin said although she is hailed as a progressive champion, “Her views on Islam and support for far-right leaders suggest otherwise.”

A major cause of alarm, he said, is perhaps Gabbard’s close relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It’s an ideal match in many respects — not because the two happen to share a faith, but because they both harbor noxious attitudes toward Muslims.”

Along with supporting Gabbard and other Hindu-American lawmakers, Shukla has been a vocal critic of such reports, especially those criticizing Gabbard and her connection to Hindu-American groups.

Shukla responded to Higgins’ article on the HAF blog. “Rep. Gabbard’s relationship to HAF is similar to that of other lawmakers who champion the causes HAF advocates for in the realms of civil and human rights,” she wrote. “

Gabbard is said to have been forceful in opposing a U.S. House Resolution, 417, in December 2013, which condemned India's religious freedom record. The resolution was widely condemned by the Indian and Hindu American communities as flawed and inaccurate, the Indo-Asian News Service reported. She criticized the resolution, saying the "417 weakens, rather than strengthens, the friendship between the United States and India. The resolution runs counter to all the hard work that the American people, particularly those in the Indian- American community, have done to improve the relationship,” she said in a statement.

She was also criticized for making a trip to India to meet Modi.

Defending Gabbard’s trip to India, Shukla said: “Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and members of both the Trump and Obama Administrations have visited India to demonstrate their commitment to expanding the U.S.-India strategic partnership.” She continued: “President Obama met with Prime Minister Modi eight times during his second term, described his relationship with Modi as one of his highest foreign policy priorities, and even called to say goodbye during the last days of his presidency.”

At the same time, she said countless lawmakers have also visited India and its elected leaders to demonstrate their commitment to expanding the U.S.-India strategic partnership. Many Democrat and Republican members of congress also traveled to both New York City’s Madison Square Garden and California’s Silicon Valley, to attend massive Indian-American community welcome gatherings for the popular leader.

“In April 2018 saw a bipartisan Congressional delegation which included Rep. Pete Olson, Rep. Terry Sewell, Rep. Dina Titus, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Rep. Drew Ferguson and Rep. Tom Suozzi; and in May of 2017, a bipartisan delegation included Leader Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Reps. Elliot Engel, Jim McGovern, Jim Sensenbrenner, Betty McCollum, Judy Chu, Joyce Beatty, Pramila Jayapal, and Judy Chu. These members also receive the support of Indian and Hindu- Americans,” Shukla said.

Gabbard has also been accused of accumulating millions in donations from individuals with alleged affiliations to right-wing groups. According to an article in the Intercept, Gabbard attended an Overseas Friends of BJP event in Atlanta, which, along with celebrating Modi’s 2014 win, aimed to mobilize the community for Gabbard’s re-elections, urging the community to donate to her campaign.

While most of these groups are registered 501(c)(3) organizations, Vaishnav said individual members of the group can donate to parties or candidates of their choice.

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