For the longest time, political pundits had safely assumed that the Pakistani-American community in the United States would sway towards a Democratic Party candidate during the 2020 presidential election.
This was because members of the community have strongly opposed US President Donald Trump and his policies, especially those against immigration. In April 2019, the Trump administration had imposed sanctions on Pakistan after Islamabad refused to take back its citizen deportees and visa over-stayers from America. Washington DC had also threatened to withhold visas of Pakistanis beginning from the country’s top officials.
Trump’s 2017 travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries — eventually diluted after a court battle — has led to difficulties for many Muslims returning home, to workplaces or for education in America from overseas. While Pakistan was not on the ban list, the community has feared they could be next.
But, Pakistan-Americans community’s rethink whether they should support Trump is not because of the Republican’s campaign or the Democrats nominating former vice president Joe Biden as their candidate for the November 3 election. It is because Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Harris’ nomination is significant not only because she is the first African-American woman on a major party national ticket, but also because she is the first with Indian heritage.
Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan was born in Chennai, and was a widely respected breast cancer researcher who immigrated to the US from India in the 1960s. Her father, Donald Harris, is an eminent economist who has spent much of his career at Stanford University. Also an immigrant, he moved to the US from Jamaica.
Thus, the Indian-American voters have shown excitement towards the Biden-Harris campaign. Moreover, Biden would be the oldest US president to take office if he is elected. This puts Harris as a favourite to run as the Democrats’ presidential candidate in the next general election.
Pakistani-Americans are concerned that Harris, who is currently a Senator from California, may be partial to India’s stand on the Kashmir issue if elected.
“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,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre told Pakistani news organisation Samaa.
“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 added.
However, some of these apprehensions may be unfounded. Biden had previously expressed disappointment over India’s move in August 2019 to abrogate provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, Biden is known to have been critical of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The 55-year-old also stood by her fellow Indian-origin Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar refused to attend a meeting over Jayapal’s participation. Jayapal had earlier moved a resolution in the House of Representatives on the Kashmir issue.
Despite talking about her family with references in Tamil language, Harris identifies herself as an African-American and a Baptist — a major Protestant Christian denomination, not Indian-American and Hindu. In fact, she is known to have been sworn in to the Senate on the Bible.
While Harris has been supporting strong ties between India and the US, she has also been critical of the situation that emerged in Kashmir following revocation of Article 370. In October 2019, Harris said, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.” She was responding to a question on “human rights abuses” and restrictions in Kashmir.
As a vice president, Harris would be expected to the Biden administration’s line.