New Delhi: With Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris as his running mate for the US presidential elections, the Democratic senator and former prosecutor, whose mother is Indian, is likely to take a stronger stance on human rights issues in India, but also ease up the movement on skilled professionals that has been throttled by the current administration.
On Tuesday, Harris became the first African-American woman and the first person of Indian origin to be nominated to a national office by a major US political party. As the eldest daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, her nomination is seen as historic, as well as timely. US politics has witnessed a record number of women politicians taking office and is also in the middle of a racial justice movement.
While Harris has highlighted her Black heritage, her Indian ancestry has also been showcased through her repeated reference to her mother and grandparents as a source of inspiration.
If Biden wins the November elections, vice president Harris’s position on India is likely to be pragmatic like her domestic politics, but with a strong emphasis on the protection of human rights.
However, it is difficult to forecast her future position as she has generally not spoken much on foreign policy issues after her election as a senator from California in 2017.
Stance on foreign policy issues
In August 2019, she had been one of the several hopefuls for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. The think-tank Council for Foreign Relations asked all candidates about their positions on twelve foreign policy issues, ranging from climate change, joining Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, returning to the US nuclear deal and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In her answers, there was no reference to the Indo-Pacific concept, which is one of the central pillars of the US’s relations with India.
Not surprisingly, she was asked about her views on US relations with two countries – China and Russia. Harris talked of including democratic values and human rights as part of the bilateral agenda.
“….unlike the current occupant of the White House, I will consistently stand up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin in defence of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law,” she stated about Russia.
On China, she asserted that Beijing’s “abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy towards the country.
In August last year, the US was locked in trade negotiations with China. Issues such as persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were not getting the spotlight that they have received recently from the Donald Trump administration.
Her singular narrative was that the US had to take up human rights advocacy to reclaim its leadership position. “The United States must reclaim our own moral authority and work with like-minded nations to stand up forcefully for human rights in China and around the world”.
Silence on key human rights issues in India
However, Harris has not made any statements on key human rights issues in India, unlike other Democratic lawmakers who have been vocal about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).
After India changed the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, there had been a chorus of voices from Democratic lawmakers condemning the move to put severe restrictions on communications and transport in the new Union Territory. However, Harris was not one of them.
In September, she was directly asked during her presidential campaign about the message for Kashmiris suffering from “human rights abuses” and the role the US could play in alleviating the situation.
“As to the first piece, it is about reminding people that they are not alone, that we are watching. Because, so often when we see human rights abuses, whether it be in this country or around the world, the abuser will convince those that they abuse that nobody cares and nobody is paying attention, which is a tool of an abuser. so that is part of what we would say. We are watching.
“…the second piece of it. There is a lot that needs to happen. Under this administration, they have decimated the state department. decimated. So, as an example of that point, there is currently no ambassador to Pakistan and that needs to be addressed. If the United States in any meaningful way will have any influence on what’s happening in Kashmir, we need to have a representative on the ground.
“You know as it relates to president’s responsibilities, commander in chief…. maybe because most of my career has been spent focussed on keeping people safe, I take that component of the job very seriously and the commander in chief must always have as her highest priority, our nation’s security and securing the homeland, but also leading with our values.
“And part of our value is that we speak out about human rights abuses and where appropriate, we intervene. So that is how I would lead as a commander in chief, with that as a value, that would be an important value with which I would lead and immediately restock the state department, understanding that one of the greatest strength that we have and commander in chief has is with a strong diplomatic corps that can then become involved that will allow us to be informed in our engagement and that’s how we will deal with it.” [September 13, 2019, Houston]
Ticking off Jaishankar
Her last brush with the Indian government was when she strongly backed her Indian-American Democratic colleague Pramila Jayapal’s right to be in a meeting with the Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar.
The Indian minister had cancelled an interaction with the House affairs committee, after members refused to exclude Jayapal, a critic of India’s policies on Kashmir, from the meeting.
“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I’m glad her colleagues in the House did too,” she tweeted in December 2019.
While New Delhi may be bracing to get more scoldings from a Biden administration, it will get a more receptive ear on the other issue that has frustrated the Indian government – H-1B visas.
In September 2018, Harris along with senator Kirsten Gillibrand had written to the Department of Homeland Security urging them not to revoke the right of spouses of H-1B visa holders to seek employment. The majority of the affected of the H-4 rule were Indian women who had relocated with their spouses to the US to work in the information technology sector.
Similarly, Harris has specifically called for the removal of a cap on the country-based quotas for getting green cards. The cap has specifically impacted Indians, historically among the largest green card applicants.
In June this year, US President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that temporarily suspended a range of worker visas for non-immigrants until the end of 2020 in a move that will have serious consequences for the Indian IT industry.
The Biden-Harris administration’s priorities towards India could lead to substantial policy changes in some key issues impacting the country.