Nina Kulkarni remembers exactly where she was when she found out that California Senator Kamala Harris would be Joe Biden’s running mate in the November presidential election.
She and her family were driving back to their home in Kew Gardens from Bartlett Falls, a swimming hole with a waterfall in Vermont. It was their first time out of the city since the COVID-19 pandemic started and it had been as close to a perfect day as possible. The waterfall was beautiful, the swimming was great. Everybody was happy, healthy, she said.
Then the news alert popped up on her phone. She screamed.
“I was just so happy,” she said. “Finding out that Biden chose her, it was a dream come true.”
Kulkarni has loved Harris from the start. As the child of Indian immigrants in a multiracial marriage, and an active participant in Queens politics as the chairperson of community engagement for the Queens Central Democratic Club, she identified with Harris, she said, and believed Harris would bring together disparate groups during these divisive times.
“People who neve really see themselves represented like this are finally seeing it!” said Kulkarni. “I want someone who’s going to unify those people who’ve been farthest from power. That to me is extremely important right now.”
But Kulkarni’s ecstatic reaction doesn’t extend to everyone of Indian descent in Queens. Although Harris has inspired pride, she doesn’t have uniform support in the Queens Indian community. For some, her politics –– especially when they pertain to India –– supercede her identity to the point where she may have lost their vote.
“I’m proud of the fact that Kamala has an Indian heritage, but I would like her to, you know, support India,” said Soni Singh, an Indian-American who lives in Queens.
Because he was born in India and still has family there, he can’t discount a candidate’s foreign policy stance towards Indian issues, he said. And Harris’s stance on Kashmir, a highly contentious region disputed by India and Pakistan, doesn’t align with his.
In September 2019 while campaigning for the presidential nomination, Harris criticized India for revoking Kashmir autonomy two months earlier and instituting a lockdown and communications blackout to stifle protest.
“We’ve 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 said about India’s controversial move.
That comment, and other statements she’s made over the past year such as last December when she criticized the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar for refusing to meet with the House Foreign Affairs Committee if Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a critic of India’s policy towards Kashmir, was going to be present, alienated him.
And while he was comforted by Harris’s nomination speech in which she talked heavily about her mother and her Indian heritage, and he’s glad Biden came out recently in support of India, the damage has already been done.
“The problem is that they’ve already criticized India on Kashmir,” Singh said.
Kathirvel Kumararaja, an Indian-American who was born in Chennai but now lives in the Rockaways and is an American citizen, is also hesitant to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket for the same reason.
“As an Indian, I wasn’t too comfortable seeing those statements,” he said. “It looks like Biden and Kamala Harris is in favor of Pakistani perspective of these things without really understanding what the ground reality is.”
Harris should have stayed quiet about Kashmir but instead she sounded like she was reading from a statement written by a Pakistani lobbyist, he said.
He sees the fall out from her comments in the many Indian Whatsapp groups he’s in where people send each other messages like, “I hope you guys know whom to vote for now.”
The answer is not the Biden-Harris ticket.
“Why would she talk about that now when all Indians could get behind her and vote and get her elected?” Kumararaja said.
Neither Kumararaja nor Singh voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. However, they aren’t sure they won’t vote for him this time around.
But, for Kulkarni, whose perfect day at the waterfall in Vermont finished with Harris’s nomination, there’s no question who she’ll vote for. To her, Harris doesn’t represent internecine Indian politics but rather the best American politics has to offer.
“She has that phrase, ‘Justice is on the ballot’ and I believe that. We have justice on the ballot and I am so happy about it,” she said. “I have faith in her, one hundred percent.”
She just wished her mother and Harris’s mother, both Indian immigrants who died of cancer, were alive today to see it.