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What Kamala Harris Means For South Asian Diaspora And America’s South Asia Policy

By Akbar Ahmed  and Amitav Acharya

The election of the Biden-Harris ticket in the US Presidential election is a moment of reckoning for the South Asian community in the US and the US policy towards South Asia.

The media generally describes Kamala Harris as the first person of South Asian (apart from being the first woman and first black) heritage US Vice-President. This has made some Indian-Americans unhappy, who would like her to be known as the first person of Indian heritage to hold the office. The Pakistani community in the US, on the other hand, fears that she would push the Biden administration towards a more pro-India policy. During the campaign, some Pakistanis were prepared to vote for Trump on this ground alone.

The issue is ironic. Democratic administrations are widely seen in India and among Indian-Americans as being less friendly to India (especially on nuclear proliferation, and human rights etc.), than Republican ones. George W. Bush was beloved in India for moving the US closer to New Delhi. Trump became a good friend of Modi, his last international trip before COVID-19 pandemic hit was to India (February 24-25, 2020), to reciprocate Modi visit to US six month earlier, whose highlight was a boisterous event: “Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures”, held on Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston.

But the election of the first South Asian Vice President may provide an opportunity for the South Asian diaspora to move past its traditional rivalry and look at US relations with the two nations outside of a zero-sum prism.

Past US administrations have never taken India Pakistan on their own terms, but have used them as pawns in their great power geopolitical games. The US alliance with Pakistan during the Cold War aimed at containing the Soviets, while today the US is moving close to India to  bolster its position against China.

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Yes we are dealing with a fourth of humanity and they deserve better. South Asia is one of the richest and most talented regions in the world. It is highly symbolic that the site of the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the oldest and most advanced in the world, straddles the two contemporary nations, and with a continuing legacy for both nations. Undivided South Asia was the world’s largest economy in the early part of the first millennium AD and again at the height of the Moghul empire. The Hindu and Muslim communities of South Asia share a common value Shanti and salam (both meaning peace). These are also key ideals for all Americans as Biden-Harris seek to heal the political and social fractures of recent years.

At the same time, the new administration has a unique opportunity to forge a new policy for South Asia. Good relations among the South Asian diaspora in the US will have a positive impact on the current bitter relations back in South Asia. Recognition and support from the US, South Asia can once again regain its pre-eminent position in the world. What more noble and better challenge for the new president.

Harris comes from south India whereas the tension between Indian and Pakistanis is from the north. This may allow much more leverage and possibility of playing a strong positive role in forging a new paradigm.

In the past, when Indian and Pakistanis have joined hands on a common project, they have made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and policy. One example of the partnership between Pakistani Mahbub-ul Haque and Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. As students of economics at Cambridge University they forged a life-long friendship that redefined the paradigm of development. The UN’s Human Development Index was born out of this. Another example is in the sciences, physics to be specific, Pakistani Nobel winner Abdus Salam, who was once a fellow at Princeton, and Indian physicist Yogesh Pati (who spent much of his career at the University of Maryland), worked together to develop Pati-Salam theory of unification in particle physics.

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These provide examples of what two stars from India/Pakistan can achieve and how they can transcend their religious/national cultures and form a creative bond.

Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the US are now coming of age. They are successful in government, in business and in the media. They’re making a huge impact considering their small numbers. But compared to other minorities like the African-Americans and Latinos, the South Asian community is smaller in number. By creating a united front, they can punch above their weight. This means they will have to give up their recent and dangerous rivalries. As Vice President, Kamala Harris could be a great focal point to create a South Asian Renaissance which can contribute significantly to the US their new home.

Akbar Ahmed, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair, and Amitav Acharya Distinguished Professor, both at the School of International Service, American University in Washington, DC.

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