Tag Archives: #kamala

Key South Asian Players in the New Administration

South Asians in the house! — my cousin cheers between mouthfuls of samosa and peanut chutney as Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States on screen. It’s a day as celebratory as it is surreal — especially for the ‘South Asians in the house’, who are scattered across the country watching one of the most unprecedented inaugurations in history. I knew I was going to see a female president or vice-president hold that Bible on camera during my lifetime. The world has seen female presidents and Prime Ministers from Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel; the world is growing up, and growing out of the trappings of a patriarchal society. Although we’re late, I knew I would have the honor of watching America catch up. 

But watching a South Asian-American woman help shatter America’s legislative glass ceiling was a wholly different honor altogether. 

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Indian-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the United States’ registered voter base. It’s a fact that’s difficult to forget, considering how under-studied and under-appreciated South Asian Americans are as a voter demographic. Civic engagement organizations have a history of not visiting South Asian American neighborhoods out of fear of ‘mispronouncing their names’. In the past, South Asian-American politicians at the local level have been questioned for their religious or ethnic identities, rather than their qualifications or political stances. Although the 2020 elections have marked a tremendous increase in political participation among our community, historically South Asian Americans have often been under-represented and overlooked at the polls. 

The new administration is a game-changer for our community — and not simply because of Kamala Harris. Here are some members of the wave of South Asian Americans introduced by the Biden-Harris administration. 

Garima Verma 

Formerly a content strategist for the Biden-Harris campaign, Garima Verma was named by First Lady Jill Biden as the Digital Director for the Office of the First Lady at the White House. Born in India, Garima grew up in Ohio and the Central Valley of California. Her journey in marketing and brand strategy shows her passion for both civic engagement and digital storytelling, as Garima has worked for major corporations like Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and nonprofits like the St. Joseph Center alike. Hopefully, Garima will bring her unique talent of telling compelling stories through the digital medium to the First Lady’s team. 

“While in the entertainment space at both Paramount Pictures and ABC, my passion has always been working on diverse and boundary-pushing content that allows more people to feel seen and heard, and to authentically engage and empower those communities through marketing campaigns,” Garima says. “My ultimate goal is to combine my love of marketing and storytelling with my passion for social impact and advocacy in a meaningful and impactful way.” 

Neera Tanden 

Massachusetts-native Neera Tanden has contributed to America’s political landscape for years, from advising Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign to drafting the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. For her work in founding the Center of American Progress (CAP), Tanden was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Women In Washington” by the National Journal in 2012. She has used her platforms to advocate for universal, multi-payer healthcare, and cites her childhood experiences living on welfare as a reason behind her passion for healthcare reform and economic empowerment. As Biden’s pick for budget chief, Tanden hopes to bring her years of political experience to the US Office of Management and Budget.

After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said in a 2020 tweet. “Now, I’m being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored.”

Her nomination, however, did not come without controversy. Tanden has been often criticized by her Republican counterparts for her outspoken nature on Twitter, where she fired back at Lindsey Graham for calling her a ‘nut job’ and referred to Mitch McConnell as ‘Moscow Mitch’. Many Republicans criticize Tanden for her ‘partisan’ approach to politics — an ironic appraisal, considering how nearly every politician has contributed to the radioactive battlefield that is Twitter in recent years. 

Shanthi Kalathil 

Formerly a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development, Shanthi Kalathil has been named as the White House’s Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights in the National Security Council. Kalathil’s years of dedication towards advocating for human rights and worldwide democracy demonstrate her preparedness for this role. She is known for her commitment towards addressing techno-authoritarians, or the role that modern technology plays in reinforcing the rigidity of authoritarianism. In fact, she addresses this phenomenon in her 2003 book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Within an increasingly digitized society, Kalathil’s careful attention towards the Internet in relation to human rights is certainly a step forward for the White House. She also carefully avoids implicit biases while addressing human rights abuses in other countries, discussing the importance of separating “the Chinese people from the Chinese party-state” in a podcast published by the National Democratic Institute. 

“You know one area where I think all democracies have to be careful is in making sure that there is a clear distinction between referring to the Chinese party-state and the Chinese people. Whether it’s the Chinese people within China or people of ethnic Chinese descent all around the world, that would be one area in which I think there does need to be great care”, Kalathil said. “I think in all policy discussions, it’s important to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, to really deal with very specific problems and specific issues that pose a challenge to democracy, but that we shouldn’t conflate broad-based backlash.” 

The United States government has a history of intervening in the human rights abuses committed by the other regimes of the world as an effort to maintain peace and justice. Kalathil’s balanced, nuanced approach towards democracy and human rights will certainly enrich her platform. 


Uzra Zeya 

American diplomat Uzra Zeya has been nominated by the Biden-Harris Administration to serve as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Like Tanden, Zeya has years of political experience under her belt, as she was the acting assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Obama Administration. Before that, she worked in Paris’s Embassy of the United States. Her work in diplomacy has taken her all over the world, from New Delhi, Muscat, Damascus, Cairo, and Kingston. Similar to Tanden’s experience, Zeya is also a contentious choice for this position. In 2018, Zeya quit her job in the state department, owing her resignation to the racism and gender bias promoted by the Trump administration. Calling the administration a ‘pale male’ club, Zeya advocated for the diversification of her department. 

“In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their place,” Zeya wrote in an article for Politico. “In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.” 

If chosen as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Zeya hopes to use her prior political experience to address key global issues such as peace in the Middle East, Russia’s increasing aggression in Europe, and climate change. 

In my 25+years as a diplomat, I learned that America’s greatest strength is the power of our example, diversity & democratic ideals,” Zeya said in a 2021 tweet. “I will uphold & defend these values, if confirmed, as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

Vidur Sharma

A former health policy advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, Vidur Sharma has been named by Biden as a testing advisor for the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. Sharma played a key role in shaping health policy during the Obama administration, where he advocated for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A Harvard graduate, he also has years of experience working in the medical industry, as he has worked for Avalere Health, CareMore Health, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the past. As a testing advisor at the White House, Sharma will promote equity in the healthcare space, as he was a Deputy Research Director for Protect Our Care, an organization dedicated to “increasing coverage, lowering health care costs, and addressing racial inequities in our..system.” 

Amid a global pandemic, equity will play a major role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As the coronavirus is reportedly 2.8 times more likely to kill people of color, implicit biases in our healthcare system can have potentially fatal consequences. The Biden-Harris administration, in fact, recently established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to aid “medically and socially vulnerable communities.” Sharma’s emphasis on inclusivity and equity certainly fits the values of the administration and will help ensure that the vaccine and coronavirus treatment plans reach all Americans.

Closing Thoughts 

There are so many threads of commonality among the South Asian Americans introduced to the White House — all passionate about government reform, all aware of our nation’s existing inequalities, all incredibly qualified for their positions. As a South Asian American hoping to enter America’s legislative process later in life, our community’s representation at the national level is both empowering and inspiring — a fond reminder that America, after years of underrepresentation for minority groups — is finally catching up.

Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

An Inauguration That Awoke My Ancestors

(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)

I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen. 

Kamala Devi Harris.

I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision. 

I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others. 

But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.

A Lotus Goddess. 

And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she. 

For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

A House Divided

A household with four people – two parents and two children – is akin to the sea. There are high tides and low times, turbulence, and quiet days. Now morph the kids to teenagers and the picture becomes more chaotic – the same sea analogy, but with more stormy days than pleasant ones. But throw in an election where the members are on opposite sides and you get – the perfect storm.

Our household is as normal as it gets, given that all four of us are very vocal about our feelings and thoughts, likes, and dislikes. Over the past four elections, life was relatively normal as we were all on the same side, more or less. Up until 2008, we weren’t US citizens, so elections were mostly a spectator sport. Granted, we discussed them so much that our little ones lisped ‘Haba Dean’ when Howard Dean made his short but memorable run, and spoke about ‘Superdelicates’ during the much-contested 2000 election, but that was about the extent of it.

We got our citizenship in February 2008 after a long wait, just in time for the elections. That April, I had surgery for ACL repair and had to be on crutches for a while. Just then, Barack Obama came to a rally in a city nearby. Of course, we went, kids, crutches and all. Seeing me on crutches, a volunteer-led us to seats right behind the podium. Listening to a presidential candidate speak, and that too someone as articulate as Obama, was awesome. We shook hands with him afterward, and our vote was sealed. No contest there. He was our two-term president, no question about it. I even volunteered during the run-up to the elections, making calls to people in our state of Montana. They must have thought that they were receiving calls from a call center!

Then came the election of 2016. Here we ran into a weird problem. No one in our family, including our two young daughters, liked either of the main choices. After some discussion, we voted for an independent candidate with heavy hearts. It felt like we were throwing away our votes.

And now comes the election of 2020. This year has seen so much drama that everyone is buying next year’s calendars in September, in hopes of seeing this year-end. Politics too has played no small part in it. There is so much bad blood, so much hatred, fear, and nastiness that the country of the United States of America stands divided like never before …

And so does our family!

For the first time, our family is split in our votes. Also, for the first time, all four of us can vote, so we began to have discussions as soon as the candidates were announced. And that was when the cracks in our household began to show.

Well, nobody liked one candidate, that was for certain. We might all have voted for the other candidate if he had been younger or more dynamic. As matters stood, some in the family felt that the obnoxious one may be a better choice to fix the economy, seeing as how the other one seemed almost out of it. They also disliked the way in which the liberal media was openly taking sides. One of the family, however, just couldn’t stand the obnoxious one, so that person’s vote was headed elsewhere. 

At the beginning of October came another shocker. Both COVID-19 and the elections, which had been cutting parallel paths through the year, suddenly merged, with one candidate contracting the disease. Honestly, if anybody had written a fictional piece like this, they would’ve been laughed out of the publishing business for having Kafka-esque imagination. It has also become obvious to all that however these elections end, whichever candidate wins, it is going to be a knockdown, drag-out, ugly mother of a fight, and the repercussions of which will last a very long time.

As for my family, we are still having discussions/arguments/fights over these elections. Luckily, we don’t take these skirmishes seriously. Hey, we may even unite to vote for an independent candidate. Therefore, hopefully, our house will still be standing after the elections. 

As for the country … only time will tell!


Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India, and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.