As Kamala Harris breaks barriers, India celebrates

New Delhi: On the road to making history, Kamala D. Harris paused for a call to India.

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Early Thursday in New Delhi, her uncle Gopalan Balachandran got a message that his niece wanted to speak with him. Soon several members of the family were on a group call.

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The US election results were not yet final, but Harris sounded relaxed and cheerful. “I said, ‘Look, you’re winning,’” Balachandran, 79, recalled. “Don’t worry.”

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On Saturday, when the victory became official, Balachandran laughed with delight. “This is a big moment, no question about it,” he said. “It’s good for the United States. It’s good for many people.”

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Harris’ groundbreaking win – she will become the first woman, the first African American and the first Indian-American to become vice president – sparked jubilation thousands of miles away in her mother’s native country. And, in a reflection of her multiethnic heritage, Jamaicans also cheered Harris in the homeland of her father.

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Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, left India as a young woman to study in California. There she met and married Donald Harris, an economist from Jamaica.

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As a child, Harris would visit her relatives in the South Indian city of Chennai and has written about how her walks with her maternal grandfather – a career civil servant – helped shaped her ideals of fairness and justice.

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During the campaign, Harris delighted some in India by referring to her roots. In her acceptance speech, she mentioned the support she had received from her “chittis”, a Tamil word for aunts.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had forged a close relationship with President Donald Trump, paid tribute to Harris’ “pathbreaking” success on Twitter. It is “a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans,” he wrote.

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The pride in Harris’ achievement was felt all the way from India’s capital to the seaside neighbourhood in Chennai where her grandparents lived to Thulasendrapuram, the small village in southern India where her grandfather was born.

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Earlier in the week, residents of Thulasendrapuram held a special ritual at a local Hindu temple to pray for a Biden-Harris victory. The election was finally called late Saturday night in India, but plans for a celebration in the village the next morning were rapidly taking shape, including exploding firecrackers and distributing sweets.

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“This is huge for us,” said Kalidas Vandayar, a businessman who lives just outside Thulasendrapuram. “We are certain that Biden and Kamala D. Harris will be better for India than Trump was.”

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Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader, offered his hearty congratulations. “It makes us proud that the first woman to serve as vice president of the USA traces her roots to India,” he wrote on Twitter.

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M.K. Stalin, a political leader in the state of Tamil Nadu, expressed his delight that the American people had “chosen a woman with Tamil heritage as their next Vice-President in this historic election.”

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There was similar pride in Jamaica. “To have one of our own reach one of the highest seats on the world stage is humbling and profound,” said Latoya Harris, 39, a policy analyst. She and the vice president-elect are second cousins.

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Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, saluted Harris’ “monumental accomplishment for women” as well as her Jamaican heritage.

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There was celebration in another corner of the world, too. In Ballina in northwest Ireland, a bottle of champagne was popped on the main street and American flags flew from homes and pubs in the ancestral home of the Biden family.

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Back in India, Harris’ uncle Balachandran had spent days watching the results on a squat Panasonic television tuned to CNN, his laptop open to Arizona’s ballot-counting website.

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Now he plans to celebrate with a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of wine – and later with a trip to Washington to see his niece sworn in as vice president.

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Mostly his thoughts were of his sister Shyamala, Harris’ mother, who died in 2009. Shyamala told her two daughters, “Whatever you study or learn, see how you can use it for the good of society,” Balachandran recalled.

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During the campaign, Balachandran became a minor celebrity himself. After the vice-presidential debate, a clip of him describing his niece’s performance went viral on social media with more than 1 million views (one Twitter user summed up the sentiment: “How can you not love this guy?”).

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As the votes were being counted, he sat for interviews in three languages – English, Tamil and Hindi – in his driveway. He specialised in a kind of amiable exasperation, especially when asked about Harris’ favourite Indian foods (she reportedly enjoys idlis and dosas, both South Indian staples).

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By Friday, he was losing patience with the trickle of election returns. “Bloody hell, it’s slow!” he exclaimed. But the Biden campaign’s progress toward victory was “like a juggernaut . . . steady but inexorable.”

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Harris will be “a great asset to Biden,” he continued. “Let’s not kid ourselves: what was at stake was whether “the United States remains the United States.”

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