Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

Part III of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion.  I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88).  That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history.   It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi.  Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes!  Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.

Kamaladevi&SarojiniNaidu

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference

As independence dawned, however, Kamaladevi retreated from politics. She did so at a time when, much like her yet more famous sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, she could have had nearly any political office for the asking.  In eschewing political office, she was choosing the trajectory established by her mentor, Gandhi—though, as was the case with him, this did not even remotely signal any severance from social work or participation in public life. In the immediate aftermath of independence, she involved herself with work revolving around the rehabilitation of refugees, and it may be more than just a coincidence that Shyamala Gopalan might have been aware of this as well since her father, P. V. Gopalan, was employed as Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Transportation and placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Rehabilitation with effect from December 1955. Kamaladevi went on to have an extraordinary second career as one of the country’s preeminent experts in handicrafts, textiles, theatre arts, puppetry, and crafts and as a principal force in molding the new nation’s cultural policy. The idea of the ‘Global South’ is incipient in all her work, as I have argued in the book, A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, that my colleague Ellen Carol DuBois and I published on her in 2017, and she was a radical exponent of the idea of South-South exchanges and the decolonization of knowledge.  What is critical is that Kamaladevi’s disavowal of political ambition stemmed both from her disenchantment with animal politics—and electoral politics is nothing but that in psephological democracies such as the US and India—and, at the same time, a deep awareness of how to effect social change.

It is in all these respects that Kamaladevi’s namesake in the United States, Kamala Devi, is radically different.  Most people, particularly of liberal disposition, suppose that the nomination of a woman who is one part African American and one part Indian American signals a new kind of maturity in American politics and shows that in such evolution the intrinsic strengths of a democracy are most evidently on display.  The argument may not be wholly without merit except that one must fundamentally digress from such a generous interpretation in at least three respects. First, Kamala Devi Harris belongs to a breed of professional politicians who play to win and whose careers have been shaped by the well-oiled machinery of political manipulation, grandstanding, and the like.  What I have called the ‘animal politics’ of Kamaladevi’s time is but child’s play by the ruthless rules of the game that are in place today.  It is far from established that Harris is any more principled than the average politician:  the man who is now presented, with good reason, as an affront to most reasonable people and as a threat to American democracy, Donald J. Trump, is on record as having twice, in 2011 and 2013, contributed as a private citizen to the election campaign of Kamala Harris when she was running for the state Attorney General. One cannot, and must not, expect anything substantive to come out of this form of political activity in an electoral democracy. The candidate, as such, is nearly irrelevant—perhaps an odd if not shocking and irresponsible argument to make at this juncture, some would argue, considering the apparently ‘life-defining’ choice that people are called upon to make this November, though in my memory every four years the same argument has been advanced over the course of the last three decades.

Secondly, Kamala Harris’s ascendancy is far less the sign of any substantive shift in American politics than a form of gestural accommodation that democracies are called upon to make these days.  It is now perfectly well understood that some shifts are irreversible and must therefore be accepted in good taste, so long as some fundamentals—class hierarchies, a belief in the spirit of American capitalism, and the supposition that the US is the one ‘indispensable nation’, to name just a few—are left undisputed.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the decision this summer of the US Supreme Court in a case where Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, whose nomination to the court was bitterly contested by liberals and who had been roundly condemned by them as ‘extremely conservative’, surprised everyone by writing the court’s landmark decision extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ employees nationwide.  Opposition to gay marriage and to gays serving in the military went the same way as opposition to women serving in the army, and both Gorsuch’s seeming capitulation to the moment and Harris’s rise must be viewed in the same vein—as harbinger of the kind of incremental changes that permit a democracy to call itself a democracy.  It bears reiteration that the meaning of being ‘American’ is expansive enough and one can expect that under Harris, should she become the Vice President and perhaps gain the White House in a subsequent election cycle, such incremental changes will accelerate.  Kamala Harris is not even remotely a threat to the establishment, and one must not forget for a moment that what is being claimed on her behalf—her part Indian American identity, or the familiar story of her immigrant parents from two different countries finding success in the US—has also been claimed by another Indian American woman who is most likely poised to compete for the presidency of the US in the near future, Nikki Haley.  It was quite a sight to Haley, who has at least as many “firsts” to her credit as Kamala Harris, having served as the Governor of South Carolina (2011-17) before taking up an appointment as US Ambassador to the United Nations, address the Republican National Convention by describing how her immigrant Punjabi mother, dressed in a sari, and her turbaned father, realized ‘the American dream’.

Thirdly, it cannot be stressed enough that a more capacious and particularly ethical perspective on politics behooves us to liberate ourselves from procrustean notions of identity rather than becoming entrenched in them. It cannot be doubted that there will already be rather silly articles by Indian Americans about Harris as the ‘desi alpha female’ and other sentimental pronouncements about how her nomination is a ‘dream come true’.  The trouble with identity is that it is a crushingly boring subject.  ‘Nothing seems less interesting’, Edward Said wrote with characteristic forthrightness, ‘than the narcissistic self-study that today passes in many places for identity politics, or ethnic studies, or affirmations of roots, cultural pride, drum-beating nationalism, and so on’—and this from the author of Orientalism (1978), a devastating indictment of the intellectual apparatus and regimes of representation that European colonial powers deployed in their study of ‘Oriental’ societies. When will we get past the fact that Kamala Harris is a woman, in equal parts African American and Indian American, and begin to pose some more difficult questions.  What does she understand by ethics in politics?  Under what circumstances might one permit the conscience to become the highest law of the land?  (None, the realists will say.) But if we must insist on her identity, we might still ask some difficult questions:  as an African American and Indian American, will she be hospitable to the idea that if a vaccine for the coronavirus should be developed in the US, it would first be made available to essential healthcare workers in the US, India, Africa, and around the world before it is even made available to all Americans?  Or will it be merely ‘America first’?  Are those who are minorities any more endowed with a sense of altruism than those who are not?  (What a ‘dumb’ question, the same realists will aver, though then we might ask what the point of invoking one’s identity may be, unless one be prepared to concede that identity gives us only the most impoverished framework to think through politics.) It is clear that in the present state of senescence that characterizes democracy in the United States of America, no one will be bothered to put these questions to Kamala Devi Harris—or indeed to any other candidate.

(concluded)

See also Part I, “Black, Desi, and (Just) American:  Identity and the Political Ascendancy of Kamala Harris”

Part II, “Identity and Beyond:  Families, Nations, and Interculturality”

4 thoughts on “Identity and the Colossal Failure of Contemporary Electoral Politics

  1. A very good three part article. I worry greatly that if the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious, the same crimes of the American state will continue but due to the fact that the occupants of the Oval Office are “nice” or less openly distasteful than Donald Trump, all the liberals will just go home and stop worrying about politics. ICE will still separate children from their parents, the US will still conduct drone strikes on civilian populations, black people will still be murdered on the street by the police, Native American tribes will see their sovereignty continually eroded. But because the President and VP are not openly distasteful to liberal sensibilities the liberals will suddenly stop caring.

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    • Hi Ganesh, I share your worries. The killing of black people on the streets did not commence with Trump. There were plenty of such killings in the time of Obama. There was this liberal fantasy that Obama would bring in a post-racial America. In the essay, I ask what 8 years of his presidency did for Africa; we could also ask what his presidency did for African Americans, besides the symbolic implications of a Black man in the White House. There is a reason why Obama also became known as the Drone President. If we are going to have fundamental shifts in consciousness, we shall have to look beyond electoral politics.

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      • Indeed, the politics of representation and diversity is a curse on the intellect and the soul. One gets the sense that many liberals would be thrilled if half the ICE agents and drone operators were Black women. Same is true in India: Dilip Mandal has said, without a hint of irony, that the priest at the to-be-constructed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya should be a Dalit woman. I recently saw someone say that the great American abolitionist John Brown should no longer be honored because he was a white man. It is getting to the point where a person’s ethnicity, caste, and posessed genitals matter more to some than what is in their head and heart. “We want diverse oppressors” says the liberal, to which we say “how about no oppressors?”. “Why do you hate diversity?” responds the liberal.

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      • Hi Ganesh, I have written in a number of places–the earliest of such pieces being about 10-12 years old–that even dictators must undergo diversity training these days! Regarding John Brown, there is certainly a critique to be made of him, but that has nothing to do with him being white, but rather with his understanding of the need for violence in certain situations. There is a good deal of literature on whether anything was achieved by his raid at Harpers Ferry. I must say, notwithstanding my tendency to stand by the side of the most firm adherents of nonviolence, none more so famously than Gandhi, that Brown is a very attractive figure. There is an essay on him by Henry David Thoreau with which I suspect you are familiar; if not, I would urge you and other readers to turn to it. I have taught it to my undergraduates in a contemporary world history class. It is called ‘A Plea for Captain John Brown’.

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