Kamala Harris began visiting her ancestral Chennai- or Madras as it was known then- at a time when the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement had taken power. The film industry played a big role in this dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Brahmin community. But then, after the death of the film star Chief Minister M.G Ramachandran, his mantle was inherited by a Brahmin Screen Queen- Jayalalitha who, despite corruption charges and spells in jail, went on to dominate Tamil politics till her somewhat untimely death four years ago. It was strange to see a Brahmin lady running a State whose official ideology is almost entirely centred on anti-Brahminism.
There is something equally bizarre about the notion that Harris can represent African Americans. True, her father came from Jamaica. He had ancestors who were slaves. But, in Jamaica, a lot of freedwomen and their descendants themselves owned slaves. There is a story of a Creole who had inherited some slaves and who decided to cross over to America to build a plantation there. But, in America, by the one drop rule, he was himself classed as a slave! His descendants prospered only after Emancipation which came to America 30 years later than it did to Jamaica. What America didn't have was a notion of caste based on degree of miscegenation and whether you were owned or you owned others. Jamaica did have a notion of caste- as did Tamil Nadu. The educated elites thought of themselves as inheriting the traditions of the Colonial Masters. If they emigrated to America, they did very well because of their brain-power. Colin Powell and Malcolm Gladwell belong to this class of West Indians. Kamala Harris's mother belonged to its equivalent East Indian caste.
Harris's father, like Sir Arthur Lewis, the first African descent person to be awarded a Nobel Prize, was a heterodox Academic Economist. Unlike indigenous African American Economists, Harris retained the Left Liberal idealism of the Sixties. But people of Harris's class were uneasy with the popular urban culture of their Islands of origin. They had differentiated themselves from the 'proles' a century ago. Their sons had to speak the Queen's English at home. If Daddy caught them speaking 'Rude Boy' patois on the phone, Mum would take her shoe to them. There was also an ancestral disdain of 'new money'. Commerce was disreputable. Popular culture, but also popular religion, was regarded as atavism- a dangerous return to the Jungle. V.S. Naipaul was the voice of this class. But Naipaul was a cretin. Thomas Sowell & Clarence Thomas represented the path of sanity. But both provoked an atavistic fear. These were the genuine Witch Doctors because they were concerned with the genuine forces that shape the world. It is safer to live in a genteel, but make believe, world.
For Kamala, the Tamil movies of Jayalalitha, must have been an eye-opener. They showed that histrionics is politics- otherwise, how on earth could a Brahmin woman end up heading a very macho anti-Brahmin party which glorifies the ancient Tamil warrior Kings while grading women on the basis of the supposed power generated by their degree of chastity?
California, surprisingly, wasn't so different from Tamil Nadu. Reagan became Governor of that State, a position Schwarznegger would later occupy, before MGR became C.M of Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, Religious identities were fluid. You could be a Brahmin Baptist or a Zen Jew or a Gay Greek Orthodox Saint. But Harris wasn't exactly a 'Governor Moonbeam'. There was a rigidity to her thinking and a tendency to be a 'free rider' on existing bandwagons. This may be no bad thing. It boosts productivity when you are young. But it also means that Harris won't supply 'blue sky' thinking. Like her maternal grandfather, who rose by merit through the ranks of the Indian bureaucracy, she may be inclined to 'work within a system' where her merits have allowed her to rise. The problem here is that 'work product' has external, structural, effects. The product may be good but the effect may be bad. Furthermore, systems break down at precisely the moment when the attempt is made to reform them. The example of Tamil Nadu shows that 'populism' can yield better outcomes than meritocratic elitism. Trump isn't exactly a laid off coal-miner or bankrupt dairy farmer. But then Jayalaitha was an educated Brahmin in a State which had decided Brahmins were at the root of all evil. Jayalalitha prevailed as Trump may yet prevail. Why? The choice facing America is Clintonism- and its ability to be captured by Money and to capture those who appear to be against Money- which it has had plenty of, and...what? Something indigenous. Something 'anti-Brahmin'. Something 'blue sky'. Who knows what that might be?
I never thought the son of a Luo Economist would become President, not of Kenya, but America. I think the grand-daughter of a TamBram Civil Servant will become Veep. But because I am always wrong about these things, she won't. Shame. But there it is.