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Chachi vidhayak hain hamari: Meena Harris and ‘family raj’ in US politics

Did Meena give up a career as a highly paid lawyer to pursue a life of noble poverty, dedicated to “inspiring” people? Or was this more profitable? You decide.

Let us suppose you are the President or the Vice President of the United States. You have literally millions of fans. How about you start selling them shirts, caps, books, mugs, etc, perhaps with your face or slogans on it? You could even do influencer marketing from your social media accounts by endorsing products or causes. Imagine just how much money you could make.

Some of this would be legal. Some of it probably would not. But all of it would be bad optics. You are commander-in-chief, not Rihanna.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a way around this. And it would be quite familiar to the Indian voter. Politicians having a deep commitment to their families.

Meet Meena Harris. As The Politico explains,

Last August, after Biden picked Kamala, Meena pushed the Biden team to sell a shirt in the campaign store that she designed with fellow influencer CLEO WADE. The shirt was emblazoned, “THE FIRST BUT NOT THE LAST,” alongside a picture of a young Kamala.

Say you are a Biden-Harris fan, eager to support your dear leader(s). So you take your hard earned money to the Biden campaign store and get a shirt that tells the world you’re a liberal. The campaign shirt costs way more than an ordinary piece of clothing. But you pay anyway because the high markup supports the ’cause.’ Don’t worry if Meena Harris benefits from this personally in terms of money or publicity.

As a Biden-Harris supporter, you do your karma. Don’t worry about who eats the fruit. That might just be spin that the first woman Vice President of the United States is putting on the most famous line from the Bhagavad Gita. Hey Indians, are you not proud?

I’m being unfair. A lot of American politicians have a side hustle of this sort. Remember that campaign contributions go to the campaign itself and not the personal bank account of the candidate. The two are separate legal entities. But you could always use the campaign money for campaign related purposes, such as hiring publicity managers and the like. And if there happens to be a close family member who just happens to run a media and consulting firm, who could fault you for wanting to hire them?

Meena Harris has a degree from Harvard Law School. She runs a fashion company that sells such inspirational T-shirts. She also has some media ventures, also apparently dedicated to producing videos that inspire people to be more like her aunt. And she has even written a book called “Kamala and Maya’s big idea,” which is currently No. 4 on the New York Times bestsellers list and has Kamala’s likeness on the cover.

So did Meena give up a career as a highly paid lawyer to pursue a life of noble poverty, dedicated to “inspiring” people? Or was this more profitable? You decide.

Again, if you are a Biden-Harris fan, you need not worry about this. You can just feel good about getting Phenomenal Kamala Harris Swimsuit,” “Phenomenal Kamala Tank,” and “Kamala T-shirt.” By the way, that’s the name of the clothing line that Meena owns: Phenomenal.

Meena likes that word: Phenomenal. Her media venture is also named “Phenomenal productions.” As the Politico notes:

Meena announced she was starting the production company with BRAD JENKINS, a former Obama White House staffer, weeks after the election. One of her first projects was a two-minute video featuring clips of her aunt, which debuted the day before Inauguration Day.

We celebrate Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black American and Asian American to serve as vice president of the United States of America,” the video’s narrator says.

Meena’s company produced the video with the Supermajority Education Fund, a nonprofit devoted to women’s leadership. (An allied super PAC, Supermajority, spent more than $1 million running ads backing Biden and opposing President DONALD TRUMP last year; most of its funding came from a super PAC started by GEORGE SOROS). On YouTube, the ad lists Meena as a producer.

The term ‘PAC’ stands for ‘Political Action Committee.’ That is a group of people who spend money for some political cause. A super PAC gets funding from another super PAC which got most of its money from George Soros. This super PAC is allied to a “non-profit” which is “devoted to women’s leadership.” And this allied non-profit produces a video with Meena’s company. Nothing to see here, folks, except for the best of intentions.

By the way, what is a “super PAC” and how is it different from a PAC? Unlike a PAC, a “super PAC” has no limits on how much money it can raise and/or spend. As a consequence, a super PAC is not allowed to legally coordinate with the candidate and must work independently of their campaign. You know, like one super PAC pays another super PAC whose allied non-profit makes videos with companies owned by family members of the candidate. Transparency everywhere.

The White House said it did not know if Meena was paid for the ad,or whether her company volunteered its time. If the former, it might violate White House policy. Asked if she was paid by Supermajority, Meena didn’t respond.

So did Meena get paid for these videos or not? The aunt says she doesn’t know and the niece says she won’t tell. On the good side, Kamala’s inability to see might be a tribute to the character of Gandhari in the Mahabharata. As an Indian, I know I’m thrilled.

As Axios notes:

Phenomenal has sold several other items inspired by Kamala Harris since Biden announced her as his running mate.

  • They include a sweatshirt with “MVP” on it, standing for “Madam Vice President,” and another with the phrase “I’m speaking” on the front — a nod to a moment when Kamala Harris complained about being interrupted during a vice-presidential debate.
  • After Kamala Harris received the “too-ambitious” criticism, her niece created and sold a pink sweatshirt with “AMBITIOUS” written on the front.

Inspiring people is good work. And it is big business. Incidentally, there are some ethics policies surrounding such “inspiration,” but as Politico writes:

But the policy has been trickier to enforce with Meena than some other family members, given how much Kamala’s image is intertwined with her business projects.

Of course it has been trickier. Meena Harris is too independent to get bogged down by such things. Be it American liberals or India’s farmers, her independent empire of “inspiration” runs across continents.

But you don’t have to worry about the money trail. Go get yourself a nice shirt or hoodie with an inspirational message from the aunt. Show the world that you are a liberal. Don’t worry. You are not the first to fall for this and you most certainly won’t be the last.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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