Joe Biden’s “Indian Connection” is Tenuous. Why is Our Media So Embarrassingly Breathless Over It?


Joe Biden’s “Indian Connection” is Tenuous. Why is Our Media So Embarrassingly Breathless Over It?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The Indian media loves it when a foreign politician has some connection to India. And when that politician is the next President of the United States, probably the most important politician in the world, they’re over the moon. That explains why so many news outlets have breathlessly reported on President-Elect Joe Biden’s connection with India, no matter how tenuous. A few offhand comments by Biden from years ago, in 2013 and 2015, about possibly having relatives in Mumbai have been covered in great detail by Indian news outlets, who held it up as Biden’s “Indian connection”.

Originally, Biden had made the comments during a visit to Mumbai when he was Barack Obama’s Vice-President in 2013. While addressing an audience at the Bombay Stock Exchange, Biden shared a story about how he had received a letter from Mumbai when he was 29 years old and freshly elected to the US Senate. The sender of the letter had the same surname, Biden, and claimed he was related to the American politician. Two years later, at another address in Washington, Biden said he had a “great, great, great, great, great grandfather” named George Biden who worked for the East India Company and settled down to raise a family in India.

These two offhand bits of crowd interaction from otherwise uneventful speeches have formed the foundation of the hype surrounding Biden’s Indian connection. The way the media has latched onto this information it would seem Biden has automatically become as Indian as his own VP, Kamala Harris. Many of the reports also say that it is “unclear” if Biden did in fact manage to get in touch with his maybe-maybe not relatives from Mumbai, and the disappointment is palpable.

However, a report by Mumbai Mirror’s Vallabh Ozarkar from earlier this year attempted to get to the bottom of this Indian Biden mystery. Published in August, the report tracked down the sender of the letter Biden received at 29: A man named Leslie Biden, not from Mumbai, but from Nagpur. Leslie’s grandchildren told the reporter that Biden had even written a response to the letter in 1981. However, the family claims no relation to the incoming President, despite what their grandfather might have said in his letter.

So does Joe Biden have Indian roots? Probably not, but the Indian media would love it if he did.