20 reflections on India in 2022

Published: @December 2, 2022

  1. India at its 75th year is at its most interesting point. As I read On China, a meditation on the ancient Chinese culture that influences the modern Chinese state and is reflected throughout its history, I am struck by the similarities and difference between the trajectories of India and China. Both are rich, ancient civilizations undergoing political and economic awakenings.
  2. India is undergoing a muscular Hindu cultural revitalization. It is a fact, not an opinion. Why this matters is that you simply cannot counteract it. Consider the visceral reaction religious conversion and temple destruction elicits. This isn’t rational, it’s emotional. Emotions are hard to change.
    1. Is it any surprise that South Indian films have risen in this context? They have been unabashedly native, even provincial, for the last 50 years.
    2. The new India does not crave acceptance the way the old India did. In this way, it has learned from China.
  3. Inequality is growing. The faster regions are running faster, and the slower regions are stagnating. The heights of Hyderabad and Bangalore compete with the globe. I struggle to imagine a Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, or eastern UP. Where are the jobs?
  4. Travel in India is incredibly physically taxing. The human rush of 1 billion people must be felt to be believed. The added difficulty imposed by toxic air pollution, extreme heat, and uncomfortable traveling conditions is tough to believe. I forgot how hard it can be to travel to India.
  5. India is a traditional society, not a moral society. In a society deeply steeped in religious observation and routinely engaged in moral discussion, there are still routinely appalling occurrences. This is because tradition is actually valued.
  6. Is the practice of caste separate from the practice of religion? I don’t know. Caste deeply permeates Indian society and government. What does Modi mean for caste? An OBC pushing the most powerful Hindutva campaign with a Dalit, and now tribal, president is on its face contradictory to the notion that caste is necessarily religion. Caste mathematics have acutely been a feature of Indian social and political discussion for the last 75 years of independence. Will they be for the next 75?
  7. The demographic dividend is failing. I saw 3 workers running a single sandwich cart. Cheap labor is a boon, so long as it is productive and comparatively advantaged. In India, it is not.
  8. I will not be surprised if Yogi Adityanath becomes PM. The question of what follows Modi in 2024 is massive. (Let me point out that I consider it a foregone conclusion that Modi will sweep 2024 with a majority, especially considering what recently happened in Maharashtra). Yogi has masterfully played a Modi-inspired game in the biggest state, with generally favorable results for his political future. He’s a pan-Indian leader.
  9. I fear for the Indian Muslim. Indian Muslims have a long history of social, cultural (Zakeer khan), scientific (APJ Kalam), and economic contribution (Azim Premji). They are ostracized and alienated. They are left to their poverty.
  10. As I walked through India, I realized that the US isn’t what India aspires to be at this moment. It’s probably Israel; a powerful ethno-nationalist democracy with little responsibility for global affairs but a disproportionate ability to impact them.
  11. Mao mobilized China. Modi has not, and this has been his greatest failure. He has never truly harnessed the totality of Indian electorate towards the kind of all-encompassing social objective that could transform the society and country. Rather, he has engaged in an uncoordinated campaign of major welfare reforms, bureaucratic dominance, and political shock and awe that lends itself well to winning the next election but never to lasting transformation. Perhaps this is the insecurity of democratic politics. When power comes at the ballot box and not through the barrel of a gun, leadership is never quite sure enough of its lifespan to manifest change.
  12. It may sound like I am down on India. I am not. India is undergoing its most representative and positive rejuvenation. The average Indian has never been better off, nor have they ever had their elites more truly aligned to the causes they care about. Indians are bustling, thriving, and energetic. They are thrilled to rediscover and celebrate their heroes and culture. They are proud of what they can buy. They are increasingly confident they can build (UPI, the success of Varanasi). The problems facing the political project of India are very different than the ones facing the average Indian.
  13. India has embraced modern climate husbandry. Electrification proceeds. Single use plastic is banned. The Ganga has been cleaned. India is making a serious bet, out of necessity and opportunity, on climate. It’s not perfect, but it’s on its way.
  14. The lack of sophisticated opposition to Modi is glaring. There is truly no one his equal that speaks to the vision of a pluralistic, cosmopolitan, yet fundamentally Indian society. It is hard to describe how much of a punchline Rahul Gandhi and the INC has become. It’s like watching the US Whig Party fade to irrelevance. We are witnessing the slow death of a party too intent on navel gazing rather than questioning governance.
  15. Governance is not the only factor for election. Mass connect and authenticity is crucial. Too often, Indian politicians sacrifice one for the other. Perhaps Naveen Patnaik is the only Indian leader who can make a plausible claim to both.
  16. Austerity is crucial to authenticity and mass connect. Modi has no children. The Gandhis lost a whole generation in service of the nation (Indira, Sanjay, and Rajiv). Adityanath only wears saffron robes. Austerity uniquely captures the Indian imagination the same way classical tradition captures the Chinese imagination and self-made success captures the American imagination. Note that the imagination does not need fact-based narratives to be spell-bound. Myth is more effective than truth.
  17. Winning in Indian politics requires the world’s most complicated mixture of economic interests, religious groups, social sections, and organizational heft. More simply, it requires a shit ton of money, painstaking coalition building, and door knocking. The BJP is literally the only game. Not a single party has the affluence or the ideological heft to pose a threat. The communist left is dead. The Congress’s egalitarian ideology is rendered moot by the clown show of their leadership. Various regional parties have nowhere near the resources to contend on a national scale; they just don’t have the money. It’s incredibly disappointing to watch this state of affairs. It’s also awe-inspiring to watch the BJP repeatedly co-opt and dominate its rivals. Even old hands like Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad Yadav must be shocked. The only comparable force they have witnessed is Indira Gandhi, and even she faced multiple rebellions and blowbacks.
  18. Some of my favorite memories were seeing the Kashi Vishwanath and the Saptarishi Aarati, trying Irani chai near Charminar, seeing a Tamil colony in Varanasi, playing the Splendor card game with family, and checking out Chowmahalla Palace with a friend.
  19. The jet lag hit me hard. It’s been a long time since I had to deal with it. I’d not advise trying to work from India while recovering from the jet lag. I felt like I never fully got over it.
  20. India is bustling, thriving, and energetic in a truly fun way. I love visiting and having it be a part of my life.
Disclaimer: I wrote this on a flight from Varanasi to Hyderabad. It’s reactive. Some things in here will not stand the test of time. Consider it a point in time reflection, not a considered point of view.