September 22, 2023
September 22, 2023

Narendra Modi is India’s current Prime Minister and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He made his first US state visit in June 2023, which sees India as a vital partner for safety in the Indo-Pacific region and counterterrorism. Under his tenure, India has downgraded from being a free democracy to an electoral autocracy, according to V-Dem Institute, but he’s popular among citizens and members of the Indian diaspora. Is there hope for better times? Those who agree applaud Modi’s efforts to tackle corruption, increase technological advancements, and promote India as a global player on the world stage. They also point to India’s strong economic growth and development, with India projected as the fastest-growing large economy this year. Those who disagree note increasing religious and social tensions, corruption of institutions, and limited freedom of expression, while arguing his economic policies aren’t good for everyone. They’re also concerned about pro-Hindu divisive policies and the impact they have on Muslims and other marginalized communities.

With this background, we debate the question: Is Modi’s India Heading in the Right Direction?

  • 00:00:05

    John Donvan:

    Hi everybody. Welcome to Open To Debate, I’m John Donvan. And in this one, we are going to look at a leader and what he has done for his country. So something that is coveted among the small club of princes, prime ministers, and presidents around the world is an invitation for a high-level visit to the United States, especially one that comes with all of the stops pulled out; personal time with the president, a huge dinner at the White House, an address to Congress. Well, not long ago, one of those invites, technically called an official state visit, went to the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. A huge honor that was celebrated back in his home country. It’s only the second time an Indian Prime Minister has been accorded all of that ceremony.

  • 00:00:44

    But Modi had already been in office for a decade when this happened. And earlier in his career, he had actually been denied entrance to the United States on grounds that he was seen as responsible for violations of religious freedom. So why, after 10 years in power did he, among all leaders in the world, merit that honor? What is going on in India and with India, the world’s fifth-largest economy, often described as its largest democracy, now actually a player in space becoming only recently the fourth nation in history to land a spacecraft safely on the moon? But we’re gonna be getting into all of that in this episode where the question we’re debating will be, is Modi’s India going in the right direction?

  • 00:01:24

    We have two superb debaters who know this story and the situation extremely well, but they come with opposite answers to the question, so let’s meet them. Arguing yes to the question, is Modi’s India going in the right direction, senior expert in South Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, Sameer Lalwani. Sameer, thanks so much for joining us at Open to Debate.

  • 00:01:44

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Thanks for having me on.

  • 00:01:45

    John Donvan:

    And arguing that the answer, the very same question is no, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University, Prerna Singh. Welcome, Prerna to Open to Debate.

  • 00:01:55

    Prerna Singh:

    Thank you for having me.

  • 00:01:56

    John Donvan:

    So before we start, I just wanna get a sense of, of what personally motivates each of you to be even involved in this argument. So, Sameer, if you could go first. Uh, essentially, why did you agree to be in a debate about this issue? Why does, why does it matter to you personally?

  • 00:02:11

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Yeah, thanks, John. I, I think about this as an American National Security and Foreign Policy Analyst, and I’m trying to identify some of the most impactful partners that can help the United States solve global problems, advance human progress, uh, act to preserve peace and international stability. And I think we’re entering a really challenging period of time, uh, in this geopolitical juncture since the Cold War, where the US needs partners that it can rely on to share global burdens. And I see India, uh, having the potential to make great contributions.

  • 00:02:36

    John Donvan:

    Thanks very much. And Prerna, same question to you. Why, why did you want to take on this topic at this time with us?

  • 00:02:42

    Prerna Singh:

    Thank you, John. Uh, this is just an issue that is so close to my heart. I grew up in India, I work on India, I research India, I study India, and I’m a comparative politics scholar for whom Indian democracy was always this glowing puzzle that India had managed to institute democracy despite poverty and illiteracy and ethnic diversity. And for me, in, in many ways, India and America are jointly home. And so, this issue is, i- is kind of at the heart of my intellectual inquiry. It’s also the heart of who I am as a person.

  • 00:03:13

    John Donvan:

    Thank you for that. It’s interesting to us to hear how you both care and you’re both committed. We really appreciate your taking part in this debate, which is now going to go into its first round. We are gonna give each of you a few minutes to tell us why you’re answering yes, or why you’re answering no. Sameer, your answer to the question, is Modi’s India going in the right direction is yes. Please tell us why.

  • 00:03:34

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Great. So let me first start by saying how I think we should evaluate the question of right direction. I have three suggested guides that help me think about the question. The first is thinking about this, uh, as just India’s direction, not exclusively Modi’s India, since I think that characterization might, uh, unfairly prejudge the question. India’s a diverse and contested and highly federalized country with a professional civil service. And about half of India’s states, uh, are where a majority of Indians live that are not controlled by the ruling party, the BJP. I think it’s also important to consider fair points of comparison.

  • 00:04:06

    We should compare India today to where it was 10 years ago, or to its global south peers, not some imagined future. And then finally, I think, uh, about considering India’s overall direction based on a portfolio of Indian indicators. The question we’re as- being asked to weigh is India’s overall progress by accounting for steps forward and backward across multiple domains, but we have to try to ascertain some sort of aggregate.

  • 00:04:29

    So here’s why I think India is going in the right direction. First, I think India is safer than it was 10 years ago. Crime is down on average 20%. Terrorism is down between 50 to 60 percent, cross-border conflict and cross-border, uh, ce- cease fire viol- violations are basically down to nothing. Uh, second, India’s foreign relations are on fairly strong footing. Its, uh, relations with most of its neighbors are on the upswing and improving. And I think it’s… India’s on the right side of history geopolitically speaking, it’s taking a stand and costly actions in favor of a rule-based order. It’s advocating a platform on behalf of the global south in favor of greater public goods, and inclusion in decision-making internationally. Third, I think India’s economy is trending well. Its GDP per capita has grown 53% over the last eight years, 6.6% real growth on average.

  • 00:05:14

    But if you think about purchasing power parity, it’s about 7.7% annual growth, which is pretty remarkable. It’s also improving in measures of human developments, including life expectancy, schooling, income. Foreign direct investment is going up. The average annual foreign direct investment over the past nine years has about… Been about 74% higher than the seven years prior to this government. And that’s coming in the forms of high value manufacturing being committed by companies like Micron, Foxconn, Airbus. But alongside this, I think India’s public goods are also expanding.

  • 00:05:44

    Today, about 46% of its population now has access to the internet, which is a fourfold jump since 2013. The government’s digital identification payments programs have given hundreds of millions of people more access to data empowerment, protection, financial services, including loans, digital payments without theft, and health information. And even physical infrastructure, while still wanting, is improving, with India spending heavily on roads, ports, train stations, such that India has climbed the ranks of the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index since 2014, from 54th to 38th. And that’s leapfrog countries like Vietnam, Chile, and Oman.

  • 00:06:19

    Social welfare is also improving. I think I’ve seen significant jumps in rural households with toilets, drinking water, cooking fuel, electrification, and permanent housing. Infant mortality is stead- steadily declined. And finally, there’s a downward trend in the number of missing baby girls. That means the gender ratio is improving. The state of science and innovation is thriving. India has lept 36 spots in the Global Innovation Index from 76 to 40th since 2014. Uh, and the best evidence is, uh, something that you alluded to, John, about the, the recent Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission that just made history landing on the moon, uh, making India the only… The fourth country to land on the moon, uh, and the first to land on the dark side of the moon.

  • 00:06:57

    Um, now, I understand that political institutions are under stress, and Indians and their Democratic friends should be concerned about that. But I think there are several encouraging signs of resilience and stability in Indian democracy that we’ll undoubtedly discuss in this co- in this conversation. So I have some concerns about steps backward and put- in political institutions, but I think there are a lot of steps forward on safety, foreign relations, economic growth, public goods, social welfare, and science and technology that all tell a story that India is headed in the right direction.

  • 00:07:24

    John Donvan:

    Thank you very, very much, Sameer. Um, I just wanna congratulate you on hitting your time nearly perfectly. It’s hard to do, and we really appreciate that, that you’re able to do that. All right, so we have heard the answer yes, to the question. Now, we wanna move on to the no, uh, answer to the question, and that again comes from Prerna Singh. Prerna, you are answering no to the question, is Modi’s India going in the right direction? Please tell us why.

  • 00:07:46

    Prerna Singh:

    In 1947, India overthrew the yoke of British colonialism just as the United States had 150 years before that. And at this moment of its founding as an independent state, it chose, just as the US had, to become a democracy. With the exception of a brief interruption in the 1970s, India sustained even strengthened its democratic institutions. But today, by influential assessments, the world’s largest democracy is not quite a democracy anymore. Critical to India’s authoritarian slide has been the sustained attack on its institutions that even my opponent alluded to. Like the US, India’s a federal country, but there has been a systematic subversion of state rights. Parliament, once the site of vigorous debate, has been reduced to rubber stamping government decisions.

  • 00:08:38

    Opposition leaders have been arrested and expelled. And the once fiercely autonomous judiciary is now associated with a rash of pro regime resolutions. But the most systematic and brazen attacks have been on the media. Journalists are harassed, arrested, assaulted, gunned down in broad daylight outside their homes, making India, according to the Columbia World Review, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. This is part of a broad-based crackdown on dissent against civil society, universities, think tanks, and even ordinary citizens posting their grievances on social media. For the fifth consecutive year, India leads the world in shutting down the internet.

  • 00:09:23

    India is a secular country that grants equal rights to all religions. But as part of the regimes aggressive pursuit of Hindu nationalism, there has been egregious violations of the basic rights and liberties of India’s minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. Mosques and churches are being regularly vandalized. Muslims, in particular, have been intimidated and disenfranchised, hate speech and violence against them is all but commonplace. And just in the past few weeks, the country has been racked by deadly riots from the National Capital region of Delhi, to the northeastern state of Manipur, where fears of ethnic cleansing are being raised.

  • 00:10:02

    There has been a sharp rise in inequality in unemployment, in joblessness. The number of women in the labor force is now one of the lowest in the world at par with Saudi Arabia. Hunger and malnutrition have increased, and the health and security of women has deteriorated. The Indian government’s catastrophic mismanagement of the COVID pandemic made international headlines the world over. First, as the lockdown went in, millions of daily wage migrant workers in the cities were abandoned, left to walk days, even weeks to their homes, and many starved and died on the way. Then, during the Delta wave, as hospital beds and oxygen supplies ran out, according to a recent study by Harvard University, up to 6 million Indians died gasping for air.

  • 00:10:53

    Sitting half a world way in the United States, I wept at images of people in my hometown of Delhi building funeral pyres for their loved ones in parking lots because cremation grounds had run out of space. I know that this is a debate, but unfortunately, the record leaves no room for debate or dispute across almost all measures of democracy, of governance, of the rule of law, of freedom, of rights and liberties, especially of religious minorities, of ethnic harmony and peace, of economic equality, of social welfare. The decline in India has been stark and it has been steep. When he was handing over power, India’s mild-mannered, understated, former Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, a globally renowned economist, said, “Having Mr. Modi, whatever his merit, as the prime minister will be a disaster for India.” And what a prescient, tragic prediction that has turned out to be.

  • 00:11:47

    John Donvan:

    Thank you very much, Prerna. Again, a perfect hit on the time. Um, it’s never happened before. The two debaters have hit so perfectly. So, uh, thank you for that. So we have heard from our first two debaters, and we are going to now get into some conversation about this when we return. Our question, is Modi’s India heading in the right direction? We’ll be right back with more open to debate.

  • 00:12:32

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. We are taking on this question, is Modi’s India going in the right direction? We have heard opening statements from Sameer Lalwani and Prerna Singh. Sameer making the case that by, by several material measures, economic measures, some quality of life measures, India is doing fabulously well. It’s safer. The terrorism is down, crime is down, cross-border conflict is down. The GDP is growing at an astounding rate, that internet access is greater and deeper than it’s ever been before. Also, that while he concedes that its political institutions are under stress, he feels that there are correctives built into the system. And that on the global stage, that India is very, very well-positioned for making the most of its potential influence.

  • 00:13:16

    Now, Prerna is arguing essentially that many of the economic metrics are not nearly as, uh, positive and promising as Sameer is arguing. But she [inaudible

  • 00:13:25

    ] this thrust of her argument is that what has often been described as the world’s largest democracy is becoming not quite a democracy anymore as a result of a sustained attack, as she puts it, on the state’s institutions. She says Parliament has turned into a rubber stamp. The judiciary is defanged. The media is under constant attack, and that there’s a, a threat of Hindu nationalism, uh, running through a great deal of government policy that has very negative consequences for India’s Muslim minorities.

  • 00:13:54

    I wanna take note of the fact that I find interesting that, uh, on the one hand, we, we have seen India has historically land a, a module on the moon, uh, a triumph of science, reaching a part of the moon that no other nation ever has before. At the same time, the government has announced that high school textbooks for children 15 and 16 years old will no longer mention evolution, and will no longer mention the periodic table. And the government has not been really quite clear about its reasons for this. It’s two stories about India and about science and about where it’s heading in the world.

  • 00:14:28

    And I would like to ask you, Prerna, first to take on this potential dichotomy of situations. Is India moving forward as a scientific power, technological power, or is it moving in the opposite direction?

  • 00:14:41

    Prerna Singh:

    I don’t actually see this as a dichotomy. I have to say, it was a very proud moment for me to see the Chandrayaan craft land on the dark side of the moon. But it’s important to keep in mind that an achievement like that, a colossal, important inspiring achievement like that is not the product of an overnight policy. It, in fact, is built on and is the culmination of a longstanding commitment to science and technology that began way before the present regime. In fact, one of India’s founding ideals was a commitment to science. It was one of the first countries in the global south to launch a very sophisticated space program, uh, also nuclear energy.

  • 00:15:23

    And so, you know, in many ways, it’s not a dichotomy that the textbooks are being changed to eliminate, as you pointed out, the periodic table, evolution, as well as history textbooks that are eliminating large part of India’s history, like the contributions of the Mughal Empire, which came before British colonialism. And so, to me, the two are just… They go hand in hand. On the one hand, you’re changing these textbooks. On the other hand, you’re essentially taking credit and have certainly, you know, done a lot to push forward a program that was conceived and built far before the regime took over.

  • 00:15:58

    John Donvan:

    Sameer, what’s your response to the… That same question?

  • 00:16:00

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Yeah. I saw that story that you mentioned, John, and it was puzzling because it did not correspond with a number of other things that I’ve observed in India that seem to actually be doubling down on science and science investments. Um, you’re seeing this in terms of how India has gone about engaging with a number of partner countries in the world, including the United States. One of its leading initiatives with the United States is the in- initiative on critical and emerging technologies. It’s about building, uh, entrepreneurial col- collaborations and innovation ecosystems between labs, between universities, uh, and between, um, companies as well, focused on autonomy, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and adamant, additive manufacturing.

  • 00:16:39

    So I’ve seen this alive and well in-person when I was last recently in Bangalore going to the Indian Institute of Science. Um, there’s a vibrancy and an interest, um, not only in sort of in the, in the academic setting, but a belief that policy makers are creating space to nurture these kinds of innovations. So I, I hear what you’re saying about that high school textbook, but it’s puzzling to me ’cause it’s just not square with other observations of what’s going on in India’s science and technology ecosystem.

  • 00:17:03

    Prerna Singh:

    I just wanted to comment in on that, because I’m so glad that Sameer mentioned academic institutions because in many ways, I, I don’t think India’s intellectual, academic, scholarly and policy institutions, and I’m talking not just about science, but actually much more in the liberal arts and the humanities, they have never been under more stress than they are today. Leading think tanks are being shut down. There is a huge roar in India’s top liberal arts university because of the persecution of academic freedoms. And so, in many ways, I think that the siege on, on intellectuals, on academic freedom as part of the broader crackdown on the media is worse in India today than it has ever been before.

  • 00:17:48

    John Donvan:

    And do you trace that… Just to clarify, do you trace that, given our question to, to Prime Minister Modi’s government and leadership and, and the party’s leadership?

  • 00:17:56

    Prerna Singh:

    I mean, I think there’s absolutely no doubt, um, in ter- in terms of just the, the timing and the intensity of what has happened. I mean, please don’t get me wrong. India has been a democracy, and it has… Democracy has always been the aspiration. It has always been a faltering democracy, but a democracy that has tried. And I don’t want to suggest that the present regime has not done… Um, you know, has not taken important achievements. I mean, definitely, the fact that it prioritized the moon mission enough for the successful landing to take place, that, that is certainly important. But I think I just want to mention the timing of the landing is the culmination and the product of a lot of investments in science, technology, and higher education that preceded the past decade. And that, on the other hand, the stress on academic institutions is something that has intensified in the past decade.

  • 00:18:49

    John Donvan:

    Sameer, as you said in your opening, you acknowledge that political institutions are in distress, that was the phrase you used. And you said that you have some concerns. What- what’s going on that for you ameliorates your concerns about the crackdown on the press, the, the impact on parliament, the impact on the judiciary? What is going on politically that gives you any sort of hope that those things will not become so oppressive that they actually would tilt the balance to you arguing the other side?

  • 00:19:19

    Sameer Lalwani:

    So, John, I see a number of elements of, um, checks and balances or self-correction that seem to be- being exercised here. So the first is that the, th- th- the Indian body politic is also… Is, is inherently a correction to government overreach. And we’ve seen this play out a number of times where there have been peaceful protests, national protests that have pushed back and forced the government to make concessions three times over the course of this government. The first was the one rank, one pay, uh, movement that I think was in 2015 or 2016 that forced the government to make major changes to its pension schemes for, um, uh, retired military.

  • 00:19:56

    Uh, the second was in the, um, the CAA, um, the amendment that was, uh, being pushed in 2019 that was halted, uh, after a tr- tremendous amount of national uproar and national protests. And most recently, there was a Farm Bill, uh, that was on, on the table for about a… I wanna say it was institute for about a year, and was pushed back and revoked, essentially, by the government because of national protests. Now, maybe these were mistaken moves by the government to be in the first place, but the fact that they responded to the, the general public, I think is a, is a testament to, uh, some, at least some capacity to listen to the, the wishes and the, and the will of the people.

  • 00:20:31

    Um, Prerna referred to the, the judiciary being, um, uh, s- hamstrung. But, uh, in fact, most recently, they exerted a pretty visible check by, uh, overturning the conviction of Rahul Gandhi, the opposition leader, and reinstating him in parliament. To me, that suggests that the judiciary has some weight and some ability to push back. Uh, and I think the ultimate test of India, and I’m not… And I think we’ll sort of find this out over the next few years, the ultimate check is free and fair elections, which, as far as we, we know, have been free and fair for the last two election cycles, including several election cycles at state levels where the ruling party has lost, and even at times lost badly. And when they have lost, they have had peaceful transitions of power to new ruling governments from other political parties. I count that about eight times over the last few years.

  • 00:21:17

    John Donvan:

    Basically, Prerna, what I’m hearing, um, Sameer say that while, while acknowledging that there’s, as he says under stress, he feels that the system is resolute enough that he’s not too worried about the trends. By we’re too worried, I mean, overly worried.

  • 00:21:31

    Prerna Singh:

    I’m actually kind of having trouble articulating because I’m, I’m a little bit in shock at some of his comments. First of all, I think he’s absolutely correct to say that these were deeply misplaced, extremely problematic policies in the first place. Yes, the, the government kind of backtracked, but after months of protests of farmers, old farmers, sick farmers camping out. And I’m, I’m from Delhi, and so, don’t get me wrong, north Indian winters are bitter winters. I mean, it goes down to 30, 40 degrees Fahrenheit. And these farmers were camping, living on street sides, being regularly persecuted for months before the state decided to overturn some amount of the policies that they had inst- instituted.

  • 00:22:17

    And on the Citizenship Amendment Act, I mean, this is the one that I’m, I’m having a lot of trouble with because the state essentially used the outbreak of COVID to completely crack down violently, viciously on the protests that had brought out hundreds of thousands of Indians onto the streets. Muslim women, intergenerational protests of women, women in their 60s, 70s, had essentially camped on a section of the highway in Delhi to protest, peacefully protest this amendment act that essentially for the first time introduced a religious provision into the possibility of applying for citizenship to India, a secular multi-religious country. And the government did not step down. The Citizenship Amendment Act stands, and is a blot on India’s secular democratic credentials.

  • 00:23:12

    Sameer Lalwani:

    I agree that there are… These illiberal impulses that were concerning to me as well, but again, it seems to me the system checked itself, right [inaudible

  • 00:23:19


  • 00:23:19

    Prerna Singh:

    But it did check itself, Sameer. The act went in.

  • 00:23:21

    Sameer Lalwani:

    The CAA is not, is not implemented, right? I mean, this was in 2019. It’s been four years, it hasn’t been implemented. The Farm Bill was revoked.

  • 00:23:27

    Prerna Singh:

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by implemented. It’s an act that has been passed by parliament. The protests were violently suppressed, shut down. Thousands of Indians are languishing in jail on sedition charges in the sense that protest, which is our constitutional right, has essentially been equated with being anti-national. And so, to me, this poi- point that you’re saying that somehow there are these checks and balances and the mechanism through which checks and balances operate as protest, just feels highly disingenuous.

  • 00:24:01

    John Donvan:

    Let me take this in a slightly different direction now to you, Prerna. Sameer making the case that as he said, in, in… By several, several, not all, uh, but several economic measures, India is better off now than it’s ever been before, and is still, uh, politically rule-based, as he said. And what we have at the head of all of this is a prime minister who is enormously popular. So if things are as bad as you say, or feel, what explains Prime Minister Modi’s popularity?

  • 00:24:30

    Prerna Singh:

    So just a few thoughts. One, um, as a number of scholars, and this is not my research, I’m really relying on that of others have shown, is that there has been more money, more attention put into propaganda under the present regime than there ever has today. The explicit attempts by the Prime Minister and the regime to equate himself with India is unprecedented. He is everywhere on billboards. Uh, this is a prime minister who, for the first time in India’s history, has never faced a pr- a press conference. It’s very clear when you go to the polls that you’re voting for a single person, even though actually in a parliamentary democracy you are just supposed to vote for a party.

  • 00:25:15

    He’s a highly charismatic individual. But this is also a brand that has been actively built. I mean, I grew up in India, I don’t know whether I have been so actively reminded of the chest size of any prime minister prior to our present prime minister. And uh, and you know, there’s a really funny anecdote by one of India’s leading comedians, Vir Das, who went on Conan O’Brien and said he was trying to get a drink in a bar in Soho in New York City, and, you know, they needed a vaccination card. So he pulls out his vaccination card, and the bouncer at the bar says, you know, “You don’t look like this dude.” And he’s like, “That’s not me, that’s my prime minister.” Every vaccination card in India does not have the photograph of the person who’s been vaccinated. It has the photograph of the prime minister of India.

  • 00:25:59

    John Donvan:

    Another piece of Modi’s messaging has been a sor- a sort of very, very affirmative Hindu nationalism. He has been talking about, um, uh, a- about India essentially being Hindu in its origins, Hindus in, in its greatness and its traditions, and, uh, wi- with a kind of promise of a return to greatness, making India great again almost literally, all of which of course would come at the exp- would come at the expense of In- India’s, uh, Muslim minority, which is quite sizable, I think 14%. I, I wanna take that question to Sameer, this iss- this issue of Modi being a proponent of Hindu nationalism, whether you think that’s real, whether you think that’s concerning.

  • 00:26:40

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Uh, I do think it’s real. I do think it’s concerning. I mean, Prerna acknowledged that, um, that there’s remarkable popularity for the prime minister, uh, but didn’t dispute any of the economic facts that I was, uh, marshaling. So she attributed a lot to propaganda, but I don’t think you can propagandize what World, World Bank data or Human Development Index data or measures by external parties that are evaluating progress in infrastructure in India. Uh, the fact that foreign companies, uh, companies that are looking for advanced manufacturing are making bets on India, uh, in the billions of dollars. So those, to me, sort of are external validations. They’re not just propaganda and, uh, false information. I, I agree there’s a tremendous amount of propping up of the cult and, and personality of Narendra Modi, but there’s also actual hard substance that seems to be evident in just, um, looking at the data.

  • 00:27:29

    I, I follow national security and foreign policy for a living. And when I came into studying India over a decade ago, uh, terrorism and insurgency at their, at their heights. When Manmohan Singh talked about the natural light insurgency being the number one internal security threat to India, now it’s diminished to almost nothing. The- these are sort of pre-pretty substantial changes in people’s lives that affect, uh, the day-to-day security and, uh, safety of people. So I, I see a lot of progress in those domains.

  • 00:27:55

    Prerna Singh:

    Well, A, you can propagandize, but what you can do is change definitions, not release data, change the way you collect data. And you have seen that consistently in the past decade. You saw that with COVID mortality rates in which, you know, US estimates international estimates put India’s morbidity and mortality at exponentially higher than the regimes. The data showed that malnutrition was rising. So what do you do? You change the definition of malnutrition so that fewer people are reported as, as malnourished.

  • 00:28:28

    Anemia, India’s… If you look at the National Family and Health Survey, one of the most well-regarded surveys of, of population health, anemia increases. So what do you do? You announce that in the next NFHS, anemia data will not be collected. And, uh, and again, in terms of social indicators, I, I grew up as a woman in India, it’s one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman. And that, according to almost all indicators that I’ve taken a look at, has become mu- much more so the case, and the… Look at the labor force participation rate and how much it has plummeted in the last decade. India’s women now participate at lower rates in the economy than women in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. This has happened in the last 10 years.

  • 00:29:19

    John Donvan:

    I wanna st- stop on the issue of, of women in the workforce. What do you attribute that to?

  • 00:29:21

    Prerna Singh:

    I think it’s s good question, John. I think… I mean, it’s not just women’s labor force participation. Their health has decreased, and their, their security has decreased. The crime against women has increased. And so, I mean, one of this is that India always has had a lot of women in the informal labor force. But I think that-

  • 00:29:39

    John Donvan:

    I think what I’m getting to is, do you you think that the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has anything to do with these facts?

  • 00:29:44

    Sameer Lalwani:

    I think it’s gotta be independent. So I was looking at this data recently and the… Actually, the decline started in 2008 under a very different government. It rebounded in recent years. It was set back by COVID. But in 2022, it’s about the same level it was when the Modi government entered government. So it might have, it might have to do with government policy, it might have to do with something independent of government policy.

  • 00:30:03

    Prerna Singh:

    I agree. But if you look at the patriarchy, if you look at the misogyny that is implicit in government rhetoric in state schemes, I mean, let us not forget that this is a prime minister who, when he was previously chief minister of Gujarat was asked why female nutrition rates had dropped under his… Under, you know, under his regime? And he said that it was because girls were not drinking milk because they were so concerned about their beauty and figures. I think that it is the misogyny, the patriarchy that is… It’s in the rhetoric. It’s in the policy.

  • 00:30:34

    John Donvan:

    Sameer, what’s your response to the, the points that Prerna just made?

  • 00:30:36

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Again, it’s hard to square with some other data that I’m seeing about female secondary school enrollment growing and slightly from 75 to 77 percent over the last 10 years. And even the, the Save the Girl campaign that was launched under the Modi government, uh, even though in- female infant mortality was decreasing before that, there seemed to be a concerted campaign to actually embrace baby girls rather than abort female fetuses before birth. So I, I think that there’s been efforts and a recognition on the importance of rectifying the ge- the gender ratio in the country.

  • 00:31:07

    John Donvan:

    All right. Well, we’re gonna take a break now. When we return, we are going to continue the conversation, but with the help of some journalists who covered this topic, who cover India, who also cover India’s relations with the rest of the world, which is something that I hope that we would also get into. This is Open to Debate, and we will be right back.

  • 00:31:31

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan, and I am joined by Sameer Lalwani and Prerna Singh, and we are asking this question, is Modi’s India going in the right direction? Now, at this point, we would like to bring in some journalists who cover the topics that we’re talking about. So I wanna go first to Dk Singh, who is an editor for Politics with the Print. DK, thanks so much for joining us on Open to Debate. And come on in and please ask your question.

  • 00:31:56

    DK Singh:

    My question to both speakers, and both of them are presenting, uh, different India, which is an economic powerhouse with a huge market, with, with a lot of potential. You know, the democratic institutions are the pressor. My question here is, which India matters more to the international community?

  • 00:32:13

    John Donvan:

    Sameer, the interesting question, why don’t you take that one First? You mentioned, in your opening, that Mo- Modi’s India is, is playing well, and, and, uh, cannily on the world stage. The US definitely sees India as a counter to China, and, uh, is concerned that Prime Minister Modi has not taken a hard line with Russia, that he continues to buy Russian oil for India. So to, uh, to DK’s question wh- whi- which India is of more interest, mo- more persuasive to the outside world?

  • 00:32:44

    Sameer Lalwani:

    So I think by definition, international countries or states are going to care more about inter- India’s international behavior, uh, than its domestic behavior. Uh, certainly, sort of its economic growth can buttress that and have India play a more constructive role. But it’s really… To me, I think the things that countries are taking notice of, including the United States, are India’s stand for a rules-based order for rule of law, freedom of navigation and overlight, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes. And it comes quite in contrast to other large power rising powers like China, uh, that are not endorsing those rules and not behaving in, in a fair way.

  • 00:33:19

    John Donvan:

    But, Sameer isn’t, isn’t also though India’s reputation as a democracy, a critical part of its profile globally, and a critical part of why, for example, ultimately though there were concerns about Prime Minister Modi, he was invited to the Biden White House, that those democratic credentials are also vital on the global stage, are they not?

  • 00:33:39

    Sameer Lalwani:

    They are absolutely vital. I think that was a core part of the US… the burgeoning of the US-India relationship, but it’s not the end all be all. And I think more importance is India’s ability to play a role in global stability and peace.

  • 00:33:51

    John Donvan:

    I wanna take that to Prerna. The same question, Prerna that, that DK brought to us.

  • 00:33:55

    Prerna Singh:

    I would love for India to be and play the stabilizing role that he describes, but I also wonder to what extent you can see that glo- that stabilizing rule for a country that, as you mentioned, John, has not just refused to condemn Russian aggression, but is purchasing, actively purchasing Russian oil. So I think that the world should and does care deeply about democracy, about freedoms, about liberties, about essential human rights. And on all those counts, the world should be deeply troubled by the direction that India is heading in today. By the accounts of, of, you know, the US-based watchdog Freedom House, the Swedish V-Dem Institute, India is essentially an electoral autocracy at this point in time.

  • 00:34:43

    Sameer talked about the expansion of the internet. But again, I want to remind us that India shut down the internet more frequently for longer periods of time than countries like Russia and the Ukraine. About 70% of the total world shutdowns in 2020 happened in India. And what kind of country can stand for global stability and peace? Keep in mind the fact that India had a huge diplomatic raol just some months ago, as several Arab countries were horrified by some highly problematic comments that members of the present ruling government and party made over the Prophet Muhammad. I’m not sure how far we can really say that India is this kind of, you know, stable rock or a cou- a counterpoint in, in the present international climate.

  • 00:35:39

    John Donvan:

    Okay. An interesting take on the proposition that there are two Indias out there as far as the world is concerned from DK Singh. I wanna thank you DK for joining us on the program. And now I’d like to bring in, uh, from foreign policy and editorial fellow there, Anusha Rathi. Uh, Anusha, thanks so much for joining us on Open to Debate. Please come on in with your question.

  • 00:35:55

    Anusha Rathi:

    Thank you so much for having me. I sort of wanna go back to the question of, uh, of just the culture of internet shutdowns in the country. Um, on one hand we have the Modi government pushing for digital India and for everyone to sort of get more online. Um, but then on the other hand, observers and critics alike, um, are increasingly worried about the depression of digital rights in the country, about surveillance and the right to privacy. Um, and so, I guess my question is to you Sameer, how do you explain this duality, um, and how can it impact the country and its citizens going forward?

  • 00:36:28

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Yeah, I think it’s obviously concerning when India walks backwards when it comes to digital rights. I do think though, that there are policy goals and policies on the table that they’re pushing that actually are quite constructive for the world. So for example, uh, digital public infrastructure is something that the Indian government has been leading on in trying to bring it not just to India, but to the world. To be able to provide this to, uh, to Africa and to, uh, much of the global south. Where it’s an open architecture system for identification payments, it’s private and secure, uh, and enables, uh, digital empowerment.

  • 00:37:03

    So, uh, yeah, there are a lot of times when India sort of goes backwards on that. Certainly, in Kashmir. I’ve tracked that very closely in, in my previous work. But, uh, I also think that there’s lots of efforts to open and sort of expand the internet and access to people, to empower people’s lives to improve livelihoods, uh, for, uh, access to banking and lending.

  • 00:37:21

    Prerna Singh:

    I absolutely agree with Anusha, and its internet shutdowns as she pointed out, but also the use of the internet and social media to spread misinformation, to publicize hate speech. And so, it’s both a subversion of freedom via the shutting down of the internet, but also the active and aggressive and systematic use of the internet and social media to essentially spread the politics of hate and create a culture of fear and intimidation.

  • 00:37:51

    John Donvan:

    Anusha, I- I’m just curious, going back to DK’s proposition that our two debaters are presenting to different Indias. Do you recognize both of those Indias as being real and valid if perhaps even in conflict with one another?

  • 00:38:06

    Anusha Rathi:

    I agree with DK’s question. And I mean, th- this concept of the two India comes up time and again, um, for, for foreign policy trackers. And, um, I guess I would flip this question to sort of ask the two panelists again, if, if, you know, India’s st- strategic when it comes to scientific and technological innovation, it’s regional foothold. I wonder if this sort of allows the West, um, and to some extent the US to, you know, use that as a shield.

  • 00:38:34

    John Donvan:

    Okay, that’s a great question and I’ll go to you first with that, Prerna. What do you think when you see President Biden welcoming, uh, Prime Minister Modi to the White House and the fancy dinner and the speech before Congress?

  • 00:38:44

    Prerna Singh:

    India, just by its sheer demographic numbers, John, and its history will have a certain strategic clout and, and it should. This is an ancient civilization, it is an economic powerhouse. It is a scientific powerhouse. But when I, when I see the prime minister, I also see history. I also see the time when he was denied a visa by the same country for acts that the international community recognized and saw. And so, I think it’s important for the United States to ask why that happened, and whether the clout that India has is being used to whitewash or to overshadow things that are happening at home.

  • 00:39:31

    Sameer Lalwani:

    I, I don’t think there’s any whitewashing going on. I think the United States is still fairly direct with India, um, in private. I think there are public reports that produced by the State department that acknowledge and track, uh, India’s, uh, democratic backsliding and religious intolerance that’s growing. But at the end of the day, like most countries, it’s evaluating India on whether it thinks it’s net constructive or net harmful to the world. And I think that the judge- the judgments that’s been made is that India is taking a standup against coercion by large bullying states that is taking active efforts to convey to Russia how grave a transgression would be to use nuclear weapons in, in a Ukraine conflict.

  • 00:40:08

    Uh, that it’s taking its position as in on the global stage to advocate for those who don’t have a voice in the global south for climate finance, for debt repayments, for, uh, digital public goods. I think India is being recognized that it’s on net contributing a lot more to the international system. If that changes, I think you will see a tremendously change in how states behave towards it.

  • 00:40:30

    John Donvan:

    I wanna bring in Kanishk Tharoor, who is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs. Uh, Kanishk, thanks so much for joining us on Open to Debate, and what’s your question?

  • 00:40:37

    Kanishk Tharoor:

    Thanks for having me. I too have been struck by the, the two very different stories both of the, both of the speakers have been telling. It seems clear to me that the democratic backsliding is very much a feature of this particular government and a function of it being in power. What is less clear to me though is, is it really the case that all of the successes that Sameer are outlining are attributable to Modi and to the current government? You know, for example, it’s geopolitical orientation, uh, many of its welfare programs builds on programs already put in place by, by, by prior administrations. You know, e- e- even the example of the, of, of, of the, of the moon landing that we have just discussed, um, that that was something that was put in place many decades ago.

  • 00:41:17

    John Donvan:

    You know, with an election coming up, the problematic issue regarding democratic institutions go away if the party is thrown out of power. Do you see that happening? Does the Modi government deserve all of the credit for the things that are going well? And is, is Modism inevitable in India?

  • 00:41:33

    Sameer Lalwani:

    I think it deserves some of the credit, not all the credit, right? Certainly there are a lot of structures in place that have been driving India scientific and economic, um, reforms and revolutions. Uh, but I think this government has also been, uh, very constructive towards it. Um, when you look at, for example, foreign direct investment, I mean, there was a real halt in the 2013, 2012, 2013 period during a number of corruption scandals, and a number of reforms that were implemented from the GST to, uh, banking reforms, to infrastructure reforms have been able to attract more informed direct investments.

  • 00:42:06

    Uh, on the digital pivot, public infrastructure obviously it stemmed from the ADA program, which preceded the Modi government, but I think what the Modi government has done, has done well is to get outta the way in certain cases and create space in other cases for innovation, particularly in the, um, commercial and uh, uh, private sector.

  • 00:42:21

    John Donvan:

    How about you, Prerna?

  • 00:42:22

    Prerna Singh:

    India became independent in 1947, and it decided to become, and in fact, was one of the founding members of the non-alignment movement. So when Sameer talks about standing up to international bullies, this is a long and honored history that India has had on the international stage. You know, a few years ago, Indians woke up to find that 86% of their currency was basically useless paper scraps because of a disastrous scheme of demonetization, it was supposed to end corruption. Instead, there was complete chaos. Riots at ATM machines, people died waiting in queues to withdraw cash. On the one hand, there has been the building on a long history of social and economic and political institution building, and on the other hand, there have been actions that have actively eroded some of the growth and progress that had been made under earlier regimes.

  • 00:43:17

    John Donvan:

    And Kanishk, you have a another question for Prerna.

  • 00:43:19

    Kanishk Tharoor:

    Thanks. When, uh, Modi won election for the first time in 2014, and then again in 2019, one of the narratives you began hearing was the idea that really, Modi’s election was revealing something essential about the country, that India may fundamentally not be a liberal country, that maybe the liberalism, uh, uh, spoke something, you know, essential to the, the, the, the nature of Indians?

  • 00:43:43

    Prerna Singh:

    I think, again, Kanishk, it’s a really excellent question. It’s one that I wrestle with, but I think it’s important to keep in mind the strength of the civil society organization that underpins the party, the strength of the party and the ranks. I mean, you know, the BJP is a much better organized party than the opposition Congress. I just don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It has grassroots presence. It has the personal charisma of the prime minister, and also very, s- s- very strategic and very important changes. For instance, to campaign finance laws that have allowed it to accumulate a level of wealth that it then can really use, um, in election campaigns.

  • 00:44:22

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Look, I think at some point there- there’s a… We’ve… Over time, we’ve morphed liberalism and free and fair elections there, there… As to be sort of a central part of democracy. And I think for a lot of people’s understandings, it can be democratic without necessarily being liberal. And I think our understanding of this has evolved over time. Uh, for example, I was looking through some Freedom House reports from the late ’70s and early 1980s, and I was really astonished at the, the codings and the judgments that were used by the scholars who evaluated what, what countries were free and what were not free. There’s some puzzling choices, like Turkey was partly free, and Haiti was not free, even though they had the exact same score.

  • 00:44:57

    The more puzzling thing was that the co- list of countries they were identified as free then as an appendage to them, had a list of all the colonial possessions that were territories that were also considered under being free. And that, to me, just seems like such a striking anomaly… Or not an anomaly, but a contradiction there. And so, the point is that I think we’ve evolved in terms of how we think about democracy and how we define it. Uh, and I think it’s possible that Indi- India could be a democracy today while still being illiberal.

  • 00:45:25

    John Donvan:

    All right. We’re gonna have to leave it there for the discussion, because we’re gonna move on now to our closing remarks. Sameer, you are up first. Once again, you are entering yes, the country’s going in the right direction under Prime Minister Modi. One more chance to tell us why?

  • 00:45:38

    Sameer Lalwani:

    Something changed for me over the last few years, and I think it was my growing appreciation of something in India that former Google, CEO Eric Schmidt has described as innovation power. The Chandrayaan-3, uh, lunar landing that just took place, uh, made India only the fourth country to land on the moon, and the first side… the first on the dark side of the moon. It was a big demonstration of that innovation power. But I started noticing this maybe a few years ago, learning more about India’s ADA platform, observing big swings and, and risks being taken in terms of the, the, the vaccine program that India signed onto with the quad. Uh, and a recent visit to Bangalore where I got to meet with a number of Indian space startups and accelerators meet young scientists who were working on big problems of our time. And it was all very inspiring.

  • 00:46:18

    So it got me thinking a little bit of this, this term that’s used in India called Jugaaḍ, which means a quick fix or a workaround, or a hack, but it’s also a form of ingenuity and improvisation. And I think this has always pervaded Indian society. It’s not just rickshaw drivers or food hawkers who have Jugaaḍ, but young engineers and entrepreneurs who are looking to innovate when it comes to, uh, science and technology, robotics, financial technology, uh, commercial space and making contributions for the global good. I think it’s even infected policy makers who are willing to deliberately create room for this innovation.

  • 00:46:50

    I’m seeing it happen a lot more in my domain, uh, in, in the defense technology sphere. So India can go backwards if it backs away from some of these reforms, if it backs away from risk-taking democratic institutions and its willingness to ask questions and have open debate. But as of today, I don’t think that’s the case. And I see India brimming with Jugaaḍ headed in the right direction.

  • 00:47:08

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Sameer. And Prerna this gives you the last word.

  • 00:47:12

    Prerna Singh:

    Thanks, John. Sameer mentioned how his recent visit to India was inspiring. My name, Prerna, means inspiration. And of India’s many inspirations to the world, growing up, I was always most proud of how its non-violent overthrow of the mighty British Empire had inspired movements of peaceful resistance across the world, including Martin Luther King in his fight for civil rights in America. And yet, ironically, there is almost no space left for such Gandhian descent in Gandhi’s own motherland today. Peaceful protest was the backbone of India’s nationalist movement.

  • 00:47:47

    Now, it is branded and aggressively persecuted as anti-national, whether it is by students, farmers, climate activists, standup comics, poets, women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, thousands of India’s are languishing, or in the case of 84-year-old Catholic priest, Stan Swamy have died in jail waiting to be tried for nothing more than peacefully standing up to the regime. I end with the story of a filmmaker friend who wanted to shoot a scene in a church. He drove with his team to this church in a small town in Central India, only to find that it stood there no more.

  • 00:48:28

    The church’s absence, a testimony to the heat and intolerance that raised it to the ground, and that has seeped into India, that has poisoned relations between communities and between families. I was a debater in school. I’ve participated in many debates since, including on this program, but this is the first time when I so wish I could ask you to take the other side. As I ask you to vote for the motion, I ask you to acknowledge the very dark place that India finds itself in today. This breaks my heart, but such awareness is morally essential. It is also strategically necessary to try to steer India back towards the promise and pursuit of democracy, freedom, and multiculturalism, so that it may perhaps once again, serve as a prerna, a beacon of inspiration for the world.

  • 00:49:18

    John Donvan:

    And that is a wrap on this debate. I want to thank Sameer and Prerna, both of you for participating and for bringing such civility and insight. I also want to thank Anusha, DK and Kanishk for, for moving the conversation into even more interesting directions with your questions. And, um, I wanna thank all of you who have tuned into this episode of Open to Debate. You know, as a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, by the Rosenkranz Foundation and by supporters of Open to Debate.

  • 00:49:47

    Open to Debate is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman. Clay O’Connor is CEO. Liam Mathew is our Chief Content Officer, Alexis Pazi, Kristen Mueller, and Marlet Sandoval, our editorial producers. Gabriela Mayer is our editorial and research manager. Andrew Lipson is head of production. Max Fulton is our production coordinator. Damon Whitmore is our engineer. Gabriel Elliancheli is our social media and digital platforms coordinator. Raven Baker is Events and operations manager. Rachel Kemp is our Chief of staff. Our theme music is by Alex Clement. And I’m your host, John Donvan. From Open to Debate, we’ll see you next time.



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