Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti speaks with Milan Vaishnav about a report, How Do Indian Americans View India?, in which he and his co-authors (Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur) conducted a survey about the political beliefs of Indian Americans. They discuss the results of the survey and talk about how the Indian American community might change in the future. Vaishnav is the director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Yale University Press and HarperCollins India, 2017). His research focuses on Indian political economy, examining issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics and electoral behavior.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Milan Vaishnav, who is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of the book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast.
We talked about Indian Americans as a group, how they think about politics in India versus the United States, their political clout and so on. We also spoke about Milan’s views on the Indian state and the BJP, his intellectual influences and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Milan, welcome to the show.
MILAN VAISHNAV: Great to be here, Shruti.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know. It’s so good to see you. We live very close to each other geographically, but of course, we are doing this on Zoom. Hopefully, we can do this in person soon enough.
VAISHNAV: Well, in the intervening year, you have become a podcast maven. I’m a big fan of the podcast, so it’s great to be on.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you. Now, this is going to sound like a mutual admiration club, but I’m also a big fan of your podcast. I guess this should be interesting. How do two podcasts talk with each other in these troubling times? This is a good experiment.
VAISHNAV: We joke that we’re going to get Amit Varma, and the three of us are going to do a joint show at some point, so that will be the podcast to end all podcasts.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know. The last time I did one with Amit, it ended up being five hours long, so we might need you to restrain us.
VAISHNAV: I don’t know if I have the stamina for five hours. [laughs]
Indian Americans and U.S. Politics
RAJAGOPALAN: I recently read your report. This is the one that you have co-authored with Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur, and it’s called How Do Indian Americans View India? These are the results from one of the surveys that you conducted last year just before the U.S. elections. One of the fascinating results from the survey is that the Indian diaspora doesn’t quite fit in the standard political left-right axis. Can you first tell me a little bit about the survey? Then we can maybe parse through some of the results.
VAISHNAV: Yes, it was last summer, Shruti, that Sumitra, Devesh and I had had a conversation. It was actually the latest in a series of ongoing conversations where we thought we’re really eager to know how Indian Americans are thinking about the U.S. election. We just decided to take the plunge and try to field the survey, and so we partnered with YouGov, which is a leading data analytics and survey firm.
I’m sure many of your listeners are aware they partnered with The Economist for the U.S. presidential election, so they had a kind of weekly tracker. We did an online survey using YouGov’s existing panel of 1,200 Indian American adult residents. Crucially, this includes both U.S. citizens and noncitizens because, of course, the Indian American community consists of both types.
The idea really was very simple—just to try to put together new empirical data that could help us characterize the views, the attitudes, the preferences of Indian Americans. Our primary objective going in was, we have a presidential election coming up. There was actually a lot of conjecture about Indian Americans—they have traditionally leaned Democratic—that they might be defecting to the Republican Party, so we wanted to investigate that.
I would say the second big objective for us was, there have been surveys of how Americans view India, of how Indians view America, but no one has ever really asked Indian Americans how they view India. I think there’s emerged, over the past five or six years, a kind of consensus view about Indian Americans—how they view Modi quite favorably, how they view political changes underway there also quite favorably.
We wanted to really test those propositions and also try to understand, to the extent possible, a little bit about the variation. There is no one Indian American community. It’s obviously reflective of all of the divisions that the community brings. That includes class, whether you’re born here, whether you’re an immigrant, where you live and so on and so forth. That’s really the setup.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is fascinating also because this group is changing so quickly, both in terms of its size and its composition, that we really actually don’t know that much about the Indian American.
The old view is they are typically Hindu, upper caste and engineers and doctors. But now this group is really large. It’s all just a little over four million people, and two-thirds of the four million have arrived here after 2008, much like me. Now it’s a much broader group, both in terms of religious representation, caste representation, as you mentioned, whether they’re naturalized or they’re not U.S. citizens yet. I believe there’s a really small fraction which is even third generation that is now represented in your sample.
How Do Indian Americans Lean?
RAJAGOPALAN: One of the fascinating results from the survey is that the standard left-right distinctions don’t really cross over, right? From the first version of the report that you released last year, we learned that Indians are overwhelmingly voting for the Democratic Party. But among those who approve of Trump, 68 percent, I believe, also approve of Modi, and that makes sense.
But even the respondents who disapprove of Trump—a very large number of those still approve of Modi’s performance. Being on the left or left side of American politics in terms of partisan politics doesn’t translate exactly one on one with supporting left-of-center parties in India.
VAISHNAV: It’s a really fascinating puzzle that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around. Just to give your listeners a flavor of what we found, it is certainly true that Modi is most popular amongst Indian Americans who identify as Republicans and who voted for Trump in this most recent presidential election.
However, there’s a common refrain that, “Okay, if you’re pro-Trump, then you’re pro-Modi. If you’re anti-Trump, you’re anti-Modi.” That’s not the case, as you say. There are a number of people who did not vote for Trump, who are Democrats, who voted for Joe Biden, who are favorable about Modi.
Examining Apparent Inconsistencies
RAJAGOPALAN: Why is this? Is it because it’s more about the individual that is Modi? Whether you support Biden or not, Modi is just such a strong leader and so much the face of India that Indian Americans stand to support him? Or is it just that the love for the homeland may automatically translate to whoever is in power? Or is something else going on?
VAISHNAV: I think there are a couple of things. Number one is, clearly, that Indian Americans, just like Indians themselves, have a very low rating of Congress and Rahul Gandhi, which is the principal opposition.
You might think, “Well, Democrats would be more bullish perhaps on the Congress.” And it’s true, they are. But they still rate Modi, the BJP and, interestingly, the RSS—which is, of course, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP—they rate all of those organizations above the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. I think the collapse of alternatives that we talk about so much in Indian context is very much present here.
Secondly, if you think about what are the issues that really animate Indian Americans insofar as India is concerned, the kinds of issues they talk about are corruption, revitalizing the economy, jobs. These are precisely the things that Modi, at least rhetorically, has spent a lot of time talking about.
There’s a sense—and I’m drawing here on my own experience as an Indian American, unlike you, born in the United States to Indian parents who migrated here 40, 50 years ago. When I talk to people of that generation, there is really a sense that, “You know what? Modi has finally put India on the map. We immigrated to this country, the United States, because there was a lack of opportunity. We were fed up. We thought this was the promised land. Now many of the grievances that we’ve had are being addressed.”
There’s a third factor that comes in. It’s hard to know exactly how to rank-order these, but I think this third one is quite important, which is, where you sit is where you stand. The majority of Indian Americans happen to be Hindu. Of course, Hindus are the overwhelming majority in India. I do think that, to a certain extent, they view politics in India very differently than how they think about politics in the United States where, of course, both Hindus and Indian Americans more generally are a very, very small minority.
RAJAGOPALAN: In this sense, I think your last explanation also makes a lot of sense once I started reading the later parts of the report on specific questions with respect to Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the NRC and so on. Indian Americans overwhelmingly support some of these policies that you would normally imagine those voting for the Democratic Party in the United States would not be in favor of.
This is like a national registry for citizens across India, which has, of course, been incredibly controversial because it tends to leave out a very large percentage of Muslims, especially when it is read in conjunction with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which favors certain religious groups from abroad over others.
Also, on the issue of a caste-based affirmative action, the way Indian Americans think about affirmative action in the United States, where they are a minority, is quite different from the way they think about affirmative action in India, where they were the majority.
When the Majority Becomes the Minority
VAISHNAV: Yes. I think the animating question, Shruti, was, can the same person have divergent views on the same issues when considered in a different context? Or do individuals and their policy attitudes remain stable across countries and context? Now, it’s a tricky thing to try to empirically do.
What we did, just to give your listeners a sense, was, we essentially asked respondents about a set of contentious policy debates that are very much salient today in India—like you mentioned, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the National Registry of Citizens, protests against the citizenship law, of course, which roiled India last year, affirmative action and the use of defamation and sedition to try to silence critics of the Modi regime.
Now, what’s interesting about those issues is that they have their natural analogs in an American context. When it comes to protest, there’s a big debate in the United States about police force against BLM protesters, Black Lives Matter protesters. There is a similarly robust debate about affirmative action, about racial minorities here.
We poll them on how they view these issues in India, how they view them in the United States. Then, a third time, just generically, what do you think about affirmative action? Not specific to India or specific to the United States, but what do you think about the concept in general as a way to remedy historic discrimination? What do you think about, generically, the idea of police force against those who are peacefully protesting the state?
What we found was really interesting, which was, in most cases, you find the most support for the Democratic norm in the abstract. Everybody loves the idea of “You should treat all members of every religious group equally.” “You should absolutely protect the media from government censorship.” But then, you start to see this divergence where they’re much less supportive, although still pretty supportive of a lot of these norms in the U.S. context, but really more conservative on these issues when it comes to life back in India.
Just to give you an example, 90% of respondents say, “Yes, in the abstract, we support treating members of religious groups equally.” When you ask that in a U.S. context, that support comes down to 60%, and it comes down to below 50% in the Indian context. Just to tie this back to where we began, I do think part of this, we believe, has to do with one’s majority status. That changes or shapes their perspective of how they view these debates.
RAJAGOPALAN: In particular, the Republican Party has a small minority, which has been a very loud minority, which is the white supremacists and the Christian evangelical base and so on. That kind of loud minority base of the Republican Party can also be very alienating to those who are immigrants in a new country. This goes back to what you said about where you sit is where you stand. This elite group of Indians might feel like a minority or might feel discriminated against or threatened maybe for the first time in their lives.
VAISHNAV: I think this is really something that’s quite important, Shruti. In our October report, where we ask more about U.S. political attitudes, we specifically asked this question, that if you’re an Indian American and you identify with the Democratic Party, why is it that you don’t identify with the Republican Party? It was so interesting that the number one response was because the Republican Party is fundamentally intolerant of minorities. Number two is because it is too influenced by right-wing Christian evangelicalism.
There is, I think, a general view in the Indian American community that we are not welcome inside the Republican Party. Obviously, that’s a dominant view. It’s not an absolute view. There are people who do. We can think about the Indian Americans that we know who are prominent members of the party and their supporters. But when you think about averages across the population, that feeling is quite stark.
RAJAGOPALAN: Here, I wanted to parse out the group, the Indian American group, into specific religions. For instance, can you tell us, how do Muslims feel about Modi versus the Republican Party or BJP-RSS versus the Republican Party on these issues, relative to other Indian Americans who identify with Hinduism, which is the majority religion in India, or Christians, who may feel a little more alliance with some of the policies of the Republican Party?
VAISHNAV: I think this, Shruti, is one of the most disconcerting findings, I would say, of our recent work. We know that politics in India has become increasingly polarized, and it has become increasingly polarized on many dimensions, but the religious cleavage perhaps is the most divisive. If you think about one cleavage that—unlike class, unlike caste, unlike region and language—could actually divide the country into two parts, it would be religion.
That kind of polarization is evident amongst members of the diaspora. When you ask the simple question, “Do you approve of the job Narendra Modi has been doing as Prime Minister?” Hindus are overwhelmingly supportive. Their net approval is around 40%, and it is negative 42% for Muslims, so they are fundamentally viewing the same political establishment through completely opposite lenses.
You can carry this forward through a number of other issues. “How connected do you feel back to India?” Muslims are much less likely to feel connected. “Do you believe India is headed in the right direction, or has it gotten offtrack?” Muslims are much more likely to believe it’s offtrack. On the issue that we just spoke about, how important or dangerous is religious majoritarianism in India, specifically Hindu majoritarianism? Hindus don’t think it’s as big of a threat as Muslims do.
Christians are somewhere in between, so their views are not quite as stark, but they split the difference, as it were, between these two. I think that was really eye-opening. Devesh, Sumitra and I, when we were talking about this, we were thinking about that old saying about what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. What’s happening in India is not staying in India. It’s not confined to the four corners of the country. It’s actually bleeding over into Indians abroad.
Indians in America Versus Indians in India
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to go back to a slightly bigger point, maybe much beyond the survey results. This is about the CAA-NRC protests. I wrote, when they were happening a little more than a year ago, that we need to really think about the dissenters more carefully. Because if you go back to Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty,” those who tend to use voice also tend to be much more loyal—those who are critiquing the government as opposed to just exiting the system.
In one sense, the Indian Americans—especially because two-thirds of them arrived between 2000 and 2018—they are the exiters. They have left India. If you go back to Hirschman, probably have a lot less skin in the game, are far less loyal than the dissenters who are actually protesting in India. Do you think that has something to do with why they have this overwhelmingly positive image of the government even though, in abstract, they disagree with some of these policies?
VAISHNAV: Certainly, that has something to do with it. The other thing—and here I’m drawing on more, again, my qualitative observation—is, there are a number of Indian Americans who are not necessarily following the ins and outs of Indian politics in the way that you and I do because this is our job. This is what we do for our living. We live and breathe this stuff 24/7.
They’re looking at the broad trajectory. One of the things I’ve noticed—and I think there’s a real parallel between Indians in India and Indian Americans—is they’re willing to give Narendra Modi and his party and his government very wide latitude, to say, “Look, he is trying to shake up the system in such a way that there’s bound to be some china broken.”
If you’re asking him to undo 65 years of deeply embedded history, he’s not going to do it in five years. He may make missteps like demonetization. He may push the envelope too far on an issue like CAA, but he’ll correct. We have to assess his performance, maybe not even after two terms but after three terms. I do think there’s also a certain amount of, I guess you could say, low-information or medium-information Indian Americans, and who have it looking at the medium to long term, not obsessed so much with every twist and turn of this government.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and I think in some sense, we might lose the broad heuristic that these Indian Americans are using—the way you just said—that you and I are probably too close to the picture. It’s probably too fuzzy for us to have such clean, broad views on the government. I doubt you and I would be good survey participants on a questionnaire like this because we would just start going into the very, very specific details. “Oh, we agree with this, but we don’t agree with that,’’ and so on.
Another interesting caricature—and this is, of course, just from my interaction with other Indian Americans—is the typical Trump-Modi supporter who was probably there in Houston or at Madison Square Garden a few years before that is like a slightly older generation. Maybe 50-plus, middle-aged uncle. It’s always a man—I don’t know why—the stereotype is always the man from New Jersey or something like that.
There’s a very specific idea of who these people are. Does that pan out at all, or is this just across the board? It’s young people, old people, college-going, business and, I assume, well beyond New Jersey.
VAISHNAV: Yes, [laughs] exactly, or Houston, Texas, which is where I’m from. I think there is certainly some truth to some of these stereotypes. Not fully, but in large measure.
Let me just give you a couple of demographic cuts. The age divide is quite striking. If you are in the lowest age category, that is people below the age of 30—18 to 29—you are much more likely to disapprove than approve of Modi. That is the only age category where that is true. If you’re 30 and above—in fact, 30 to 50 and 50 and above are almost identical in terms of their support for Modi.
We mentioned already the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims, Christians in between. Of course, we also discussed, Republicans are slightly more inclined, although Democrats certainly aren’t negative by any stretch.
There is a very clear regional pattern. When I say regional, I mean regional as in the region of origin that Indian Americans are from. Modi’s support is greatest amongst Hindi speakers, so people who come from the heartland states, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and so on, and from the west, so those are Gujarati and Marathi speakers. Much, much lower support in the south and the lowest, in fact, in the east. These are places like Bengal and Odisha and others.
I think some of those stereotypes are certainly true. However, you think of men. We mentioned this before. There’s actually no gender gap that we were able to ascertain.
Length of time you’ve been in the country. We think about the people who have been here forever. They love Modi. In fact, it is the people who have been here the shortest amount of time and the people who have been here the oldest amount of time that have the greatest issues with Modi. It’s the middle section of people who, maybe, came 10 years ago.
People like my parents’ generation—my parents immigrated here in the late 1960s—their generation actually has more mixed views about Modi, and there could be a number of reasons why. They left India at a time of Congress dominance, right? That is what they knew. More recent arrivals, obviously, are coming from a very changed political context.
Why Should We Pay Attention to Indian Americans?
RAJAGOPALAN: Why is any of this important? Why is the Indian diaspora so important? It’s just four million people in a country where they reside is about 300 million-plus. The country that they came from is 1.35 billion, but it feels like this small group has this outsized impact. Now, is this because the Pravasi Bharatiya PR exercise is so big? It started Vajpayee, but it’s been going strong for a while.
Is it because, actually, the campaign contributions—which is another one of your areas of expertise—are very strong? Though I imagine they can’t be that big when you compare it to the size of India.
Or is it because of what Alex Tabarrok and I have written about in terms of the elites in the U.S. are, in a sense, a very strong focal point or anchor point for the elites in India? There’s a lot of premature imitation of policies based on what’s happening in the U.S. There’s almost an Indian elite that lives in America like the bubble of America within India. What is the reason this group has such an important influence back in India?
VAISHNAV: I think the starting point is what you said, which is, their numbers are not that big. We’re talking about 1%, roughly, of the U.S. population, about 4.2 million. Now, a couple of things I’ll say. Number one is, that number may be small, but it’s growing very rapidly. It’s grown by 150% from 2000 to 2018. It is now the second-largest immigrant group in America.
In particular states—thinking about it from a U.S. political context, the battleground states—New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania—Indian Americans are large enough to cover the margin of victory between winners and losers, which means—of course, they don’t all vote as a block—but they’re sizable enough, actually, where political parties now are starting to mobilize to try to win their vote.
You mentioned the money bit. The money bit matters in the U.S. context increasingly. The Los Angeles Times did a study during the primary season which found that Indian Americans collectively contributed more money to presidential races than Hollywood did. We’re starting to see them use some of their economic influence and channelize that into politics.
The third way, the third reason is that the Indian American community has been seen as a bridge builder between the United States and India. When you think about the sea change in the relationship between the U.S. and India since about the year 2000—the last two decades—an important part of that has been the Indian American community advocating, lobbying for things like the US-India civil nuclear deal, advocating for greater trade ties and economic people to people, looser immigration, so on and so forth.
I think it matters not just in a U.S. domestic political context. It matters a lot for foreign policy. What’s so interesting about Modi’s approach is, when Modi does something like Madison Square Garden or he does something like Howdy, Modi! where you got 50,000 screaming fans packing a football stadium in Houston, he’s not just signaling to his own domestic audience back home.
He’s also signaling to U.S. politicians, to governors, to members of Congress, to senators, to the president, who was desperate to share a stage with him, saying, “These people are now in. Their moment has arrived.” Of course, also flexing literal muscles and say, “I actually have some influence over them. You need to pay attention to them and pay attention to me by extension.” That kind of phenomenon is only going to grow and increase, in my view.
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you think it’s going to impact some specific policies? For instance, one of the really important issues is immigration. Do you think the Democrats are going to be more likely, for instance, to remove country caps on green cards, which I know is a huge issue with the not-yet-citizens subgroup within Indian Americans? Or do you think it’s going to translate into particular kinds of action when it comes to Asian Americans—lawsuits against Ivy League schools and them facing discrimination and so on? Do you think it’ll translate into these specific issues? Or do you think this group is just too small for that?
VAISHNAV: No, I actually think it’s going to translate in at least three ways. First is, Indian Americans, of course, working on their own, as well as working with other Asian-American interest groups, or AAPI groups, as they’re known—Asian American/Pacific Islander—are certainly lobbying very hard to address some of the curbs to immigration, including high-skilled immigration.
Indians have been the poster child for those liberal visa regimes. In terms of reversing some of those, I think they’re going to be very animated and actually throw their weight around a little bit.
Number two is, we are seeing . . . Shruti, I’ve been living in Washington now, on and off since the year 2002.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m sorry.
VAISHNAV: Yes, I know, exactly. Our mutual friend, Reuben Abraham, always offers me condolences when I mention that fact.
I have never seen Indian Americans or Asian Americans as exercised about representation in a new administration as I have this time around. We are seeing just a constant stream of “We need to have an Asian person who’s in the cabinet. We need to make sure that Indians and other Asians are represented.” I don’t even remember hearing that same kind of lobbying in the same way four years ago, eight years ago.
The third way in which this is going to matter—again, coming back to some of the policy preferences—is one thing that the State Department knows, if they decide to criticize some of Mr. Modi’s policies on Kashmir, on human rights, on democratic backsliding, is they are going to hear from their Indian American friends in the United States very loudly.
I think that is a factor. It’s undeniable that they are very worried about backlash from that community and how that then gets refracted through financial contributions, Capitol Hill, diplomacy and so on and so forth. It’s not only about influencing things that happen. It’s also about influencing things that don’t happen.
Surprising Survey Results
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. What surprised you the most about this particular survey and the results?
VAISHNAV: Two or three things. One is, I was really struck—I think we were all struck—by, again, how poorly Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi fare. It just mirrors the diminution of the Congress Party in India in terms of the diaspora’s views. Of course, the two are related. Obviously, if the party is suffering there, it’s unlikely to be doing that well amongst the diaspora. There’s a lot of two-way transmission. That to me was really—again, given the fact that we know that Indian Americans veer left of center—that was the first surprising factor.
The second surprising factor was, there was just a lot of talk in the run-up to the United States 2020 presidential election that Indian Americans were getting very antsy with the Democratic Party. Because of the Modi-Trump bromance or camaraderie and the fact that many Indian Americans were worried about what a Biden-Harris administration might mean for India—more clampdown on democracy, human rights and harming US-India relations—that they would move to the Republican Party.
We didn’t see two things. One, we didn’t see a wide-scale defection to the Republicans. Number two, Indian American voters, by and large, were just not animated by foreign policy and by US-India relations. This is the thing that I have a lot of disagreements about with some of my Indian American friends who care a lot about this stuff. I’m saying, again, I think it’s a little bit of a bubble.
I actually think if you go out and talk to Indian Americans who are in Illinois and California, they care about the bread-and-butter stuff that most Americans care about. They care about the coronavirus and getting a vaccine. They care about their incomes going down. They care about their kids stuck at home and not in schools. That is still, to me, a relative elite-level concern.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and also, there may be a difference in terms of what people talk about when they meet other Indians. Your views and mine might be skewed because the moment we meet each other, we zero in on these topics of Kashmir or China or Modi. Like you said, you care about all these basic things: healthcare, immigration, economy, taxes, even more local stuff than ever before.
VAISHNAV: Yes, I don’t mean to imply, in any sense, that Indian Americans don’t care about what’s happening back in India and don’t care about foreign policy. I think they do. When you ask them, “Is this important to you?” it’s absolutely important. But there’s a difference between saying, “I care. This is important,” to when I go and cast my ballot what’s the rank order of things that I’m choosing? Three percent of Indian Americans put US-India relations.
Now, I will point out that there is some variation. I think if you were born in India and immigrate here, you put your greater weight on that than if you are a second-generation like me who was born in the United States, and you tend to view yourself as more American than Indian and maybe slightly less connected on average. You down-weight foreign policy even further.
RAJAGOPALAN: I noticed one curious thing which surprised me. There’s a lot more unity on the China question, or rather the disapproval of China, than I had anticipated earlier. I didn’t think that—since they are so polarized on every other question—that they would be so united as a group in the criticism of China.
VAISHNAV: We just asked a simple question that Pew and Gallup and a bunch of other services ask, which is, “What’s your opinion of China? Are you very favorable, somewhat unfavorable,” and so on and so forth? Two-thirds of Indian Americans hold unfavorable views towards India’s large neighbor, China. Recent events probably have something to do with that. I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but in the post-COVID era, views on China have become very, very polarized. I do think the mood has shifted.
Plus, of course, things that have happened back in India with Chinese aggression along the border, other things that have happened elsewhere in Asia, I think, feed into this. But where there is discrepancy or divergence is on what to do about it. Should the United States strengthen India militarily as a hedge or as a balance against China? Generally, Indian Americans say yes.
Those born in the United States, those who are younger, those who are Democrats are much more cautious that maybe we shouldn’t do things that are going to provoke China to react in an aggressive manner. Again, those born in India, Republicans, more conservative-minded folks are much more gung-ho, saying, “Now is our time to press our advantage and really put China in the box.” While views on China may not be that polarized, there is still a lot of difference in what to do about it, that kind of so-what question.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely, but even the views about China being polarized surprised me because Indian Americans identify so closely with other Asian Americans. They typically tend to live in the same neighborhoods. Typically, children of both these groups are the highest-performing in their classrooms and so on.
I just thought there would be a lot more confusion on the China matter, but I guess you think of individuals very differently than you think of geopolitics or the country, or rather maybe even the Party in the case of China, because of coronavirus and so many other things like that.
VAISHNAV: Just a final thing is that the survey was fielded in the month of September 2020, and my guess is that people were really reeling. Remember, we’re still reeling from the coronavirus, sadly, here in spring of 2021. Certainly, in the fall of 2020, things looked very, very bleak.
Thinking About Indian Americans as a Group
RAJAGOPALAN: How do you think about these Indian Americans going forward? Is this a group that we need to treat as a group? Is it high time that we started parsing out subgroup details, as you’ve seen from your survey results? Those who are policymakers, those who are in the Democratic Party for whom this is a huge voting constituency—how should they think about this group longer term?
VAISHNAV: One of the things that we’ve tried to highlight, really, for the benefit of audiences in India and the government of India is, the Indian diaspora that you have become accustomed to is not necessarily going to be the Indian diaspora of the future.
The rate at which the ranks of the second generation are growing—and they’ve also been growing relative to the first generation because of immigration curbs. At least during the Trump era, we saw many fewer people coming from India, so the proportion started to change. They have very different views.
One of the interesting things I found was, we asked people about, “Who did you vote for in the presidential primaries?” If you’re born in the United States, much more likely to vote for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. Yes, Biden still was the most popular choice of first- and second-generation Indian Americans.
But if you look below that, you see the progressive left have much more of a foothold amongst the younger than the second generation. I think that’s going to have an impact both on their domestic policy preferences as well as their foreign policy preferences. But I do think we have thought of this group as, more or less, operating with a clarity of purpose, advancing US-India relations as being a backstop.
But in fact, there are groups in the diaspora who are now advocating very strongly and vociferously, not for stronger US-India relations, but actually to reverse the trajectory of US-India relations, saying, “We need to put a stop or put a curb on what Modi is doing and what his party is doing.” Of course, a lot of that gets strength from minority communities, namely Muslims.
There’s also something else which is quite interesting, which the survey didn’t have enough statistical power to go into, but I think is related to this question. There are relatively few Sikhs in the United States, and so they’re very small, less than 5% of our sample.
I was talking with a Sikh friend of mine who’s an academic, who was saying one of the things that they’ve picked up in thinking about the Sikh population is, many of them have become so disaffected with India—this is predating the farmer protests—that they have stopped identifying as Indian. They identify as Sikh.
In fact, there was a lobbying effort for the U.S. Census to make Sikh an ethnic category, which has succeeded, separate from Asian Indian. I don’t know how widespread that feeling is, but I think that’s another cleavage that we don’t even pay much attention to, we’re so focused on the Hindu-Muslim divide.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. This is starting to look a lot more like India, which is what is so fascinating to me about the entire survey. The typical reductive NRI Indian, once you start picking at it, is not so typical and not so reductive anymore.
I want to shift focus away from Indian-American views on the Indian state, to your views on the Indian state. In particular, I’m talking about a recent paper that you wrote with Madhav Khosla in the Journal of Democracy. You describe the recent emergence of the Indian state in three parts. You say there’s a dominant ethnic state, there is a dominant absolute, or rather, centralized controlling state, and there’s an opacity in the new version or the new emergence of the Indian state.
Can you just tell me in broad brushstrokes how you think about the Indian state and these categories in particular?
The Three Faces of the Indian State
VAISHNAV: Yes. Since 1947 or 1950, when the Constitution was ratified, there has been a sense that there is this consolidated framework for thinking about how democracy can flourish in one of the most diverse, in some ways unhospitable because of all of the cleavages for liberal democracy. But despite all the odds, we all know the story, how India has been able to sustain this democratic form of governance.
What we started to realize through a series of conversations and things that we’d read is, this stable constitutional structure that has been associated with certain features—free and fair elections, equal citizenship, horizontal and vertical checks and balances, a strong independent judiciary—something that you study, Shruti—all of these now have come under a cloud, both because of legal changes as well as equally critical changes in norms, in informal practices.
We now have the emergence of what we call a triple state, which is the rise of an ethnic state in which religion is increasingly being seen as a prism through which citizenship and belonging are defined. The absolute state, which is the concentration of executive power in the person of the prime minister and the prime minister’s office to the detriment both of federal differences as well as horizontal checks and independent institutions.
Then the last was this idea of the rise of an opaque state, which, I think sometimes we forget that there has been a very hard-fought battle, with quite a number of important victories, towards making the Indian state more transparent. We think about things like the Right to Information Act, of course, of 2005, the opening up of government data for the masses, the ability for ordinary Indians to peer into the everyday functioning of the state.
Now, it’s not been perfect. We all know that all of these systems have great flaws. But there was a trickle of small victories over a 10- or 20-year period that led to some pretty important changes. Those things are starting to roll back, and so we wanted to document these shifts.
I think where we depart from others who have looked at similar things is to take a slightly longer view, to say not everything began in 2014 with the election of Mr. Modi. Many of these trends have accelerated, undoubtedly, and there have been qualitative shifts if you think about the ethnic state, for instance. But when it comes to the absolute state—the decline of Parliament, the weakening of the judiciary—these are things, the seeds of which were planted a while ago, and they’re now being brought to fruition.
RAJAGOPALAN: I completely agree with you on the ethnic state. I want to push back a little bit on the other two.
RAJAGOPALAN: On the absolute state, my sense is, there are some aspects of the centralizing tendencies that have ebbed and flowed. I agree with you that the anti-defection law has been just devastating when it comes to parliamentary spirit and parliamentary norms and things like that. We also know of Indira Gandhi’s government, even pre-Emergency, just passing constitutional amendments without much debate, sort of strong-arming Rajya Sabha to push through her favorite policies when it came to things like nationalization.
I think another centralizing tendency, which has been there for a long time but may have even ebbed now, is when it comes to the economy: the stronghold of price and quantity controls, the licensing regime, not allowing states to go their own way.
The Finance Commission’s extremely disparate split on the center state-revenue—now we are at about 40%, but that’s still a very new trend in India. Almost all of the revenues used to be in the hands of the center to control, so they really control the purse strings and, therefore, everything. My sense is, somehow, that these tendencies have always been there. One, that they just came up in maybe more economic-control aspects rather than social-and political-control aspects. Two, that they have ebbed and flowed depending on which authoritarian we’re talking about.
We’ve had authoritarians in the Congress Party like Indira Gandhi, and we’ve had authoritarians on the other side like BJP. When it comes to, say, Vajpayee, or when it comes to Manmohan Singh or Lal Bahadur Shastri, you see a very similar trend, irrespective of the decade. Would you agree with that? Or do you think that it’s difficult to take this long-arc view if we start going into details like that?
VAISHNAV: No, there’s a lot of validity to what you just said, Shruti. It’s hard for me to really disagree with any of it. One could make a slightly more provocative argument and basically say, “Are we just experiencing some kind of mean reversion?” In other words, the period between 1989 and 2014, where it was the coalition era, the idea of a single political party dominating the political space was just anathema.
So you had this political fragmentation, which then opened up space for institutions—whether it’s the courts, whether it’s the Election Commission, whether it’s the Comptroller and Auditor General, whether it’s states—to come in because everyone was invested in and had incentives to cultivate a level playing field because you could wake up tomorrow and be thrown out of power, and you don’t want your rival who comes back into power to punish you.
I think that’s certainly true, which is political fragmentation, in the absence of an ideologically driven ruling party, have really masked the degree to which India’s democratic fortunes were somewhat, as we write in the piece, hostages to contingency and relying more on the state’s good behavior as opposed to very solid legal, institutional constraints.
One could make that argument. It’s harder to make, of course, with the ethnic state, where I do think there is clearly an alignment between the emergence of a hegemonic party system and a very clear and widely shared ideology about the way in which religion and public life and social life should be organized.
RAJAGOPALAN: There I agree with you. In fact, I think it might be even worse. I feel like you might have held back in the paper a bit because, from what I’ve learned from the recent work that’s done by Vinay Sitapati and literature like that is, earlier, we were “saved” by caste cleavages in the sense that these regional parties that were very caste-based had strongholds in the local areas and were a good pushback against the majoritarian tendencies, either of the Congress or the BJP. Now the BJP has emerged as the umbrella party which wants to include all castes and linguistic differences.
The umbrella, therefore, is now Hinduism. Now we are much more reliant on the religious aspect of ethnic divisions than we were in the past, where there were linguistic and regional and caste differences. Now we are really moving towards quite a different India.
Perception and Reality of Government Transparency
RAJAGOPALAN: On the opaque state, I wanted to push back again a little bit because, in one sense, I completely agree with what you write in the paper in terms of the Right to Information Act. A lot of the institutions—the fudging of the GDP data, things like this, there’s no question that there has been a backslide.
But are these just concerns of elites like you and me who are looking for data before we write our thesis? Because when we talk to voters, they actually think this government is a lot less corrupt and a lot more transparent, especially when it comes to last-mile delivery of services.
India has been famously the leaky bucket when it comes to delivery of welfare entitlements and services. It seems like one thing that Modi has done very well—or at least the perception is that his government has done very well—is that things that are promised to the constituents and the voters actually do reach them.
VAISHNAV: Yes, undoubtedly that’s a part of his appeal. On the transparency bit, I think there’s a divergence between perception and reality. Many Indians rightly believe that, between demonetization and electoral bonds, Modi’s actually done wonders for transparency and, say, political funding, where you and I would probably have a very, very different view.
That’s where I think they have managed to package up reforms in such a way that appear to be big wins. Even the audacity to introduce electoral bonds under the heading of improving transparency in election finances takes a lot of chutzpah.
The analogy I’d make on the political side is to caste. For many Indians, what has been so great about Mr. Modi is that his appeals have transcended caste, that he doesn’t play the same kind of caste politics as some of the Mandal parties, like the Samajwadi Party. But in fact, the key to understanding the way in which the BJP has been able to take over the Hindi heartland is premised on mobilizing long caste divisions. They may be new caste divisions, but they’re caste divisions nonetheless.
Just as a bit of an aside: there’s always this line that’s stuck with me about the difference between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. It was that, for Nitish Kumar, caste is in the subtext of everything that he does—who he gives tickets to, how he stacks bureaucracy. For Lalu Prasad, it was the text and the subtext. The subtext remains the same. It’s just the outward presentation.
Now, welfare—I think it’s not so much about transparency, but more about trying to reorient people’s view of the state from something that was uncaring, unfeeling, unresponsive to something that, every once in a while, actually does something that’s of value.
It is interesting—just to go back to the absolute state—the way in which you’ve been able to do that is basically to run it from the top. You don’t want to make these programs truly decentralized programs because then that doesn’t allow you, as the prime minister, to claim credit.
One of Modi’s most brilliant political masterstrokes has been to say, “I’m going to invest in these things which are objectively good for people’s welfare, but I’m going to do it in ways that everybody knows that it came from me.” Therefore, no state government, no local government, no opposition party can credibly claim that they’re getting water, electricity, cooking gas because they delivered it.
The BJP in the Long Run
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, this used to be the playbook of the Congress, naming everything—Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and things like that—but now, I think the BJP has taken that playbook and just improved it and mastered it when it comes to taking credit for any welfare expenditure that takes place in India.
What do you think about the long-term view of the BJP? Are you also of the view that this party is here to stay simply because the electoral map looks that way? They go and campaign in Hyderabad municipal elections. They go and campaign in the northeast, which was this area that no major national leaders used to go and campaign in. Or do you think these things ebb and flow, and before you know it, the switch will flip, and some regional parties will come together and start pushing back, as it happened with the Congress?
VAISHNAV: I think there’s a short-term, long-term perspective. In the short term, it is very hard to see how this juggernaut is curbed at the national level. State elections will come and go. It’s quite likely in the coming set, they may lose quite a few of them, but I have no doubt that if we were to have a parliamentary election this year or next year, that the BJP would come back, probably with the same kind of majority that it enjoyed in 2019, which is, frankly, quite an achievement despite economic crisis, China invasion on their borders, to be able to sustain that kind of popularity.
However, I do think that some of the contradictions and liabilities in their approach will eventually come back to question this authority. One is, just as what happened with the Congress, they were able to create quite powerful caste and community combinations of support, but that then never translated into representation in political power. We start to see some of this in the Dalit community saying, “You’ve become the de facto party of Dalits, but where are we in the party hierarchy?” I think that’s certainly one.
The second, again, is that people have given a long leash to engineer an economic turnaround, but one has to be quite honest and objective in saying that, in seven years, that has not taken off. It is one thing in your first term to blame your predecessor government for giving you this horrible legacy that they inherited. And they did inherit an economic mess, but it’s much harder to say that now that you’ve been in power for seven years.
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, you’ve had your own blunders, like demonetization and GST and, of course, now the pandemic.
VAISHNAV: You’ve had your own blunders. Third is that we once all thought, or people thought, that Indira Gandhi and her party was invincible, and I think there undoubtedly is a danger in Narendra Modi remaking the BJP in his own image because, if for whatever reason his popularity wanes, that then casts the entire party in crisis.
One of the brilliant things about the BJP in the 2000s—and people like Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others wrote about this—is that it really wasn’t a single national party. It was a collection of regional parties. Of course, they had a common ideological affinity, the connection to the Sangh, but you had in Shivraj Singh and Narendra Modi, and Yediyurappa and others, powerful chieftains who had autonomous power. A lot of that is gone. There is no chief minister in the BJP today who is not there because Mr. Modi placed him there.
VAISHNAV: I do think that that, in the long term, could be a problem, but certainly, it doesn’t appear to be in the short run at all.
RAJAGOPALAN: I very much agree with you there, that sometimes when the person becomes the party, it’s the beginning of the end in the very long arc. It’s the Caesar effect that creeps into party politics. BJP used to be a very democratic party, famously, and even that tendency seems to be ebbing. If the party itself has become more centralized, its intraparty democracy has certainly weakened, I believe, under the Modi-Shah regime, or at least from what I read. Yes, you’re right, in the long run, these things will definitely matter.
VAISHNAV: Shruti, one more thing on that, just as a kind of anecdote for your listeners. Here we are, yesterday, the world’s biggest cricket stadium was renamed for Prime Minister Modi. There were a lot of BJP partisans who came on the evening news channels and were appalled. They were appalled because it’s not something you do when you’re still alive, but secondly, it’s what the Congress always did.
If you want to say that you’re not just a different party, but a party with a difference, then replicating the same excesses of the party which has now sunk to great depths is probably not a very savvy move.
RAJAGOPALAN: I was horrified on two counts. One, this wasn’t one of the erstwhile Congress names or even the British names that they decided to change and Indianize it. The other thing that, as a public choice economist, I found delicious and also horrifying is that the two pavilions in the stadium are named after Adani and Ambani. That takes a particular kind of arrogance, to think that you can get away with that.
VAISHNAV: Well, it feeds into the thing, I think, the BJP is rightly concerned about. Going back to Rahul Gandhi’s famous “suit-boot ki Sarkar” jibe of being seen as a cronyist or crony capitalist and how, in today’s India, that creates a liability. It was interesting to lean into many of these things that we thought were verboten.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to ask you a few questions about you now. You’re trained as a political scientist, and you follow Indian politics probably more closely than virtually anyone else I know. What led you to this point? What is your intellectual journey that got you to this point of staying up at all odd hours and reading about Indian news, Indian newspapers and Twitter to follow Indian politics?
VAISHNAV: Well, Shruti, if I’m being perfectly honest, it has been a very wayward and nonlinear path. I was always interested in political science and international relations, and that’s what I studied as an undergrad. After undergrad, I came to Washington. I worked here five years before doing my PhD, but even as a PhD student in my early years, had no thought or desire of studying India.
As a child of immigrants, I think sometimes there’s a natural knee-jerk reaction to shun the thing that you are. It’s too predictable. It’s not exotic enough. I worked on India; I already know that. It wasn’t really until I started to do my PhD work, and I got interested in questions of democracy and governance. I thought, “My God, India really is ground zero.”
I was in my mid-20s and I had matured a little to understand that, while I had a cultural affinity towards India, I didn’t really know the country in any meaningful sense. That lightbulb went off. You’ve been there, so you know. You’re staring at the next four, five years of your life, and what’s going to be personally fulfilling? Where do you want to spend time? Where do you want to travel? India bubbled up.
Obviously, we’re biased. We work on India, but it’s hard for me to think of, really, a more fascinating country in the world where you will be a perennial student. You will just never become an expert on it because it’s too vast and too complicated and too nuanced and too heterogeneous. I like that challenge. You come to the breakfast table every day, and you’re like, “There are 25 things that are going on that I don’t understand and I want to get to the bottom of.” In that sense, there’s never a dull moment.
RAJAGOPALAN: Growing up—and you grew up in Houston; you were born and raised there—what were the influences that either nudged you towards India or away from India in your early years?
VAISHNAV: I grew up in a pretty conventional, middle-class Gujarati household. My father is an architect. My mom was in the sciences. I owe a great debt to my brother, who is five years older than me, who knew from the age of five or six that he wanted to be a writer. He was editor of his school newspaper. He went to journalism school. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 or 15 years.
That was a shock to everybody’s system because growing up in the ’80s, it’s just not what you did as an Indian. It’s not what any of his friends did. It’s not what most of our cousins did. They were doing medicine or business or engineering, but that actually opened up space for me.
The influence was very direct, which was, in our household, the first thing you did every morning was you read the newspaper. You read every section, from sports to the front page to business to metro, and I started doing that from a very young age. That was what triggered, really, the interest in politics. Now, when I studied that stuff in college, I didn’t know you could have a career doing that. I just thought it was a hobby that you do before you go to law school.
But then, over time, through a series of experiences, I realized, “Wow, you could actually do this and make a living out of it.” Once I put two and two together, there was no turning back. Thankfully, my brother had paved the way. My parents, when it came to me, it’s just like, “Okay, whatever. Political science couldn’t be worse than journalism.” That may be the one field that is worse than journalism, but I didn’t tell them that.
RAJAGOPALAN: But you can get a PhD in political science, and most people don’t do that in journalism, so you have a little bit of status in the Indian community. For what it’s worth, you are Dr. Vaishnav.
VAISHNAV: That’s right. I did spend, whatever, 23 years in school.
RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, now, it makes sense, your early habits of reading, but you write very broadly. You write academic papers. Your book is fantastic. I’ve read and reviewed it. You write these kinds of policy reports, or like the report that we just discussed. You, of course, write in newspapers, and so on. What is your writing process for each of these? Is it different? Is it the same?
VAISHNAV: It’s a really good question. The first thing is that I came into this job at Carnegie eight and a half years ago with not a huge amount of experience doing public writing. I had a fair amount, but one of the things I realized, first of all, is how much better one gets through practice.
Now, the process of putting together an op-ed, if the idea is there, is relatively straightforward.
Shruti, I tend to write in intense bursts. I have one of these obsessive-compulsive personalities, where once an idea is stuck in my craw, it’s actually very hard for me to do anything else. I have to get it out. It’s never in its final form. It’s almost like you’re throwing this up on a page, and then you’ve got to work on it.
I’ve been very reluctant, for instance, to agree to doing a regular column because I don’t find that my brain works on that kind of rhythm of naturally, every week, every two weeks, I have something to say. I may go through a period where it’s like, “Oh, my God, I have all this stuff.”
Ideas really do tend to marinate for quite a long time. I’m working them out and talking to people and making little notes, and then it all comes in one go, which is why it can be a challenge doing longer-form stuff, because that’s something that it’s hard to just do all in one go. You have to break it up into bite-sized pieces.
I think the only way I was able to write my first book was psychologically thinking about it not as a book, but rather as a series of short articles that were then going to be appended together. Otherwise, it was just too daunting and overwhelming for me to think of that.
Last thing I’ll say is, I’ve been very lucky working at a think tank that cares a lot about long-form work and academic writing and policy writing. I’ve been given the space to dabble in a lot of different things, and that’s a real luxury. Sometimes you’re forced to do one or the other, and I’ve, maybe not perfectly, but tried to still straddle a more research-based life and a policy-based life.
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you write every day? Do you listen to music while you write?
VAISHNAV: Yes, I have to listen to music. That’s a must. There are two things that I think have totally revolutionized my life. One is Spotify, and the second is Dropbox. I don’t honestly know how I worked without those two apps on my computer and my phone.
It’s all changed because we’re all at home. I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary—probably you too—of working from home. So now it’s very different, but I tend to need really long stretches. In fact, one of the most difficult things about working from home is that I need to be locked away for six or eight hours to really focus on something. There’re some people I know who—they’ll take 15 minutes. You’re in a taxi, and they’ll break out their iPad and start typing. I can’t. I’ll just waste my time checking email or Twitter or something.
I do have two dogs, and the one thing that working from home requires is a lot of dog walking. I go for an hour-long walk in the morning. I either listen to books, or I talk to people in India, or I just clear my head. That’s actually been super useful for just the creative process, I think.
RAJAGOPALAN: I have very similar views on my reliance on coffee, Dropbox, Spotify, dogs. Everything needs to be in a particular configuration, and then I can work. Things start happening.
RAJAGOPALAN: What are some of the big projects you’re working on right now?
VAISHNAV: This Indian-American work is not over. We have a third report coming out, hopefully, in April, May. That’s a third in this series. That’s going to look at the social realities and social identities of Indian Americans.
How do they identify? Do they think of themselves as more Indian or more American? What are their social networks like? Who do they marry? Are they marrying Indians or non-Indians? Are they victims of discrimination? How much discrimination do they perceive being thrust upon the Indian American community? It’s how they live, as it were. That’s what we’re working on now.
RAJAGOPALAN: We got a little glimpse of that in this one. They do watch a lot of Indian movies and eat a lot of Indian food.
VAISHNAV: They do.
RAJAGOPALAN: Irrespective of which subgroup.
VAISHNAV: Including people of second generation, which did surprise me as, culturally, there was that affinity there. The three of us are so excited by this, we were thinking through all sorts of extensions, including wanting to repeat this going forward, so then we can start to track over time, say, in 2022, the midterm election, the next presidential election.
But I think there’s also a natural comparative project, which Devesh, Sumitra and I have been kicking around, which is, if you think about just one contrast—Indians in the U.K. versus Indians in the United States—what we know from the data that’s out there, that Indians in the U.K. have, in fact, moved much closer to the Conservative Party and away from the Labour Party. The kind of thing we thought would happen in the United States has actually happened there. What is it about the way in which Indians in the U.K. are viewing things that has led to this divergence? That’s one.
The second, in fact, is related to this piece in the Journal of Democracy where Madhav Khosla, my co-author, and I are actually going to try to build on this a little bit more, potentially for another book, but really dig into in greater detail, how these three states, as we call them, have emerged. We didn’t really get into that.
We talked about their manifestations and their consequences, but we haven’t done a lot of thinking about, “Well, how did we get to this place?” For instance, why has secularism become such a four-letter word and become discredited such that it created the space for the ethnic state to rise?
You mentioned anti-defection law—that’s clearly one piece of it. I think, what you say—the judiciary is an equally fascinating question. This is not a case unlike other countries, where there has been a straightforward executive takeover of the justice system. It has been much more subtle.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s creeping.
VAISHNAV: It has been creeping, but is it because of executive interference in appointments? Maybe. Is it because of the career incentives of judges? Reading the tea leaves and then adjusting, thinking about what jobs they’re going to get after? There’s a range of things that we don’t fully understand. I think there’s going to be plenty to keep me busy for a long, long time.
RAJAGOPALAN: Finally, I know you’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen through the pandemic because I read this lovely piece that you wrote about him and his music. What else have you been doing? Have you been binge-watching a lot of TV? Because that seems like that’s all I have done.
VAISHNAV: [laughs] Well, we have two children. We have two daughters. We’re all four of us and our two dogs at home. We spend a lot of family time together, which has actually been one of the saving graces of this whole pandemic. My wife loves to cook, and I increasingly like to cook, and I find that I like it more now that I’m not under the stress of having to do it in 30 minutes, racing home from work, when I have more time.
We have been binge-watching a lot. We’ve gotten into thriller police procedural genre on Netflix and Amazon Prime. We just finished a series called Dublin Murder, which is actually based on a series of books that we both enjoyed by this Irish author called Tana French. The series—it was on Starz or something, but you can just buy it on Amazon Prime—is a melding together of two of her books into this 10-part series.
Books actually have been, I think, the big winner. The third app, Shruti, in addition to Dropbox and Spotify, which have revolutionized my life, which I pass on to you as my only bit of wisdom, is, the public library has an app called Libby. I don’t know if you use this. Basically, you can get, as an audiobook or as a digital book, virtually anything you want. You may have to wait for it if someone else is using it.
I have read more books in 2020 than I probably read in the three or four years combined. Audiobooks are a big part of that because now, when I’m out doing exercise or cooking dinner or whatever, I’ll just put it in and get half an hour. The millennials have taught me that you can listen to these things at 1.5 times or 1.75, so now I get more bang for the buck. That really has been the pandemic revelation for me.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you, Milan. This was such a pleasure. Thank you for doing this.
VAISHNAV: No, thanks for having me, and look forward to many more podcasts to come, Shruti.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Himanshu Jha on institutional change, transparency and corruption.