India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, with Mira Kamdar

Jul 2, 2018

What are the challenges that will have the most impact on India's future? Award-winning author Mira Kamdar puts climate change and environmental degradion at the top of the list, including rising sea levels and scarcity of resources. Next is the problem of poverty and unemployment--India has to generate nearly a million new jobs a month for young people joining the workforce. Kamdar also discusses the rise of Hindu nationalism and much more.

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Today I'm speaking with Mira Kamdar. Mira is an award-winning author who is a former member of The New York Times editorial board. Her writings on international affairs have appeared in several leading publications, such as The Washington Post, The Times of India, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

Her new book, India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, addresses a wide range of topics, including the history, political and social structures, economic and financial systems, and geopolitical landscape of India, a country that is set to play a critical role in the world in the coming decades. This book is the focus of our discussion today.

Mira, thank you for joining us.

MIRA KAMDAR: I'm delighted to be here.

JOANNE MYERS: India is now the world's largest democracy and the one that is fast overtaking China to become the most populous country on Earth. Furthermore, it is predicted to become the world's second-largest economy by mid-century. With these milestones, India will face many challenges. There is a lot to talk about, so let's get started.

Mira, as the title of your book is India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, what in your opinion is the most important thing you would like our listeners to know about India and the one thing that you believe will have the greatest impact on its future?

MIRA KAMDAR: It's very important to understand—and in the title I think that's understood—that India is grappling with these 21st-century problems that we all are. First and foremost I would put climate change and environmental degradation, the scarcity of resources, the degradation of our oceans, rising sea levels which will affect India very severely because it is a rough triangle with two sides on oceanfront and big cities on those oceans, Bombay, now Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and many more.

The other challenge, though, that is specific to India and less so in developed countries is the challenge of at a historical moment when the planet is facing these problems and all of humanity is facing these problems India still has the task of bringing hundreds of millions of poor to a better, more dignified life, and providing for them. It is just not going to be easy. It has to generate employment to the tune of nearly a million new jobs a month for the young people who come into the workforce. It is facing a very severe water crisis that has been in the news recently with even reports that large amounts of the country may run out of water in the coming decades, just run out. It boggles the mind to imagine the impact of that.

These challenges are a collision between a country with enormous potential, high economic growth, facing its own challenges but also facing those global challenges that we all are.

JOANNE MYERS: What is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doing to address unemployment?

MIRA KAMDAR: The BJP is is the nationalist party that came to power with the election in 2014 and named Narendra Modi as prime minister with great promises—"For development for all" was one slogan and economic renewal and liberalization to unleash what the campaign presented as a stunted economic picture.

Unfortunately, those promises have yet to be realized, especially in terms of employment. There was some hope that manufacturing would generate a lot of jobs as it did for China and with the great engine of China's economic rise and also a great engine of pulling many Chinese out of poverty. But the manufacturing sector has really not taken off, and India is facing trying to expand its manufacturing sector at a time when we are looking at robotization, which is the last thing that a country like India needs when it's looking to generate mass employment. So that's not really working out.

The agricultural crisis has pushed a lot of farmers to the breaking point. Yet there aren't really jobs in the cities other than construction or casual day labor kinds of jobs. Secure jobs such as working for the national railways receive orders of magnitude more applicants than there are posts. There was an instance several months back where—I can't remember the exact numbers, but it was something like 1000-to-1 applicants for the jobs that were announced.

It's not clear that the current government has been able to harness the economic growth story, which is real, although it took a hit following what was called "demonetization," when the government recalled all the money bills in circulation and issued new ones, but it has sprung back up. Yet it is unclear that the government has been able to harness that growth to produce jobs.

Listen: This is a problem in the developed world. We have many examples—the United States is one of them—where you have high economic growth that is not necessarily correlating with generating jobs anywhere. It's a problem that the world is facing. People are talking about guaranteed minimum incomes in developed countries. That's not something that India can afford, but India is facing these same global economic dynamics from the perspective, though, of a very large population, a very young population, and a population that desperately needs jobs.

JOANNE MYERS: Let me just stop you there a minute because what I've read is that India is predicted to become the world's second-largest economy. With all these problems, how can that be possible?

MIRA KAMDAR: It's possible because we have seen over the last few decades the decoupling of economic growth and the size of a country's economy with its ability to provide a decent standard of living for all of its people. We talk in the United States about the "one percent." We talk in the United States about the decline of the middle class. Yet billionaires are proliferating.

India has an extremely high number of billionaires, an astonishing number of billionaires, but it also has an astonishing number of poor people. How can India bridge a gap that developed countries are seeing widening? That's the challenge.

JOANNE MYERS: What about technology in India? Today it seems with Bangalore being the hub of all these wonderful new technological innovations that this in some ways could be the thing that will pull India out of this.

MIRA KAMDAR: The thing about India's technology center is that it does generate a lot of revenue and represents a very important part of India's economy, but it does not provide a lot of jobs. There are only a couple of million highly skilled people working in the high-technology center in Bangalore.

One problem is that those companies have trouble finding fully qualified people to fill the posts they do have because of deficits and deficiencies in India's educational sector, which is another problem that needs to be addressed. Yet, even if they can fill everything, that sector is not going to generate mass employment of the kind that, say, manufacturing did for China and that really pulled China up over the last decades. That is the kind of employment that India needs to generate.

So, its technology center is very important to its economy. It's very important to its national security. India is probably the only developing country with the kind of economic demographics that has its own space program, that has a very large biotechnology sector, that is a leader in all kinds of back office processes, but also all kinds of technological innovation. Yet that is not going to generate the jobs they need.

JOANNE MYERS: Has anything changed since Modi was elected in 2014?

MIRA KAMDAR: On the economic front, employment has actually declined, so that is really not good. The economic growth number has basically stayed up but for that dip following demonetization I mentioned, but it has not generated employment.

The agriculture sector remains devastated, and that's a problem because even though many Indians are gravitating toward cities either because of "push-me" factors—the crisis in agriculture—but also "pull-me" factors—the sexiness and the opportunities of the cities that attract people all over the world—still, a majority of the people live in the country and depend on agriculture for their livelihood, so this is affecting a great percentage of the population. That's on the economic front.

The main thing that has changed since Narendra Modi was elected is that the Hindu nationalists are now in power. That's not just the political party to which he formally belongs and which was elected, the Bharatiya Janata Party, but that is a more hard-right group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is a group so radical it was banned as a terrorist group several times in India's history. Now it has really come out unabashedly as being intimately connected to the leadership of the country.

There has been a rise in religiously targeted hate crime, caste-targeted hate crime, lynchings, horrible attacks on Muslims or dalit, which were formerly called untouchables, India's lower caste, accused of eating beef or trafficking in cows. There was just the news today that India is the most unsafe country in the world for women. There has been a series of high-profile murders of journalists recently, and India's free press is not so free, and those journalists who do still persist in criticizing the government or dissenting from the official line face terrible sanctions up to and including murder.

This is not something that I think most Americans are aware of when they think about India as a fellow democracy with the United States. But in a way it shouldn't be a surprise when we look at the global scene and we see so many democracies taking a detour or veering off-track toward more authoritarian regimes, nationalist identitarianism, where minority groups are demonized, and all that comes with it.

There again, you have India's own particular history where from pre-independence days there were two competing narratives of what kind of independent India should be created, whether a Hindu nationalist one or a secular republic. The secular republic won out for half a century, but the nationalist one has come back in now. Then you have the global moment of which India is very much a part.

JOANNE MYERS: With elections slated for May 2019, do you think with all these problems that you've just laid out that Modi will prevail? Do you think he'll be reelected?

MIRA KAMDAR: I think there's a good chance he'll be reelected. He certainly is going to do everything possible to get reelected.

There is a possibility that the opposition parties will band together to block his party from being reelected, but the fact of the matter is that there is no single opposition party, including the historically dominant Congress Party (Indian National Congress), which is capable of mounting alone a credible opposition or which has a candidate with the level of social media exposure and popularity and star power image as Narendra Modi, so it's a tough call.

But there have been signs in some recent elections that it's not a shoo-in for the BJP. In fact, there has been some talk by them of moving the 2019 elections up to later this year. That talk has been dropped because it is not so sure they're guaranteed to win that election if they move it up.

While he has a lot going for him in his court, there is grumbling, and the opposition parties have only themselves really to look to to lose the election in the sense that if they can reconcile some of their differences and form some sort of coalition, then there is a chance that Narendra Modi's government will not return to power in 2019. But if they can't, I don't see why it would not return to power in 2019.

JOANNE MYERS: In the time remaining, I'd like to pivot to geopolitics. The West's influence in shaping the 21st century is predicted to decline. Let me ask you what role or place you see India having in the 21st-century geopolitical landscape. Do you think India will be a superpower?

MIRA KAMDAR: India is still very far from being a superpower if one takes the definition of a superpower as a country that is capable of projecting its force to different multiple points around the globe, which certainly the United States is, and to a far lesser degree China, Russia, and some countries in the European Union. India is very far from that. It does project a great deal of power and influence in its immediate neighborhood. It has strong bilateral relationships. But that does not make it a superpower.

However, it is a major power. I live in Paris. You could almost think of India as a kind of France in a way in the sense that while it's not a big superpower, it does wield some influence. It has been savvy for many years and I think will continue to be so in hedging its bilateral bets in the sense that whereas I think there was a lot of hope in the United States in recent years, especially following the U.S.-India nuclear deal, that India would be our special ally and our special partner, and multiple presidents up to President Obama made overtures in that regard, and so did Indian leaders.

But with, for example, the new steel tariffs, which are very bad for India, and India watching carefully the evolution of geopolitics, it is certainly not going to drop its historic strong bilateral relationship with Russia. It is in a very difficult spot in terms of Iran, with which it has very good relations.

It also has very good relations with Israel, and it has to balance all of this in a way that I think the United States has not ever really reckoned with and is less ready to reckon with now than ever. India lives in a multilateral world, so geopolitically it is constantly seeking to negotiate and manage in that multilateral world.

JOANNE MYERS: In discussing its relationships in the region, you left out two very important ones, China and Pakistan. Could you speak a little to that?

MIRA KAMDAR: Yes. Let's talk about the region. There is China and Pakistan. There are also Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar we could throw in.

China and Pakistan represent the most immediate existential threats to India. They are both nuclear powers. In fact, the area in the Himalayas where the borders of those three countries meet—India, Pakistan, and China—has been called "the most dangerous place on Earth."

China has a very close relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is an extremely dysfunctional country that has had a long "love-me-hate-you" relationship with the United States that has become more problematic most recently, but it's a rocky history. India has certainly the military means to defend itself and to assert itself, especially in terms of asserting national sovereignty over its borders.

Yet it does face an increased threat from China, which has not only become a major economic power but is increasingly throwing around its geopolitical weight and expanding its geopolitical reach, and China has made some very aggressive moves on its border with India that India has not really been able to counter. That I think is of grave concern to India.

Still, India is a nuclear power, it has a big army, it's well armed, it's one of the biggest purchasers of military hardware in the world. So it's certainly going to do whatever it can to defend itself. But it is vulnerable. It is vulnerable with China as this huge giant sitting right on top of it, as it were.

There again, I circle back to what I said about multilateralism because this is India's best bet in terms of national security, which is to just continue to play, negotiate, and move with how things are changing in terms of multilateral relationships.

JOANNE MYERS: Before we conclude, I just want to circle back to the one thing I asked at the beginning, the one thing that you believe will have the greatest impact on India's future. You named several things. You've addressed climate change, unemployment, and relationships in the region, but can you single out one thing that you think we should all be aware of?

MIRA KAMDAR: I think it's the increasing clash between India's demographics, not just the size of its population but the youth of its population, and a world with declining resources under the threat of climate change. I think that is the real super-challenge before India.

I have argued—less strongly in this book but very strongly in a previous book, which was Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World, which I published about eight years ago—that India has a potential to find solutions to many of these things. There are incredible things going on in India with environmental activists at the village level in terms of transitioning to agroecology, in terms of water management and water conservation, small-scale things—micro-irrigation, solar power, which the government is also making a big push for.

Everything is in India's toolbox to really skip some of these 20th-century dependencies and problems that are standing us all up against a wall and move to a sustainable 21st-century model not just for economic growth but for providing its people with the means to a decent life. Whether it will be able to harness them on the macro level that it needs to is an open question.

It is certainly something that is very important to follow because as I have argued elsewhere, "As goes India, we may all go one day." It may be hard to think of that when you're sitting in a rich country, but these problems do affect us all, and India has a lot more incentive to find solutions to them than we do perhaps. So we have a stake in whether and how India finds its way out of the impasses and the problems it faces.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for your insights and for taking the time to speak to us today and for giving us a peek—and it is a peek—inside India, because your wonderful book covers so many topics, and we only were able to focus on a few.

Thank you, Mira, again.

MIRA KAMDAR: Thank you so much.

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