Grand Tamasha

Nidhi Razdan on the State of the Indian Media

Episode Summary

Milan talks to journalist Nidhi Razdan about how television journalism has changed over the last two decades, why the business model of journalism is broken, and the festering issue of self-censorship in newsrooms.

Episode Notes

If you’ve watched prime time television in India at any point in the last two decades, there is zero chance that you are not acquainted with Milan’s guest on the show this week. Since 1999, the journalist Nidhi Razdan has been reporting on the biggest news coming out of India--from politics to the economy and, especially, foreign affairs.


A stalwart presence night after night on NDTV--one of India’s leading news outlets--Nidhi was the executive editor of the channel and the primary anchor of their prime time news show, “Left, Right & Centre.” In June 2020, Nidhi announced that she was taking a break from reporting journalism in order to teach journalism at Harvard.*


Milan asks Nidhi about how television journalism has changed over the last two decades, why the business model of journalism is broken, and the festering issue of self-censorship in newsrooms. Milan and Nidhi also discuss the surprise “India angle” to the U.S. elections and the international ramifications of the Article 370 decision in Kashmir, Nidhi’s home state.


* EDITOR’S NOTE: On this episode of the podcast, Milan identified Nidhi Razdan as an associate professor of journalism at Harvard University and spoke with her about her future teaching plans. On January 15, Nidhi Razdan revealed that she was the victim of a sophisticated phishing attack and that her Harvard appointment was a central element of this fraud. In a subsequent blog post, Razdan provided further details about the alleged attack.  


Episode Notes:

  1. Nidhi Razdan, “The Shameful Vilification Of Rhea Chakraborty
  2. Amit Varma, “Driven to Extremes. Part 1: News Television
  3. Sevanti Ninan, “How India's Media Landscape Changed Over Five Years
  4. Priya Ramani, “Your Guide To Loving Indian Media Again
  5. Grand Tamasha episode with Ashley J. Tellis on “India’s China Conundrum

Episode Transcription

Milan  00:12

Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. If you've watched primetime television in India at any point in the last two decades, there is zero chance that you are not acquainted with our guest on the show today. Since 1999, the journalist Nidhi Razdan has been reporting on the biggest news coming out of India from politics to the economy and especially foreign affairs. A stalwart presence night after night on NDTV, one of India's leading news outlets, Nidhi was the executive editor of the channel and the primary anchor of their primetime news show, Left, Right & Centre. In June 2020, Nidhi announced that she was taking a break from reporting journalism in order to teach journalism. She is currently an associate professor of journalism at Harvard, and I'm pleased to welcome her to the show for the very first time. Nidhi, so good to talk to you.


Nidhi  00:59

Thanks very much for having me on, Milan, thanks very much.


Milan  01:02

So, I want to start by asking you a little bit about your own personal trajectory. For many years now, you have been, I think it's fair to say, one of the most popular, most recognizable faces of Indian television journalism reporting, day in and day out, from the familiar NDTV studios that we've all become accustomed to. At the start of the summer, however, you announced - I think it surprised a lot of people - that you would be stepping down from NDTV to assume a new teaching position at Harvard. What prompted you to take this plunge and make this kind of career switch?


Nidhi  01:35

Maybe it's a mid-life crisis. I don't know. But, but on a serious note, actually, the opportunity sort of came my way. It wasn't something that I was actively seeking. But when the opportunity did present itself before me, I just felt that, you know, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, it was a chance to do something I love but in a completely different way, which is news- and journalism- related. It was a chance for me to try something new at this point in my life. Because all I have done since I've been 21 years old was journalism, and I've been on television day after day reporting from the field, being in the studio, and I think this just gave me an opportunity, Milan, to take a step back and challenge myself in a different way. And I'm really, really glad that I took that decision, because I felt that if I didn't take a risk now and try something new, then I'd never do it. And why not?


Milan  02:37

Right? I mean, I know that things haven't totally worked out the way you imagine because of COVID. You're not in Cambridge, Massachusetts teaching in person. But can you tell us a little bit - I think classes start next week - about what you are going to be teaching and what your mental state is right now? 


Nidhi  02:56

So, we will be starting classes in a few weeks, Milan, and I'm going to be [teaching] interesting subjects, all related to what I have done over the last couple of decades, which is basically how to report on foreign policy, on policy on foreign affairs, particularly focusing on television, or looking at another subject, on the ethics of journalism. Also, later in the year, video journalism - in particular, how to edit stories, how to write for TV. Politics, in particular, in a further future quarter. So, yes, we will be online, so I will be doing that from Delhi. And then that, of course, is not what we had anticipated. But I think the university is hoping that at some point, we will be on campus early next year. Maybe not with a full-strength class, I don't know that yet. But I hope I do make my way to Cambridge early next year. And I look forward to that. And, you know, I like this, too. I mean, we're all having to deal with a very challenging environment, all of us. It's not just peculiar to me, and I'm going to make the best of it.


Milan  03:59

I want to take us back a little bit to the start of your career. You started in NDTV in 1999, I think, so you've had two decades or so in the business of journalism. And as you look back over your career to this point - tell us a little bit about how TV journalism in particular has changed since you were kind of a young cub reporter getting your start. What was the scene like back in 1999?


Nidhi  04:25

It was completely different, I think, firstly, because NDTV was really the only private news channel around, and that made a big difference in terms of competition for ratings and getting things on air first. I mean, basically, we were the only ones, and that made a difference because that gave us a lot of breathing space, us young reporters, to take time to do our stories. We would also spend a lot of time doing rural reporting, traveling out of Delhi into India's hinterland, into villages, and sometimes, you know, you take a week to do a good long-format story or even a documentary. Over time, things began to change. As more and more news channels came onto the scene, competition heated up. And today, it's really sad to see the state that television is in, and NDTV remains an exception. It's the only channel that's keeping the flag of journalism flying high. And I say that with a lot of pride, and some sadness as well. Because today, television in India, television news in India, has turned into, well, to borrow a phrase from you, a “tamasha.” And I'm actually embarrassed to see what it's become. And it's not even embarrassing anymore, Milan, it's scary. Because, you know, it's like radio Rwanda all over again, what some of these news channels are doing.


Milan  05:54

I want to back to the decline of TV journalism in a second, but before I do - particularly for the uninitiated listeners who might be out there - I think it's no secret to say that in some quarters in India, NDTV has been something like a punching bag, has a target on its back, and there's a perception... Why do you think it is that it's garnered so much attention, including some degree of unwanted attention from some places?


Nidhi  06:21

Well, let's just be forthright and admit that the “some places” you refer to are the BJP government and the BJP supporters. And I think that that's a very unfair target on NDTV's back simply because they've created this perception that NDTV is completely, purely anti-BJP, and for them, anyone who's anti-BJP must be pro-Congress. And that's completely untrue. And it's just that - Milan, you really can't compete beyond a point with the IT cells' propaganda, which is where you flood people's WhatsApp groups and messages and Twitter timelines with a certain narrative about not just a news channel like NDTV but individuals - individual journalists, women journalists in particular. So, a sort of narrative is sought to be created. It's done with their political opponents as well. And frankly, the only problem they have with NDTV is that it reports news fairly, and they don't want news to be reported fairly. They only want people to sing their praises. They do not want questions to be asked. The job of the media is to ask the establishment questions, to ask the government of the day questions. But today, the news channels friendly to the government ask the opposition questions. So, if there is, you know, a pandemic, they're not going to ask, "What has the Prime Minister of India done about it?" but they're going to ask what Rahul Gandhi has done about it. And they forget that the same NDTV was talking night after night about scams in the UPA government, the previous government led by the Congress, which included the 2G scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, the coal scam. The silence of the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was questioned night after night. But it's convenient to push that under the carpet and sort of create this narrative that somehow NDTV takes a political line. Nobody wants to see fair, honest reporting. Let's face it. And that's why, you know, NDTV gets that target. But I disagree with you on one thing. I think overwhelmingly the opinion about NDTV is positive, it's not negative, that there is a silent majority out there. And we see that - I'm not going by the BARC ratings, which are very controversial, but you go on to YouTube online and see the kind of hits our shows get - I still say "our,"  even though I'm not there anymore - but, you know, I think it's the only glimmer of hope in a very dark media world at the moment.


Milan  08:48

So, I want to pick up on the last thing you said, because I think it's absolutely true. But isn't there an irony here, which is that there may be opposition from the BJP towards the channel and badmouthing of the channel, but yet, night after night, they want to appear on the channel in the debates and discussions that you yourself have hosted and your colleagues have hosted? Because there is a recognition, isn't there, that this is an important venue, in the same way that President Trump on a daily basis criticizes the New York Times and at the same time cannot get enough of talking to reporters like Maggie Haberman and others and feeding them stories. So, isn't that an irony in all this?


Nidhi  09:33

Actually, it's not - it's a very schizophrenic sort of relationship that the ruling party has with NDTV because for the last few years, they've actually officially boycotted NDTV. So official national spokespersons of the party, the ruling party, do not appear on either the NDTV English channel or the Hindi channel. So, you have people who are members of the party who are not official spokespersons, sort of their proxy supporters. They come on the channel and the BJP officially does not. But you're right, when there is a big event - let's say, the Swacch Bharat campaign on Gandhi Jayanti, the second of October, Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary - then, you know, top ministers will come out and speak to NDTV as well. Or when there is an election, many of them do come and speak out. But Prime Minister Modi has not given NDTV an interview since he became prime minister. So that's something to think about. He's done a few interviews on his terms, of course, with other channels and journalists who are, let's say, more friendly to his dispensation. But he has not done an interview with NDTV. So, we've sort of been deliberately left out in the cold, NDTV has.


Milan  10:51

Amit Varma, the journalist, recently wrote a piece on the troubles with Indian television. And I just want to quote something that he wrote. He says, "In the United States, channels make up 70% of their revenues from subscriptions. For Indian news channels, it's 10% or less - the rest is advertising. Therefore, news channels have no choice but to chase the eyeballs and to go for the lowest common denominator." Do you agree with Amit that this is the primary culprit? Or is there something else going on that we haven't been paying attention to?


Nidhi  11:21

I think that is the bottom line. Amit is absolutely right. And the problem is - I asked, you know, somebody who looks at the business side, because I've only been focusing on the editorial side all these years, about whether there's a better way to strengthen revenue for television, and the problem is that people still don't want to subscribe, by and large, to the news that they want to see on air. So yes, television is dependent on advertising. And, you know, I firmly believe that the kind of hate-filled content you see on Indian television news night after night will not stop until advertisers also take a stand and say that we're not going to fund hate. We've seen some examples of that in the United States. And I don't see why, you know, advertisers here can't grow a conscience and say, "No, we're not going to do it." I've seen many of them complaining in private during seminars and conferences. I got up in one of those a couple of years ago and said, "But you're the sponsor of so-and-so channel that's pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other night after night, so you have to take a stand." Obviously, viewers have to take a stand and consciously say that we're not going to watch this. But that's a much bigger debate. But, you know, that's the fundamental problem. And I don't see it actually improving. That's what's scaring me. I think there are some digital platforms, Milan, that provides some hope. In TV, yes, NDTV, one or two newspapers, lots of independent journalists have sort of emerged over the last couple of years, people who are doing their own thing now doing good journalism, they're online, and they're really emerging as the future.


Milan  13:05

So, let's come to the issue of the viewers. You know, I recall a conversation I had probably five or six years ago with a relatively big name in the Indian TV industry, and I sort of asked him, "You have this constant shouting, with like 10 or 12 guests every night - right, you can see their little postcards on the screen - and at the end of the 60-minute program, or the 30-minute program, you come away with almost nothing, right? You almost feel dumber than when you began the conversation. And why do you persist?" That's what I asked him. And his response is pretty simple, which is that people tune in, right? "The business model is good for us because we're getting amazing ratings." So isn't there some truth to the critique that, look, if viewers weren't watching this, the model would change, but the fact of the matter is, viewers are watching these channels, just as they are in the United States. They are watching Fox News, and so Fox News has zero incentive to do anything other than what it's doing now.


Nidhi  14:01

That's absolutely right. I mean, I'm saying that until viewers take the stand and decide that they're not going to watch this anymore... That's it. That's a much bigger battle. But that doesn't mean that as journalists and editors, we absolve ourselves of a certain responsibility, as well, to the society that we serve. I mean, people want to watch porn, is that what you want to show them night after night? You know, you take a decision that you're not going to show pornography on air, but people may tune in and watch that. So, you know, what is your responsibility as a journalist in terms of what you're broadcasting? We can't just hide behind ratings and say that it's good for the ratings. Because then there is no morality, no ethics. No. Then our conscience is dead. Our responsibility as journalists is dead. So, we have to find a sort of balance between what we think they want to see, what they're tuning in to see, and - actually, I'm not against TV debates. I've done them for 20 years. I can't turn around today and say that this is a format that doesn't work because I actually believe it is a good format. If it's done well, if you are able to have a constructive conversation, it may not lead to India-Pakistan peace - I mean, hell, that'll take lifetimes. But if you're able to have a constructive conversation with good panelists, if it's done on issues that matter - I mean, Milan, this country never spoke about, you know, women's sexuality or sexual crimes of violence against women until television took it up in a big way after the December 2016 gang rape of a young woman in Delhi. So, there are issues that we can really shine a light on, and we can have people tuned in. I mean, we had rage ratings, too. But we didn't have these conversations saying, "Let's, you know, hang everybody." We had constructive conversations on how the laws can change, how they need to be implemented, what the judiciary needs to do. So, there is a good, smart way to do this. But we can't keep hiding behind ratings and saying, well, this is what the people want. So, let's just do it. Like I said, people want to see porn, is that what you're going to put on air?


Milan  14:50

So, we've been focusing right now on the pushback that comes from the right, from the BJP. But isn't there pushback that's also coming from the left of a different kind? So, I'll tell you about a personal experience that I just had where I moderated a debate put on by Harvard - now, your university students at Harvard - on electoral bonds and the government's claim that they have ushered in a new era of transparency. And the debate featured one ex-MP, Rajeev Gowda, and Jay Panda, the national spokesperson for the BJP. And I got quite a lot of vitriol on my Twitter timeline saying, "How can you possibly legitimize what the government is doing? It's so clearly not about transparency." And, you know, my response was, at the end of the day, electoral bonds are the law of the land. And if you want to change people's views, you have to hear their arguments, and you have to expose them, and you have to debate them, and you have to show the other side. But a lot of people just fundamentally disagree that you should be doing that. So, do you think that - you know, there are all of these conversations about cancel culture and so on and so forth - that the left is also responsible to a certain extent?


Nidhi  17:00

I think it is. And I mean, did they have an objection to Jay Panda being part of your discussion? I mean, is it that you shouldn't have spoken to him at all? I didn't understand what the objection was.


Milan  17:38

The objection was really not about Jay coming on. It was, "How can you pretend that there are two sides to this debate? It's so obvious that electoral bonds are a bad thing for transparency." Which, by the way, is the thing that I believe and have written about extensively. However, my pushback was, this is what governs election finance in India now. Right? And so they have a view. And the only way that you can take it on is if you actually have a debate with them. Otherwise, you're just going to speak to the already converted.


Nidhi  18:14

Absolutely. And I agree with that. That's why I say, I don't believe in cancel culture. And I've seen that happen to me. Very often, you know, we at NDTV would get emails and letters and tweets from people from the left of center, who would say, "Well, why do you call RSS representatives on NDTV?" My argument to that was because they're ruling the country. You may not agree with their ideology. And you may not subscribe to it. But whether you like it or not, you know, they are an unelected organization that runs this country. And that's the truth. So, we need to know what they think. We need to confront them on certain issues. There are certain stories I genuinely believe, Milan, that don't have two sides to it. And I'll tell you, some of them - for instance, lynching, which has been a big issue in India over the last few years, you know, mob lynching, etc. - some of these debates are sort of framed in absurd ways. I mean, I'm not literally saying that this happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if some channel had a debate: "Was this lynching justified?" I mean, that's the kind of absurdity we've come to. Obviously it's not. So, to me, those are stories that do not have another side. But unfortunately, you're right. There is an intolerance in the sort of left-liberal [world], those who subscribe to that ideology, too. And they try to put pressure on us if, you know, you have a nuanced view on something. And there is no room for nuance anymore. And it's not just on social media, you see that everywhere. Now, I think you and I grew up, or I certainly did, in an era where there was scope to have a discussion and disagree civilly, to be able to confront a different point of view with counter facts. But that space seems to have completely shrunk. But I'm not going to change who I am because X side or Y side thinks I should say something. I am who I am. Deal with it. And I think many of us have to push back on that.


Milan  20:14

I want to ask you about this issue of self-censorship. The media critic Sevanti Ninan had an excellent 2019 essay that we'll link to on the state of the media landscape. And one of the things she argues in that piece is that one of the biggest problems facing the media is not censorship by the government, per se, but really self-censorship on the part of the media. And she says that more than anytime in the past that she can recall, media houses in India - this includes TV, print, and online - have discovered, as she puts it, the virtues of self censorship. Now, of course, much of this is not going to be visible to the average consumer, right, because it's like the dog that didn't bark. How much of a problem do you think self censorship has become in newsrooms? And do you think it's increased in recent years?


Nidhi  20:59

It has, and Sevanti Ninan is absolutely right, because you do see that there are a number of newsrooms now that are - if you can still call them newsrooms - that are reluctant to, say, put out any hard-hitting critique of the prime minister or the home minister or certain government policies. And it is self censorship, but it's also because - I mean, to be honest, one hears stories about newsrooms getting phone calls about why, you know, certain news stories were broadcast or why certain interviews were broadcast. So, we've seen that turning in the media, and yes, there is that self-censorship and it has gone up in the last few years, there is no question about that. There are no false equivalencies here. And every time - you know, for God's sake, there's this other word that I discovered in the last few years: "whataboutery." Every time, someone comes in and throws Indira Gandhi's emergency and what she did to the press at us. Well, that that wasn't exactly a shining moment in India's democracy. Let's not repeat that, let's not emulate that, we don't want 1975 again. I actually think a large section of the media today has sort of capitulated in a way that, from what I hear from my father, didn't happen even during the emergency - the way they are sort of pandering and even - and newspapers are not absolved of this just - putting out the spin that the government gives without any questions. And at a time, Milan, when we have this pandemic - India is going to very soon become the country with the highest number of cases in the world - that should scare us. We have a very serious standoff at the border with China. And India's news channels are obsessed with the tragic death of an actor and an actress who has made that death about herself. It's just incredulous that this can happen.


Milan 23:06

I'm not even going to ask you about this Sushant Singh Rajput thing, because I feel like I was off social media for like five hours, and I now have no idea where this story has gone. And I actually don't want to know. But let's move maybe to some happier territory. Going back to the self-interest thing for a second: I remember talking with an economic journalist, a TV journalist, who got a call the day that Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic adviser, came out with a paper arguing that India's GDP statistics were two and a half percentage points lower than what the government reported. You remember that day, it made a big splash. And the call was for this news channel not to lead their primetime coverage with that story. And this journalist pushed back, and it did, in fact, lead. So, there are stories also of people not succumbing, not caving in, which leads me to my next question, which is: what are the bright spots? Priya Ramani has I thought a really interesting column in Bloomberg Quint this week, which was titled "Your Guide to Loving Indian Media Again," which is a great title. In it, she says there is a new crop of journalists using largely digital, but not exclusively, to reinvigorate independent journalism. So whether it's Barkha Dutt's magnificent reporting on the migrant crisis, Nitin Sethi has something called the Reporters' Collective, which is a new entity, there's a site, Article 14, which focuses on justice and the rule of law - so many more I could mention. Do you think that independent media is actually now fighting back and maybe striking some victories?


Nidhi  24:46

I do, and that's why I mentioned them earlier as well, that these are the only sort of bright sparks apart from a very few in the mainstream media that stand out. And you know, the only thing I do disagree with is those who say that, for instance, mainstream media in India is dead or television news in India is dead. It's not dead. If you look at the ratings of just television news since the pandemic and the lockdown in March in India, our viewership has soared. So, the medium isn't suffering. The ratings have been extraordinarily high. Journalism may be dead, but the medium isn't. And even in TV today, there are, apart from NDTV, a handful of reporters across some other channels that I saw who also did some really fantastic reporting on the pandemic, on the migrant crisis, and brought those pictures home. And yes, I mean, even Faye D'Souza, who now has her own independent YouTube channel. Now you have people like Faye, Samar Halarnkar's Article 14, Nitin Sethi's work on electoral bonds has been outstanding. And yes, these people are pushing back, they're standing firm. It's not easy. It's not that, you know, they're making tons of money off this, but they are pushing back in a very, very difficult and hostile environment and hats off to them.


Milan  26:05

You know, one of the things that we've talked about a couple of times indirectly in this conversation is gender. And so I want to focus there for a second and ask you what it's like to be a prominent woman in Indian journalism today, because there are kind of two different narratives I think you could spin. On the one hand, we have seen, or we have heard, really harrowing stories about the challenges that women have faced and continue to face and probably will continue to face in the future in newsrooms across the country. On the other hand, when you think about your specific expertise, which has largely been around foreign affairs, there is this amazing cohort of women whose names include people like Indrani Bagchi, Suhasini Haidar, there’s Meena Sharma, I mean, the list goes on and on and on - and yourself, of course. What does the current landscape look like to you? Because you have this kind of yin and yang, you know,


Nidhi  27:00

My own take on this is very different simply because I always worked with only one organization, and that's NDTV. And NDTV is an organization that's very much driven by women - women editors, women reporters, women camera persons. So, I honestly never felt that my gender was an issue when I was there. Because we will never assign stories because of our genders - you know, “you can't go here,” or “you can't go to this conflict zone,” or “X will go and Y will not.” So, in that sense, we always had equal opportunities as our colleagues. That doesn't mean that in other newsrooms it's the same because the stories from other newsrooms are often very, very different. So, I think I've been very privileged to have worked in a newsroom like this. If you look at the NDTV primetime lineup till I was there, you had me, you had Sonia Singh, Ankita, all of us doing primetime shows, and you had Vishnu and Sanket and Vasu, of course. So, there would often be a joke that the men are outnumbered by women. And even in the editorial staff, you had, again - Sonia is the editorial director of NDTV, Radhika Roy along with Prannoy, Manika Raikwal Ahirwal as managing editor, I was executive editor, and Suparna Singh, of course, our CEO at that time. So very, very driven by women. As far as other journalists are concerned, you know, again, it's interesting, even when I joined as a young political reporter, when I was covering the BJP as a party or I was covering the Congress as a party - there are a lot of women political journalists in India who have always been there, who actually sort of set the stage for the rest of us, who are veterans in the field, and they are really, really good at what they do. And I think an extension of that then has been the ministry that you named, the Foreign Ministry, where you again see that some of the best people who write today on foreign policy and who report on it and who break news on it are women. So, I think in that way, we've been pretty fortunate in India for a very long time. But there are battles that a generation before us has fought for us. And I think that's why the rest of us have been very lucky. Not to say, Milan, that things have been perfect. And in other newsrooms, there are issues there. There are those battles, but like I said, I come from I would admit a very privileged bubble that way.


Milan  29:35

So - you knew this was coming - I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the U.S. election. How would you characterize the view from India on how the race is shaping up? And are you surprised at how much attention India and, in turn, Indian Americans are getting? Because from my vantage point as an Indian American, this feels pretty unprecedented.


Nidhi  29:57

I should ask you the question about the attention that Indian Americans are getting! But look, you know, this time there is a lot of interest in the U.S. election. There was even in 2016, but demonetization also happened on the same day, so we were kind of torn between both stories because we just saw our earnings go up in flames and then, you know, Trump elected as president - it was a tough call. No, but this time, what's made this election more interesting is that in a sense, even though they deny it now, the BJP-led government here, Mr. Modi's government, has clearly taken a position, and that is unprecedented in that there is this tacit support for Donald Trump. Now, they don't admit that now. But when Mr. Modi went to the U.S. last year and there was the whole Howdy Modi event in Texas, which Trump came for, and then, you know, Mr. Modi talked about "Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar," which was borrowing from his own election slogan - that raised a lot of eyebrows because you've never had an Indian government take a political position on a U.S. election or any foreign country's election.


Milan  31:04

But you don't think that was uttered in in jest? Or do you think there was an element of truth to it?


Nidhi  31:11

I think prime ministers weigh their words, or should weigh their words, very carefully. It was clearly not in jest. But there was obviously a push back on that, because you had about a week later Foreign Minister Jaishankar sort of backpedaling on that and saying that "No, no, this wasn't a political slogan, it was said in this context, that context, etc." But clearly, Donald Trump hasn't got the memo about it being jest, right? Because his campaign videos are using the same "Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar," him and Mr. Modi holding hands, very much. He is using that politically as well. So, I think that's raised a lot of interest here. I think a lot of Indians who support the BJP and Mr. Modi find a lot of love for Mr. Trump. And that's interesting, because - you know that better than I do - Indians in the U.S. have generally not voted for the Republican Party. But I don't know, I should ask you whether you see them shifting to Trump, because of the Modi factor, because Mr. Modi is undoubtedly extremely popular, particularly among non-resident Indians.


Milan  32:16

I think right now, we just have one data point, which is a survey that came out this week, the National Asian American survey, which we'll link to, which shows that 28% of Indian Americans, compared to 16% four years ago, are planning to vote for Donald Trump. Whereas the number for Joe Biden and the Democrats has come down a little bit. I would take the numbers - I think they were done by a terrific team of social scientists - with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. One is that it's a relatively small sample size of 250 Indian Americans that were polled. The margin of error is quite large, it's plus or minus six percentage points. Having said all of that, I would not be at all surprised if there is maybe a modest shift, not a 12 point swing but something smaller, not just because of the India-Modi factor but also because he's president, he's the incumbent. The dynamics are different from 2016. But if that's true - and I should just say, in the interest of full transparency, a team of us are doing a survey, which will come out in mid-October, with a larger sample size, just focusing on Indian Americans. And the exciting thing about that is we are asking Americans, not just about how they view the United States, but also how they view India. So, I look forward to sharing that with you. We don't know what the numbers say yet. If the numbers that we've found so far hold, there's a really interesting potential dynamic going on, which is the "politics of vishwas" - which we talked about in India, which is Neelanjan Sircar's evocative phrase for why people have voted for Modi - may have an international dimension to it, which is whether you are pro- or against Modi, is not just now a domestic political matter in India but has begun to shape the partisan attitudes of Indian Americans. Again, I don't think it's the determining factor, I think bread and butter issues will predominate. But it could be the sign of some kind of nascent shift. And the way to think about that, even in the absence of data, is to look at how anxious many Democrats have become about the direction in which this community is going to go.


Nidhi  34:40

Exactly. And look, I was just speaking to you without a survey in front of me, anecdotally, just, you know, the sense one gets even while speaking to one's extended family in the U.S. about where they stand on Trump versus Biden. And I think what you spoke about, this whole thing about placing your trust in Mr. Modi - that's a very interesting factor that's playing out here. Because right now, even though there have been a number of very questionable decisions that he has taken as prime minister, he does not get affected by the criticism that follows from it. In no way. I mean, not just electorally, but - and we'll see that in Bihar also, maybe - whether it's demonetization, whether it's the handling of the economy, the pandemic, he - at least for whatever surveys one looks at, for what they're worth, even in India - people still don't blame him for that directly. Even though he is the sole decision maker. I mean, nothing goes without Mr. Modi's consent in this government. So, he remains extremely popular, despite a host of questionable decisions. And I think one of the things that we're seeing now is, you already had a personality cult around him, but I think it's gone to the next level. And I don't know whether his change in appearance lately with the longer beard and the longer hair has something to do with that. And I'm serious, because he is very, very image-conscious of how his image is projected. And I think he's coming across more sage-like, like, you know, there's a certain image that's being projected of him being more sage-like, like the sort of father of the country, the wise man who knows well, who can guide us as a prime minister, spiritually, emotionally. I think a lot of Indians actually do, in a way, look at him in some kind of divine light. I'm really not kidding. I mean, people have written about this. So, there are a lot of people who feel he just can't do wrong, he can't do any wrong, and that you have to trust him because, ultimately, he'll do the right thing for us. That is what is happening in India right now. And the fact that you have a weak political opposition feeds into that, because they're not able to effectively channel the genuine anger people may have on, say, the handling of the economy, the lack of any sort of packages on the ground to help the poor and the middle class after the pandemic, etc. So, there may be anger on that. But it's not Modi's fault, it's not Mr. Modi's fault, you know. So, that that's what's happening here. It'd be interesting to see how that plays out among Indian Americans also.


Milan  37:25

Yeah, I mean, just another data point: we've been involved in this multi-year study of gender, social change, and urbanization in North India, so we've been doing these surveys in four states and four cities. And because of COVID, we decided, we already are in touch with these households, let's do a phone survey and see how they're doing. So, we did this just in Bihar and Jharkhand. And the results hopefully will be out in the next couple of weeks. But one of the initial things that you see is when you ask people, "How do you rate the performance of the central government during this COVID period?" I mean, the numbers are off the charts in both states, across age groups, across genders, across other demographic categories. So, notwithstanding the fact that both Bihar and Jharkhand in some ways bore the brunt of a lot of the migrant crisis - I mean, those are the places where a lot about migration is happening, obviously relatively poor states, they have weaker health, infrastructure, and so on and so forth. For the central government, the usual politics - "usual" meaning most democratic societies have this kind of policy of accountability - doesn't seem to be operative. But let me just end with one more question, and this is a question about Kashmir - not what's happening in Kashmir, but more the international dimension. I recorded a conversation with Ashley Tellis, which will come out just before yours, and this is something Ashley has said in the past, but he was even more forthright this time, saying "Do not underestimate the role that the abrogation of Article 370 had on Chinese motivations along the border." And I know that's a disputed narrative, but it's something that he strongly believes in. One of the things you hear in this election - I'm from Houston, Texas, which has a big Indian American population, and I talked to my friend's parents and so on and so forth, and many people are raising Kashmir, saying the Democratic Party cannot be trusted when it comes to U.S.-India relations. Because whether it's Kamala Harris, whether it's Pramila Jayapal, whether it's the party itself - they came out and questioned the abrogation and how it was done. Are we underplaying to a certain extent the international ramifications of what happened in Kashmir? You know, a lot of the focus of the reporting I've seen is really on what's happening domestically. Arguably there hasn't been enough reporting on even that. But do you think there's something to this international story?


Nidhi  40:06

I have a sort of nuanced view on this - because you still allow nuance on your show.


Milan  40:12

This week. Maybe not next week. 


Nidhi  40:14

See, there are a couple of things. Firstly, the ending of Jammu and Kashmir's special status was a huge, tectonic event, right, and this is something that led to - to not just me, but in the whole, it led to the internationalization of the Kashmir issue in a way that we had never seen before. Indian diplomats, the government have always been loath to have this issue internationalized, basically telling the world that it's none of your business, it's between India and Pakistan, and so on. So one is that the issue got internationalized. India invited handpick diplomats to come and see things for themselves. And this was unprecedented. It had never happened before. What China is doing right now, I don't know whether it was just the abrogation of 370 or the dilution of 370 that has led to what they're doing on the borders. I think there is a very strong view, which I think I subscribe to, which is that, given the way Chinese expansion is designed, the trajectory that China was on in any case, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Chinese had done this anyway. I don't think that some of the things that were said after the 370 move last year helped. It may have maybe added to that. But I wouldn't have been surprised if the Chinese had tried to do this anyway. There was a certain path that they were on, you could see that with the way that they're dealing with other powers as well. So that's how I see that part of it. As far as, you know, this view on Democrats and Kashmir is concerned, I think it's extremely unfortunate that that there are - I mean, Kashmir has become a sort of nationalist issue, and there's a danger when you see it only through a nationalist prism, because people like Kamala Harris or Pramila Jayapal were actually talking more about what India was doing in Kashmir in terms of the communication blackout, in terms of the mass detentions of people, including political leaders, and just the sheer number of security forces. You still don't have full speed internet back in Jammu and Kashmir, not just Kashmir in Jammu as well, only a couple of districts and it's been more than a year. You still have a lot of political leaders. You have a former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who's still under detention under the law, and that should not be okay for any democracy. I say that as an Indian, I say that as a Kashmiri. If we pride ourselves as the world's largest democracy, we cannot be okay with denying fundamental rights to our own people in Jammu and Kashmir, whether it is the internet, whether it is the freedom to move, the freedom to speak. So, that is something that I have seen over the last year, that sort of nationalist sentiment that the BJP has played on and has been very touchy about. I think the reason why a lot of prominent people, not just in the U.S. but in the EU as well, asked some tough questions of India's conduct is because you expect better from India. India is not Pakistan, India is not Saudi Arabia, and India is not China. So, I think there are far greater expectations of us as the world's largest democracy. And, you know, that's a separate podcast, Milan. Like, I could talk for hours on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. But it has been internationalized like never before. That's a fact. And it has been internationalized by the Government of India itself, the moment it invited foreign diplomats and foreign leaders to come in and supposedly see things for themselves. It opened the doors for international commentary on this.


Milan  44:19

I'll just say as a final comment - I often get this pushback from some of my Indian friends that, you know, the U.S. shouldn't really be meddling, or U.S. lawmakers shouldn't be meddling in India's domestic affairs. To which I often tell them, you know, there is no prohibition on Indian civil society or, frankly, even the Indian government raising concerns and questions about human rights abuses in the United States, whether it's Guantanamo Bay or whether it's on the streets of major cities, racial discrimination, violence, other things. And I frankly think, you know, a democracy audit of the United States would be a very useful thing. I think it's precisely friends who are able to kind of say these things to one another, but I think that - in this polarized world we've been talking about - often gets lost. 


My guest on the show today is Nidhi Razdan. She for more than two decades was a regular presence on NDTV, until June 2020. She was the executive editor of the channel. She is now an associate professor of journalism at Harvard. Nidhi, thanks so much for taking the time. I know that everyone's life has been kind of turned upside down, but we wish you all the best in the coming semester. And hopefully you can get to Cambridge, and I look forward to meeting up in person.


Nidhi  45:48

Thank you very much for having me on the show Milan. It was lovely to talk to you. And thank you, and I'm looking forward to all your surveys on the U.S. election. Let's see what they show.