Grand Tamasha

Sadanand Dhume and Tanvi Madan on the Quad, Indian Democracy, and Modi's Economic Reforms

Episode Summary

This week, the roundup trio is back to discuss three topics: last week’s heads-of-state summit of the “Quad” countries; recent, controversial assessments on the health of Indian democracy; and the Modi government’s renewed economic reforms push. 

Episode Notes

This week on the podcast, Milan is joined once more by Grand Tamasha “news round-up” regulars Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal and Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution. This week, the trio discuss three topics: last week’s heads-of-state summit of the “Quad” countries; recent, controversial assessments on the health of Indian democracy; and the Modi government’s renewed economic reforms push.  


Plus, the three offer recommendations for Indian cultural exports that sustained them during the pandemic.  


Episode Transcription

Milan  00:11

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 every month of this pandemic feels like a year, we have not seen our news roundup regulars for many, many years now, so today we are getting the band back together. Today on the show, I'm joined once more by Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal and Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution. Friends, good to see you on this little Zoom screen. Welcome back to the show. 



Good to be back.


Tanvi  00:40

It's good to be back! And happy New Year.


Milan  00:42

Happy New Year, indeed. We are going to discuss three topics today. The first is last week's heads of state summit of the so-called Quad countries; number two, recent controversial assessments, I would say, on the health of Indian democracy; and number three, we'll end with a discussion of the Modi government's recent economic reforms push. But let's start with foreign policy. On Friday, the four Quad countries – the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – met for the first time at the leadership level. Sadanand, let me start with you. This was a summit that took place almost within the first 50 days of the administration. Is the elevation of this grouping and the fact that it happened so early in this administration an important sign? And if so, what is it a sign of?



I think it is an important sign. I think it's an important sign of at least two things. The first is that I think it puts to rest the notion that somehow the Biden administration may take the Indo-Pacific less seriously than the Trump administration. I think it very clearly signals that the Indo-Pacific is absolutely central to their foreign policy. (There are obviously many other things also reinforcing that signal, including the forthcoming trip to Japan and South Korea by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense.) And it also suggests that India is going to remain an important facet of this Indo-Pacific strategy. Many people have pointed out that there would be perhaps greater room for friction between the U.S. and India under a Biden administration, not only on economic issues but also on issues of democracy and human rights, which I'm sure we'll get into. However, I think what this says very clearly is that the administration will at the same time keep its eye on the main prize, which is a strong relationship with India, as part of the Quad aimed at the country that cannot be named.


Milan  02:47

Tanvi, you have many titles. You are Quadologist-in-Chief; I just came up with Doyen of Quadologists; Queen Quad is another one that you've been called. In other words, you have been watching this emergent group, I think, for quite a number of years now. Many commentators have derided the Quad historically as a talk shop, as window dressing or a group that is kind of searching for a mission. You have taken a very different view in your recent writing and in your recent comments. Tell us why you think some of these hot takes are a little bit off base.


Tanvi  03:23

I will say, many of those titles make it sound like, you know, it's a cult, and I'm the leader of the cult, and it is actually quite reflective, in some ways. People actually thought this was just kind of a little grouping that wouldn't last. Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, famously said that the Indo-Pacific approaches that the Quad was part of were like “seafoam” that would dissipate. And that was in March 2018. But it has gone from this concept to something that has got the imprimatur of the highest levels. 


I mean, I think a lot of the criticism – some of that criticism is reasonable, and so I don't think it should be dismissed. I think it actually suggest to the Quad that it needs to put things on the table. But I think that criticism often stems from measuring the Quad against what an alliance does. We know what a NATO looks like – it is a collective security alliance, the countries have security obligations to each other – and when you measure it against that, it seems like it is meaningless or window dressing. 


But I think it's important to remember what as much as what the Quad is – and I think the four leaders did a good job in their Washington Post op-ed of at least defining explicitly what it is – it's also important to remember what the Quad is not, which is, it's not an alliance or an Asian meetup. It is a grouping or a coalition of the willing and capable. They share and they have shared – albeit not identical – visions of the Indo-Pacific, and they see rising challenges, particularly from Chinese behavior, to that kind of rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. So, this is, I think, what we'll see a lot more of, which is an interest-based coalition, a flexible coalition that will consult, it will coordinate, and it will cooperate. And I think it should be measured in terms of its outcomes in each of those realms. 


So, you have seen the countries actually deliver on that, and hopefully, they will deliver more after this summer. There will be people, though, who will say, “Well, the Quad doesn't do anything.” And I will just say, we're not going to see everything that the Quad will do, but also there are some things that you're investing in now that will pay off in the future. So, I'll just give one example. One of the things people say is, “So, these countries do a lot of military exercises, either as the four of them or with each other or trilateral. What's the point?” Well, let me give you the example of the 2004 tsunami. Today, if that happened again, these four countries wouldn't have to cobble together a group to try to deal with this, an ad hoc group. They would just be more effective and quicker about dealing with something like a tsunami today because they now have the ability to work with each other.


Milan  06:24

You raise this issue of delivery: what is this group going to deliver in concrete terms? Can you tell us a little bit about what this group accomplished or signaled last Friday and what sort of initiatives that portends on the horizon?


Tanvi  06:40

So, I think the big headline was the vaccine initiative from the four countries, and I actually think it was quite smart in making that the headline. It helped portray a few different things. One is that it helps emphasize that the Quad has a positive agenda, that it is coming together to deliver solutions to challenges – in this case, a very urgent challenge – in the region. It is also kind of a proof of concept of what Quad cooperation can do – that these are four countries who can pool capabilities. They have different comparative advantages, whether that's the production of vaccines, the ability to finance, the logistics, and instead of every country trying to do all of this, in terms of the vaccine distribution, production and distribution pipeline, these countries will burden-share. So, it is not about the U.S. doing extra, it is about understanding that each of these countries can't do these things alone. It's showing that this is what the Quad can do to benefit the region through these countries working together. 


What's also interesting, and hasn't gotten much notice, is that they emphasize that they will not just do this as the Quad but will also work with existing institutions and vehicles like COVAX and the WHO, and not around them – alluding to the fact that, you know, China sometimes does. The vaccine initiative also, I think, helps cut into Chinese criticism that this is just a destabilizing body that is all about geopolitics. It will help also develop connections because there's going to be a working group that is set up to actually implement this and design this initiative. You're going to get a lot more people – it's multisectoral. You get habits of cooperation amongst many different stakeholders, and I think that's helpful. 


I think another [important outcome is the announcement of the] working groups on critical and emerging technology and on climate change. The climate change one, I think, perhaps is in there because of the Biden administration's priorities, but nonetheless, if that's what gets American buy-in... And then, I think, again, the stuff that we don't see. It gave the four countries a chance to touch base on China, and while they didn't mention it in their official statements, on background, each of the countries said that, “Yes, China was discussed.” Their problems with China were discussed. 


And then, it's not an outcome per se, but I think building on what Sadanand said, it met two tests, this meeting. One, actually, is that this is the first change of government that the Quad has experienced since it was revived in 2017. There was a change in Japan from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Prime Minister Suga, but this is the first change in party, and the Quad has survived it. I think the other thing is, it has met the test of concern about India as the weakest link – that, you know, whenever India's got something nice happening with China, it's a sensitive moment. In talks with China, India will back down, India will be reluctant. Well, here India agreed to first a ministerial and then a leader-level summit, even as it's in the process of very sensitive disengagement talks with the Chinese. So, I think that's helpful, too.


Milan  10:09

I mean, you mentioned climate change. What's interesting about that is, it may have been in there at the insistence of the U.S., but this is an area that the U.S. under Obama and the Modi government cooperated quite closely on, and the Indians felt a little bit like they were left holding the bag when the Trump administration walked out of the Paris Climate Accords. So, in some sense, it's a reaffirmation of this pre-existing dimension of cooperation. 


Sadanand, let me just turn to you for a second and ask you about New Delhi's calculations. I think there have been some Western analysts – and you've seen these quotes in the press – they've argued that what last week's developments really do is they prove that non-alignment is dead, that Delhi has kind of moved on from this dogma that has colored a lot of its foreign policy for 70 years. Is there some truth to this, or do you think this is kind of wishful thinking?



No, unfortunately. Non-alignment is a bit like a character from a horror movie, and it keeps getting resurrected every few years even though people may try hard to drive a stake into its heart. I think, though, it is fair to say that non-alignment is going through a dormant phase, shall we say. We all remember the report, I think it was nine years ago, in 2012, the NonAlignment 2.0 report that came out in the heyday of the previous UPA government, and it seemed as though India was deliberately, un-self-consciously seeking to forge a path between the U.S. and China and not get caught up in their rivalry. We've seen a lot of a lot of progress since then. What we've seen with the Quad is probably the single best marker, and the way we've seen it develop between 2017 and the most recent meeting. 


But whether we judge non-alignment to be dead or not, I think a lot has to do with what your benchmark is. And building on something that Tanvi had mentioned, if you want to view the U.S. relationship with India, or even the Western relationship with India, through the prism of traditional alliances, then India is always going to look a little bit shy, because even though it's part of the Quad, it's also going to be part of BRICS, it's also going to always try to keep its options open. And the fact also is that there's a pretty strong consensus in Indian foreign policy circles that India would like to see a multipolar world in which it is one of the poles. So, that makes it different from, say, Japan or Australia. 


So, if you're judging it along those parameters, then India is always going to at least have this slight flavor of non-alignment. But if, however, you're looking at recent developments, or developments over the past few years, measured against India's own foreign policy, it seems very clear to me that the tilt toward the U.S. is pronounced and unapologetic at this moment.


Milan  13:25

Sadanand, you raised earlier the consternation among some in Delhi about the resurgence of democracy and human rights on the American agenda under a new presidency. This is a good segue to our second topic. There have been two new reports – one by the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House, the other by the Swedish V-Dem Institute, the Varieties of Democracy Institute – both published in the last two weeks, and both have rather choice words, I think, for the state of Indian democracy. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free.” It's the first time since the mid-1990s that India has been downgraded. V-Dem proclaimed that India is no longer an electoral democracy – it's now classified according to their ratings as “electoral autocracy.” We've seen a lot of pushback on both of these reports, officially and unofficially, by the government and by the ruling party. Sadanand, let me start with you. How much stock do you think we should put in these ratings?



I think we should definitely put stock. I think the ratings themselves are pointing toward some very real and disturbing developments. I can understand the outrage in the ruling party in India, and I can understand the outrage on the street too. First of all, nobody likes their democracy to be described as somehow less of a democracy than others, and there's also a very widespread notion in India that what makes a country democratic is elections, and even the V-Dem report acknowledges that when it comes to elections, when it comes to the ability to hold free and fair polls, Indian democracy is doing quite well. The problem really lies in the erosion of civil liberties. 


And here, even if you take a skeptical view and allow that there is an element of subjectivity in how we judge the erosion of civil liberties, I do think that it's very, very hard to argue the counterfactual. You cannot, really, with a straight face – I don't think even the most avid BJP fan on Twitter can argue with a straight face that civil liberties in India have really improved over the last four years, or that press freedom is better than it used to be. It's simply not true. Some of these erosions are very clear, or obvious – they spring up in the news, in the most high-profile cases. But even some of the cases that are less high-profile – there’s this sort of steady drip, drip, drip. 


The question I have for the people who are skeptical about this is that, why does it come across as though they seem to care much more about India's image in the international arena than they seem to actually care about the civil liberties, the rights, themselves? So, the problem is never, “Well, why were some activists tossed into jail on sedition charges?” The problem is always, “Why did those pesky foreigners point this out?” And my own view is that if the government weren’t doing these things, the pesky foreigners wouldn't be pointing these things out.


Milan  16:43

Tanvi, I alluded to earlier the fact that the Government of India has harshly criticized both reports. They rebutted their claims that democracy is somehow on the ropes or is ailing, and yet there has been a persistent chorus of a fairly diverse set of voices from around the world echoing, I think, many of the messages carried in these reports. And so I'm wondering – you've studied Indian foreign policy, how it relates with Indian domestic policy, public diplomacy, PR. Does any of this matter in a broader sense? Is this fodder just for academics and think tank folks and the Twitter warriors? Or is there something deeper at play here that could materially affect India's trajectory?


Tanvi  17:29

So, obviously, there is a debate about this even within the Indian government, because in the last 72 hours or so, you've heard the Indian External Affairs Minister say, “We don't care about all this, and it doesn't matter, and it's irrelevant,” but then you've heard the Indian Vice President say, “Don't do things that are going to spoil India's image.” 


And part of it, I think, is that India's image, particularly as a democracy, and its status as a democracy – I think there's a recognition that it is part of India's USP [unique selling proposition]. After all, even during his initial Quad remarks, Prime Minister Modi highlighted democratic values and the fact that the four countries are democracies. He was the one to bring it up as what makes this grouping special. So, I think, in that sense, this is why these discussions keep coming up. So, when people say, “Well, why does Saudi Arabia get away with X and India doesn't?” – it's because India itself says, “Hold us against the standard,” in some ways. 


Having said that, I think that to a number of India's like-minded partners, it does matter, but not to the degree that I think some of their publics or some critics in India might want. And you saw this with the Quad meeting with the U.S., Australia, and Japan – the UK this week will come up with its integrated review, with a call for deepening the UK-India partnership. And while these countries might have concerns and criticisms, I think they have a number of other imperatives with India, whether those are strategic or economic or kind of more in the global sphere, and when they're weighing trade-offs, those things take priority rather than these questions of values. I think they're also somewhat circumspect about their ability to actually affect change. I think there is a view that certain things that are priorities for the Modi government domestically, particularly in domestic politics – there's very little that can actually stop them if they're wedded to it. 


Though, you can say, “Well, as long as India is useful, as long as India maintains its utility to these countries, it won't matter as much as their policies.” But I will say that these questions about India's trajectory as a pluralistic democracy could directly or indirectly affect the pace and tone of these relationships that it has with these various countries, especially if they are accompanied by doubts about India's capabilities, its economic growth and policies, and its willingness to play a balancing role versus China. So, if these doubts could grow – you could see the effort that these countries are willing to make, the exceptions they're willing to make for India; you can see their legislatures, their constituencies within them, including in the private sector, they have been supportive or the diasporas – I think you could see reduced enthusiasm and also concern about the spill over into, for example, private sector regulations, etc. So, I don't think there's a simple answer to whether it matters. It's a complex one, but one that can't be dismissed one way or the other.


Milan  21:20

I mean, I think you made the point on previous episodes that it's not only about affecting what the U.S. and India, say, have underway at the moment and kind of turning it on or turning off, but it could also affect the momentum or enthusiasm about starting new things or new initiatives.


Tanvi  21:42

A very practical aspect of this – if you are an Indian diplomat in any of these major capitols in the world, you have limited bandwidth and capacity, and you are spending a lot of that on defense. And you're spending a lot of that time explaining why some of your behavior is not like China's, where you've been saying for years that India is actually the “un-China,” so to speak. So, it's very practical stuff like that, as well, where I think it does make a difference.


Milan  22:14

I mean, I remember talking to an Indian Foreign Service Officer around the Citizenship Amendment Act protests in 2019 and all the discussions about the All-Indian National Register of Citizens, and this was exactly the point that she made: “I'd like to be doing X, Y, and Z, but instead, I'm having to [deploy] my limited diplomatic capital, as it were, discussing why the government is doing these things.” 


Sadanand, Tanvi mentioned the external affair minister's comments – these were made in part at the India Today Conclave – and he made the point that both of these reports we've been discussing talk about democracy and autocracy, but the truth is, in his words, they're really full of hypocrisy. He claims that both of these reports are put out by Western organizations that have their own agenda, and that furthermore, the West has certainly experienced – not least the United States – its own fair share of democratic backsliding. Is there some truth to this charge of hypocrisy?



Look, it's a great line. It's an eminently tweetable line. Let's give Dr. Jaishankar credit for that. But beyond that, it's analytically completely hollow. Because if you look at the Freedom House report, and if you look at the V-Dem report, it's not as though these are reports that are saying, “Democracy in India is being eroded, but it's doing wonderfully in all these other places, because go West!” Right? I mean, the Freedom House report spends more time talking about problems in U.S. democracy, the events on Capitol Hill on January sixth, what Trump has meant, declining scores in the U.S.… They talk about how democracy has been declining in many countries, and in fact, the quality of democracy has been declining since 2006. So, to argue that either Freedom House or V-Dem are out there picking on India while acting as cheerleaders for the West because they happen to be based in Western countries is simply not true. 


I can understand the foreign minister's need to play to a domestic audience. I mean, unfortunately, that's what that job has really become over the last seven years in India, where there's a sort of constant need to play to the gallery at home. But if you look at it analytically, it's simply not true. Anybody who reads those reports will tell you that the concerns are broader, and that many of the concerns that have been expressed about what's happening in India have also been expressed about other countries. Now, there's a separate debate to be had about the way these reports are written and the people who write them, whether they are too narrowly chosen. For example, let's step away from India for a moment and look at a country like Hungary. Now, many of the policies that have been put in place by Viktor Orbán will probably be seen as quite popular with the Hungarian public, yet Hungary is seen as a country that is slipping towards autocracy – in fact, very, very similar to how India is seen. And you can imagine a kind of intellectual argument where people debate what exactly constitutes a healthy democracy and what doesn't, and I think that's a legitimate debate to have. But the way this was framed by the foreign minister as Western countries or organizations in Western countries picking on India in some way – I think that's frankly ridiculous.


Tanvi  25:54

I actually think it's also reasonable – in fact, it would actually be a good thing – for Indians to assess what's going on, for example, in the U.S., because the US has become an important partner, if not the single most important partner for India. And what happens here in domestic politics in terms of whether polarization affects various kinds of policies, for example, or whether it affects things like immigration policy, or the safety of Indian citizens – these things matter. What does polarization do to America's ability to play a role in the world? It's absolutely reasonable for India to ask those questions, and I think in fact India should ask these questions. There should be think tanks working on these things. But I think it needs to be seen in that spirit. Part of the reason these countries care about these things... Are there groups who have, you know, organizations that are designed for this? Yes. But there isn't a grand conspiracy. 


And it is somewhat disappointing to see a new India that is supposed to be more confident harken back to the days of Indira Gandhi and the “foreign hand,” with the chief economic advisor writing that in his ten years in the U.S., he has seen no proof that the U.S. is out to support India's rise. Whereas you have the prime minister actually saying in his own statements that, yes, the U.S. is actually an indispensable partner for India's rise and has been helpful, including in getting it into various international organizations, not to mention selling it advanced military technology – maybe not everything you want, but a significant amount. So, I do think it's reasonable to ask questions of our partners – India asks questions of its own neighbors as well. And so I think it's just the reality, and I wish people would not – maybe it's done for domestic political reasons, but I wish people would not overreact so much. It just brings more attention to these criticisms through the Streisand effect.


Milan  28:08

Tanvi, I think you pointed out that there has been a lot of unease in India over the fact that in the United Kingdom, British parliamentarians were debating the farmer protests and the handling of those protests. And just today, in fact, the Indian Parliament was asking questions about racist violence and incidents in the United Kingdom. So, that kind of speaks to your first point that this is a two-way street, and India can certainly exercise its option to talk about the grotesque human rights abuses that take place in the United States. That, of course, is something which both the V-Dem and Freedom House reports also harp on. 


Let me transition here to our third and final topic, which is economic reforms. Sadanand, I was rereading a Wall Street Journal column that you wrote on March 4, and the very start of the column starts with the following line: “Nearly seven years after he was first elected, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally appears ready to place the private sector at the heart of his development model.” You have been, I think it's fair to say, quite critical of many of Modi's economic policies over the past seven years. What accounts for your changed outlook and the idea that maybe there's a kind of new chapter being written?



Well, I'm not sure my outlook has entirely changed. The purpose of the column was to try and make sense of several different things that have been happening. Of course, you have the agricultural reforms, which I've written about separately and we've discussed, which have been covered quite extensively in the Western media. But you also have the fact that India has been raising tariffs for almost four years now; you've got this ambitious program of production-linked incentives, which is a bid to attract manufacturers to India by giving them incentives based on certain industry sectors that the government has prioritized; you have some changes to the labor laws. And so you have a series of things. You have a very ambitious privatization program that the government has declared that it is in favor of. It says, for example, that the default is going to be to privatize large numbers of state-owned companies and, in fact, remain only in for “strategic” sectors. You have the fact that India is about to embark upon its first bank privatization since the nationalizations of 1969. 


So, if you take all of this together, I think it adds up to fairly ambitious economic program, and I think in many ways, it hasn't been given the attention it deserves for a couple of reasons. First of all, because a lot of these programs have been disparate – so, the idea of what I was trying to do was just bring it all together in one column. But the second reason is that because the cultural agenda of the government has been, shall we say, shrill since its re-election in 2019, that really sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the coverage about India, and so people have been paying less attention to the economic story. Now, I have mixed feelings. I think some of what they are trying to do is excellent. I think some of this is something that we will only be able to judge in the years ahead – if it works out, then we could probably judge the success, but there's a good chance that it may not work out the way they say. It's certainly early days in terms of success. 


But I do think that there is enough evidence at this point to suggest that there is a new push toward economic revitalization. Elements of it are elements of the traditional reform agenda that people have been talking about for a long time, and elements of it – particularly this combination of production-linked incentives and higher tariffs – kind of harken to more of an East Asian model of development. Either way, I think it's significant, and that's what I chose to write about.


Milan  32:25

So, Tanvi, I want to ask you about a kind of a clear dichotomy that's opening up – and Sadanand mentioned this, too. On the one hand, at home, we're seeing greater reforms that allow for increased space for market forces. But when you think about India's positioning toward the outside world, this new budget seems to double down on the trade barriers and protectionism that we've seen over the past several years. Is there a coherent strategy at work in thinking about how this all hangs together? And if so, does it seem sustainable to you?


Tanvi  32:58

I think where the inspiration comes from is what Sadanand talked about, which was what the East Asians did. Or, at least, what the thinking about what the East Asians did is. [Not just the small East Asian countries but China itself, which has been an inspiration.] But I do think we live in a different world. In some sense, you have to ask the question, are the same opportunities available today that were available then? And if not, how do you adjust?... But then there also has to be this recognition that there has now been a backlash globally about China's policies, including the lack of reciprocity, unlimited market access, etc. India is not the only country debating this. 


I think the other dichotomy is talking about being part of global supply chains – which we've talked about this before on the podcast – while also wanting “self-reliant India,” Atmanirbhar Bharat. And the government's trying to square the circle and the rhetoric. It's not protectionism, but that's how it's read in many places. There will be some companies – the production-linked incentives can even work in some areas where there's a big enough Indian market and the large companies are invested. So, you know, there's been recent developments with Apple and its suppliers or subcontractors – Foxconn, especially – buying into this, but I think the question is, is India really taking advantage enough, or is it missing an opportunity because of this dichotomy? 


So, if you're a company looking for a big domestic market, and perhaps to export, then India might make sense, but there are a lot of other industries where you will see Southeast Asian countries – or even Bangladesh, for that matter – be more attractive to a lot of these companies looking for a “China plus one” strategy or just another place to invest. So, one question is: there's an opportunity. India can fill it? Not just with the big companies, but with different sizes of companies, some who've never invested in India – can you attract those companies? Because even with the production-linked incentives schemes, at some point, if you are increasing high import duties for inputs, or even for intermediate inputs, it's not going to be convincing to tell many companies, “Bring your entire supply chains to India, forget the Southeast Asians.” That's going to be less effective. 


Where you see this laid out pretty starkly, in terms of there [being] a window of opportunity and India really [needing] to think about how to take advantage of it, is Pramit Pal Chaudhuri's very good piece in the Hindustan Times about developing technical alliances between various countries, and that India could really take advantage of that to become a hub. But it would really need to rethink these dichotomies that it has set itself up with.


Milan  36:36

So, Sadanand, let me ask you – Tanvi, you can jump in as well if you feel like it – what are the milestones that you'll be looking for that will help convince you that this time, the government really is serious about implementing reform? [What milestones] would kind of rebalance the relationship between the state and private capital?



That's a great question. I think the answer in some ways is quite simple: are they going to follow through with what they say they want to do? They say they're going to privatize two state-owned banks this year. Are they really going to do it? They have been promising to privatize Air India since 2017. Are they going to be successful this time? Are they going to go through with the ambitious privatization program that the finance minister has outlined? Are the agricultural reforms going to hold? Or are they going to be thwarted by the Supreme Court, or will the government get cold feet and back down? They've said that they are willing to suspend them for 18 months to 24 months, in which case, they're spayed, they're basically dead in the water. 


So, what we've seen in the past with Modi is that he can be very good with reform-friendly rhetoric, and I think at this point, after he's been in office for seven years, it's perfectly fair to actually see what is implemented on the ground and what is followed through with before we judge these to be successful or not. I, personally, like Tanvi, am a bit skeptical about their attempt to become a part of global supply chains while at the same time erecting these high tariff barriers, having walked out of RCEP a couple of years ago – which means that India is not part of either RCEP or the TPP, the two major trade arrangements that involve much of Asia, whereas a country like Vietnam, which has been very aggressive about going after supply chain diversification for companies leaving China, is a member of both. So, I mean, there are questions that we should keep raising, but let me just say this: if they successfully do everything that they have said that they want to do, that will be a pretty big deal.


Tanvi  39:10

I will be watching where Indian discussions with various counterparts stand on, even if not trade agreements – though there's some of that could be possible, some bilateral trade discussions might go forward – but even if not trade discussions, there are a whole series of investment agreements that have been talked about. So, I'll be watching some of those negotiations, some of which have been going on for ages, [toward which] the government has shown some skepticism. 


And one could argue, look, at the end of the day, every country is led by politicians who do need to think about the domestic politics of these agreements or their policies as a whole. But a politician like Prime Minister Modi has political capital. Is he willing to use it to the expand the economic pie down the line? So, how that slice is divvied up between foreign and domestic [actors] is obviously the focus, but if you expand it, then everybody's getting more. So, I will be looking at some of these trade negotiations between India and the U.S. – there's a big EU-India summit in May, but also with some countries like, for example, Australia, or some of the discussions even with ASEAN about renewing talks, and the UK, of course...


Milan  40:34

Not to mention the United States, right, where there is some hope that, short of a large trade deal, some of the irritants in the bilateral trade relationship that have cropped up – that the Trump administration was pretty close to solving but ultimately could not – could get resolved or dealt with in the early months of this new administration. 


Let me conclude by doing something a little bit different this week. I think all three of us are celebrating – celebrating may be the wrong word, but commemorating – our one-year pandemic-versary. I think, for me, the last day in the office was March 13. I've been working from home ever since. I think it was the same for both of you. Culture is one of the things that has been sustaining people during their hibernation. We are seeing an explosion of Indian cultural exports right now: Netflix series, Amazon series – Tanvi, you and I have discussed the pros and cons of new Trader Joe's snack foods which are available. Let me ask you, is there a bit of recent Indian culture that you would like to recommend to our listeners? Tanvi, do you have anything that's excited you lately?


Tanvi  41:46

I mean, more facetiously, I could say the rasmalai that is now available at Costco more widely.


Milan  41:54

Is there really rasmalai at Costco?


Tanvi  41:56




Is it good?


Tanvi  41:57

The only problem is it comes in a massive bag, so you have questions about whether you can open it and eat it. So, yes, that's the food suggestion that I'd have.



That is dangerous information, Tanvi.


Tanvi  42:14

Useful information! It should not be said that you don't learn anything useful and actionable on Grand Tamasha. I would say, for your American audience, a Netflix show that hasn't gotten as much attention but is lighthearted and fun – it's a bit cliched – is Masaba Masaba. Usually, the Indian TV shows that get attention here are kind of dark crime thrillers, and they're all very good, but this is a bit more lighthearted, and it’s worth watching – and as far as I know it’s still on Netflix because it hasn't offended anybody's sensibilities. For your Indian audience, the COVID-era discovery that I made is kadhi masks, which are great and have wonderful patterns and designs and are obviously natural fibers. 


Milan  43:10

Wonderful. What about you, Sadanand?



Well, I'm going to stick with an Indo-American collaboration, in the spirit of Quad week. I really enjoyed The White Tiger. I thought that it was true to the book. I thought Adarsh Gourav, who plays the main protagonist, the memorably named Balram Hawai, was quite excellent. I think he really just got into the skin of that character and habited it perfectly. So, I guess it's an Indian export, but it's also an Indian import, but... It's Indian, in some important ways, and I think it was well made.


Tanvi  43:49

Sadanand almost sounded like the dad in Goodness Gracious Me, the British comedy show, who thought everything was Indian, even the queen.



You know my views on that.


Milan  44:02

So, my recommendation is an old one. One of the things that I have discovered during this pandemic is a new app called Libby. I don't know if you guys know about it – it's the public library app, and if you have a library card, you can for free download audio books and digital books to your e-reader. And so it's been a fantastic way of reading – mainly listening, because I'm spending a lot of time walking my dogs. And I have gone back in anticipation of Jhumpa Lahiri's new book – which is coming out in April, it's called Whereabouts – gone back and listen to three of her previous books, Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, and The LowlandThe Namesake I haven't gotten to yet. And it’s just a reminder of what a fantastic writer she is – heartbreaking in some ways, not exactly always the most uplifting literature in this very grim time. But these are all books that I read and enjoyed, and funnily enough, I feel like I'm getting more value out of them listening to them and engaging with them a second time. So, I'll link to the app and to the books. But highly recommend. 


My guests on the show this week are Sadanand Dhume of AEI and the Wall Street Journal and Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution. Guys, it's been a long time since we've had you on the show. Thank you so much for coming back, and I look forward to the next round-up.


Tanvi  45:29

Thanks, Milan.



Thanks, Milan.