Browncast Episode 73: Conversation with Sadanand Dhume

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Sadanand Dhume crop.jpgWe chat with American Enterprise Institute’s Sadanand Dhume (who also writes for the Wall Street Journal) about Konkani Brahmins, Hindutva, Ram Mandir, Babri Masjid, Indian culture wars and anything else that comes up.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

24 thoughts on “Browncast Episode 73: Conversation with Sadanand Dhume”

  1. I think I got a better idea of the kind of man Dhume is from the podcast. He’s basically a center-Lefty with some libertarian leanings. He’s not a culture warrior like Roy or Mishra, or even Ayyub. In fact, it seems he doesn’t index much on culture at all.

    I think a lot of that stems naturally from his affluent, deracinated origins. Still, that makes him ill-suited to be a figure of importance in the current India, which is undergoing rapid sociocultural change and political tumult.

    I have never liked Dhume’s commentary, which tends towards banalities and bromides. I can honestly say I have emerged stupider from every column of his that I have read. So from that low bar, I’d say this podcast made me like him a little more.

    1. I share much of Dhume’s worldview and politics. The guy is a long time WSJ columnist and a member of the American Enterprise Institute, both stalwart bastions of the American Right since, forever. But because he won’t succumb to illiberalism, authoritarianism, and perennial Muslim-bashing, that makes him a center-Lefty in your book.

      It’s your thinking that’s warped, HMB. I know that’s not going to register (because I think you need Modi and his politics for psychological support), but I have to put it on record.

      1. It’s funny that you say that, because my stickied Tweet is a snide, pessimistic attack on how the BJP is handling the economy.

        I probably have similar views on economic affairs to Dhume. The difference is that I understand the context and importance of Hindu cultural resurgence, and Dhume does not.

      2. Numinous, a significant role in the economic and political development of any society involves sacrifices one generation makes for the sake of others. This goes beyond the technicalities of setting the right policies and building the right infrastructure. In fact, this sacrificial, psychological element very often overcomes policy and infrastructure shortcomings. And the driver for this sacrificial psychology is very often some kind of cultural identification.

        Also, can you be more substantive in your claim that the BJP is more illiberal than the Congress ? Remember that not challenging petitions against the criminalization of homosexuality, relief for women victimized by their husbands were all options available to the Congress, which they explicitly refused to take. How many times did a Congress PM take to the podium of Red Fort and speak about open defecation ? Did the Congress at any time give (non-dynastic) women key cabinet positions like Finance and External Affairs ?

        A lot of India’s illiberal laws remain and the BJP has shown no desire to revoke them. But I will argue that the Congress’s illiberalism had deeper roots, since their key vote bank was socially, not just politically illiberal. Giving women affected by Triple Talaq justice and decriminalizing homosexuality would have directly cost the Congress votes, which would have gone to regional caste parties like the SP.

        1. I’ve never been a supporter of the Congress, so don’t throw that at me.

          I don’t have a substantive disagreement with you about a generation needing to sacrifice for the next generation, and that cultural identification makes such sacrifice easier. But the nature of the sacrifice, its very requirement, and whether or not such sacrifice will produce desired outcomes, requires rational analysis, not emotional knee-jerk decisions. What I see happening now are top-down diktats about what kinds of sacrifices we all must be put through, rather than a reasoned conversation between government and public, and among the public. That in itself is symptomatic of illiberalism.

          On to more specific things (if you have the time or the stomach to read all of the below text!)

          I’m not aware anyone in the BJP challenged laws criminalizing homosexuality. The Courts struck down those laws and the BJP just didn’t make a big deal about it.

          Yeah, the Congress has been bad when it comes to letting the most conservative Muslims have their way. But looking at the larger picture, are you really sure the BJP is progressive when it comes to women’s rights in general? Who’s been targeting couples for holding hands, kissing, Valentine’s Day, etc. over the past couple of decades? Congress vigilantes or right-wing Hindus? Who’s been on a never-ending screech about “love jihad” these past few years? Has the BJP done anything to attack the practice of honor killings, or challenge the so-called khap panchayats? I see the “triple talaq” ban as a purely symbolic act to gain political mileage; it wasn’t out of concern for the rights of the Muslim woman.

          I do commend Modi for trying to tackle the hygiene problem head-on, but don’t pretend that past governments did nothing. Rural toilet programs have been in the works forever; it was always the peoples’ conservatism that allowed open defecation to continue, and not the lack of governmental efforts. Even now, though it’s heartening that most rural Indians seem to have access to toilets, I’m not at all sure they are using them. I haven’t heard of the government building mass sewage systems. But anyway, this is not an issue on which I want to pick a fight.

          OK, on to things that didn’t make your list. Free speech is one of the primary freedoms any liberal wants because is is foundational to everything else. The Congress was no angel on this subject, but Modi and Co have made the problem worse by an order of magnitude. They have completely weaponized the Internet, and intimidated the public (privileged journalists as well as ordinary people) against criticizing the government. Vigilante beatings and killings of Muslims has perhaps significantly risen the past few years with nary a word of criticism from Modi. (This is something I’m willing to revise my opinion on if someone can provide me solid numbers to indicate that things haven’t changed significantly since the previous govt.)

          The NRC is grossly illiberal. I have to now prove that my grandparents are Indians to make the damned list? My patriotic response to anyone who asked me to do that would be to go f*** themselves. Did the Congress ever threaten to do anything like this?

          This kind of thing is of a piece with other decisions that Lokapriya Modi (in the words of Ravi Shankar Prasad) has made these past few years. Demonetization, aka the confiscation of 90% of the public’s money on a whim, on the excuse that certain malefactors had to be caught, there was an emergency, and of course there were no other options. Everyone in the country must be put through hardship to prove their patriotism, regardless of whether such hardship is warranted.

          Anyway, that’s enough of a rant for one day.

          1. Numinous,

            Sorry to be blunt, but you sound like those arm-chair uncles of older generations who used to lament how pathetic Indians are compared to people they met in “the foreign”.

            I am not sure which free speech world you saw, but India never was about free speech. Most people didn’t care what went on in English newspapers because most didn’t frankly understood what was in them. You needed a frickin thesaurus to get through the Hindu.

            Now people understand more and want to be different. I am not sure what you are pining for. Love jihadis are happening because there are lovers and live-in relationships in the first place. Go back 20 years, holding hands in public was a taboo even between a married couple.

            Your exposure of India is skewed towards an urban culture. Now that us small town folk grew their voice, it is going to be illiberal because it was always illiberal.

            I don’t see any solutions to your talk. We tried Manmohan, we had Anna Hazare, but we cannot get rid of Rahul. So, people are going to vote for who? You can discuss policies and their failures but are you being utopian idealist or a realist when it comes to actual human potential for Indians to be liberal?

            Watch 50s movies, way more liberal when general public wasn’t watching them. Watch DD serials when TV was an upper middle class device. Now, Netflix has way more liberal content.

            Don’t hate on majority of your own people. Try to see what you have to offer. I don’t see any solutions other than Modi hating. May be, just maybe, give credit that Indian People aren’t stupid but responding to finally having their psychological needs met. They don’t care for caste or creed or man or woman if a right leader comes along.

            But they are given same old dynastic politics. Until Rahul finishes growing up as a leader, we aren’t escaping Modi. That is the sad state you can lament about. It’s not the illiberalism of BJP, it is the leadership failure among so-called liberal elites.

            /end rant/

          2. I am not saying you are a Congress supporter, only that the general voter isnt necessarily making a more ‘illiberal’ choice when they vote for the BJP. If anything, they are making the more liberal choice, given that the Congress’s voter base consists of voters who are currently the least liberal in India.

          3. Violet:

            but you sound like those arm-chair uncles of older generations who used to lament how pathetic Indians are compared to people they met in “the foreign”

            I honestly don’t know where you got that from my comments, but I’ll let it rest. I thought I was commenting on India’s current ruling dispensation and not on Indians. Perchance you are looking at this through some filter that is obscure to me?

            Your exposure of India is skewed towards an urban culture. Now that us small town folk grew their voice, it is going to be illiberal because it was always illiberal.

            I grew up in a small town too, so what you are saying sounds like virtue signaling to me. Yeah, I know India was always illiberal. I’ve just held out the hope that people will see the light, but I guess that’s not to be. If the erudite folks who comment on this blog don’t care about liberal values, I guess it’s too much to expect from most ordinary Indians.

            (Just to elaborate on my background, I grew up in a small town, went to college in a small-town, then spent about a decade in American cities, been in metro India for close to another decade. My fondness for liberalism comes not from any snobbish attitudes I gained growing up but from time spent in the States. I saw what worked, how, and why, compared to India. And I believe from the bottom of my heart that Indians will live much better lives if our country becomes more liberal in a classical sense.)

            They don’t care for caste or creed or man or woman if a right leader comes along.

            Are we allowed to debate whether the right leader has “come along” or is it supposed to be self-evident (but which my supposedly old-uncle elite blinkers prevent me from seeing)?

            Now, if you can avoid the ad hominem, I’ll be interested in reading your reply.

          4. Violet, Vikram,

            Is it possible for you guys to think outside the Congress-BJP dichotomy? Or the Congress-rule/BJP-rule phases of Indian government? Or Lutyens elite/middle-Indian Hindus classification of Indians?

            It’s not possible to have a fruitful debate about ideals and possibilities if your worldview is this narrow. Perhaps you think it’s practical to talk only about people who can win elections or who have won elections in the past? All else is useless commentary? (This is why I don’t watch TV news any more; they only cover political machinations, giving the public the impression that that’s the only thing that matters, and what people do after getting into office gets much less attention.)

  2. People like SD are liberal fundamentalists trying to reproduce or fit the US liberal talking points on India- for that matter even US liberals have got a bashing from Trump , that is a different matter.
    In any country, for true progress, people at large should take part on making their government and be convinced that they are stake holders in determining who gets to rule them . The resignation of the masses from politics is what contributes to dictatorship and foreign rule. BJP does contribute to bringing masses into political action and policy making. There are many serious actions of omission and commission by BJP, hope they will get their comeuppance in a proper way. Their lack of discipline against their fringe elements is a serious drawback which gives them bad press.
    Anyhow for 30 years people like SD have been predicting Hitler and Nazism in India, they should be disappointed that not even one concentration camp has been opened and the constitution of India has not been put in the bin in favour of ‘Hindutva Constitution ‘

    1. >Anyhow for 30 years people like SD have been predicting Hitler and Nazism in India

      Dhume supported Modi in 2014, was one of the few voices in Western media who would go on panels, etc. advocating for a Modi victory and trying to convince people that he wasn’t Hitler.

      1. @Numinous,

        I took the time to listen to entire podcast to note what exactly is irritating to people who think about improvement of the world in good faith.

        Around 30 min mark, Dhume concedes that history books gloss over about certain aspects of Indian history, but immediately 1) questions the intentions of people who actually want it to be more realistic; and 2) finds disgusting that current muslims will be held responsible for past muslim invader actions.

        1) This is where he loses me. Because, he makes no good faith argument about what is being done by “non-Hindutva non-lefties” like himself to change the narrative who are actually having credentials to do something about this. Did he try to fix this and then saw bad faith from the “Hindutva right” or is he just dismissing them because of his interpretation of their intentions? That is what irritates people.
        2) This guys lives in the US and hope he writes about his disgust about lefty talk re: “white privilege” and “white guilt” for slavery of hundred years ago? Does he take a solid stance on anti-affirmative actions for African Americans? When he does that, he will have more credibility than loose talk on implied intentions.

        Around 35 minutes, Razib pushes back at him saying Hindu Right feelings are real if un-polished while Indian Left has more polished arguments where they win with sophistication without acknowleding the core point of the other side. (Good on you Razib!). But Dhume says that is “charitable” interpretation and mocks about Bollywood showing Khilji in furs in Rajasthan (dude please look up how cold it can get in deserts at nights)
        Again, using polished argument without addressing the core point of actual historical misrepresentation due to “good” intentions of past lefty history book writers.

        Around 45 minute mark, Dhume questions Modi’s intentions due to what he doesn’t do than what he does. In particular, he says Modi should have invited the son of mob-lynched muslim to official residence. This indicates how out of touch Dhume is with what irritates sane rational people.
        Rohit Vemula had suicide writing a letter about his disgust about student communist party activities. This is elevated to corpse politics with Rahul Gandhi and Chandra Babu Naidu showing up as if its personal responsibility of BJP. Politicians using death for political gain is at such as disgusting level, that Modi shrewdly kept himself out of it. But Dhume treats as if Modi exists in vaccuum, and not that Modi is playing a game of winning public by contrasting himself from opponents. Modi not playing death politics is actually an upside, but Dhume sees it as a downside.
        It is also the same issue with Yogi Adityanand becoming CM for UP. The question is about selection from limited pool of candidates with multiple downsides to all of them. The public sentiment veered towards lower corruption than appeasing media (because ultimately when Dhume says “ally people’s fears”, I don’t know which “people” he was referring to).

        Around 56 minute mark, Dhume engages in “motte and bailey” where motte is “muslims has to defend territorial integrity of India against foreign nationals” to bailey of “is forced to support Ram mandir”. (I can elaborate more if this isn’t sufficient)

        Around 60 minute mark, both Omar and Razib push back on “love jihad” which Dhume seems to laugh it off as ridiculous. Perhaps Dhume forgets that internet activity in India has accelerated and Indians can access scandals like Rochdale grooming scandal to confirm their prejudices and send many newsclips through Whatapps groups. Again, treats as if Indian Hindus exist in a vaccuum unimpaired by multiple messages both IRL and online.

        1. On Love Jihad, i agree more with Dhume. It could be grooming scandals and all, but unless we have some definite proof on it, it should be treated as it is now, a loony right wing propaganda.

          The agency should rest with the woman, whether she has married volunteerily or coaxed into it. At most it could be immediate family concern. It not the right wing’s job to “address” it. The most the right could do is to fix existing laws so as to clear out the religious status of the woman.

          1. Just to clarify, we can all be rationalists and try to weigh the balance of evidence in our quest for truth or beliefs.

            What I am commenting on is the expectation of higher rigour of rationality from general public in India by people like Dhume, when they themselves appear to not follow such rigour in other aspects of their judgement.

            Dhume of 30 and 45 minutes contradict one at 60 min, on demand for balance of evidence for self vs. Others.

      2. The final comment that shows why Dhume irritates people is when in closing he says “India’s public sphere is in English and will always be in English and why can’t it be a bastardized culture”.
        He forgets that “public sphere” was limited to very very few people in India if all he considers public sphere as is Times of India and other national English newspapers.
        His default assumption is, Indian public consiousness should be driven by the English news commentary and people like him are true representatives of that.
        He doesn’t even seem to question that Indians can develop a different public sphere. Gandhi had extensive in-person travel across India to mobilize people (didn’t just write articles in English), Adhvani had his Rath Yatra across the country. To a lesser extent, NTR travelled around in united Andhra Pradesh (and so did MGR etc in their states), and as recently as last couple of elections, YS Jagan won AP elections by foot travel across the state.
        Modi is the representative case for a public sphere that is not captured by people like Dhume. I believe Indians understand the need to be rich to be listened to. Now they feel they are rich enough to be listened to while others seem to argue that they need to be even more richer to throw their cultural heft around.
        But people like Dhume insist they are adding something important to the conversation while a significant majority of Indian people seem to have moved on to the next step on Marlow’s hierarchy of needs.

        1. violet
          The final comment that shows why Dhume irritates people is when in closing he says “India’s public sphere is in English and will always be in English and why can’t it be a bastardized culture”.
          He forgets that “public sphere” was limited to very very few people in India if all he considers public sphere as is Times of India and other national English newspapers.

          Saved to be repeated elsewhere. very true of Sri Lanka too. The english speaking elite could not see the appeal of the Rajapakses.

          Elsewhere you had commented on south asians in the west who are “activist” about stuff back in there home area. However, not a word about discrimination, genocide that have happened in their home countries. I this that the easy way out, “activists” in far away (albeit birth region). Why possibly antagonize the dominant culture in adopted country.

  3. Hear, hear @ Violet

    India is not very different from the India that was, except now people do not automatically know their station.

  4. I dont know these extreme reactions vis-v Dhume.

    He comes across as generic economic right- cant care less about culture Indian guy. Feel that all this talk about liberalism-illiberal-ism wrt to India is mostly point-less. India is Ok-ish in that count wrt Asia, but not where wrt to Europe / USA. Its getting liberal in some ways, and illiberal in others.

    I have one disagreement with Dhume(mostly) and that is he takes into consideration Modi’s mandate into account when he talks about economic reforms. To me its a slippery slope, because that would mean any Govt with a bare majority would rather do nothing. The biggest majority in India was with Nehru, Indira , they hardly did any reforms. Any Govt in India is legitimate , not withstanding their numbers.

    Rao lead a minority Govt , that would have meant had we lost Kashmir on his watch (which looked likely) , had Indians given him a free pass since he was a weak Govt. Also the political accumulated by leaders are their own, and how they accumulate or spend it is their concern. What Modi does or doesn;t do should be devoid of his numbers, and should be assessed purely on the end product, not on “considering his majority….” . And the end product to me on economic reforms still is head and shoulders above UPA’s

    1. People react viscerally to Dhume because he encapsulates exactly what is wrong with a good chunk of the Indian elite. Enough people have discussed his problems already, so I will add one more.

      The remarkable thing about Dhume is that while “arre beta, log kya kahenge” is a feature in the lives of most Indians, only Dhume has managed to take that phrase and turn it into an ideology. His recent columns and Twitter feed are just a whole lot of hand-wringing about “what will people say about India.”

    2. I mean, just look at this thread. You have Dhume being praised by a Pakistani Islamist. You have Hindu Indians deriding him. So can anyone say that Dhume speaks for India to any great extent?

  5. @Numinous,

    I apologize it turned out to be more personal than I intended. It wasn’t meant to question your past or credentials, but certain world view.

    Let’s taken example of a guy like Krish Ashok (He is funny and inspiring). His grand mother, although small town grown-up, can read English. My grand mother was proud that she can read Telugu while most of her sisters can’t.

    Why am I bringing this up?

    This adds to the particular view points that one grows up with because one’s family (and their social circle) is more tuned to more “sophisticated” liberal views that aren’t representative of the norm.

    Because Krish Ashok’s grand mother was more well-read, he mentions how progressive she was about caste and careers for women. My grand mother was progressive about education for women but not with caste (despite my mother’s intercaste marriage).

    Extrapolating my experiences from social/family circle to greater public could be extremely biased because I am placed in generally different educated setting than general public.

    That was the point I was trying to make but didn’t come across quite as reasonable.

    Apologies again!

  6. “Is it possible for you guys to think outside the Congress-BJP dichotomy? Or the Congress-rule/BJP-rule phases of Indian government? Or Lutyens elite/middle-Indian Hindus classification of Indians?” @Numinous

    I do think outside the dichotomy. But I am also thinking what are the options for a realist? If you don’t like the current guy, you need to find one that is better, and define what is “better”.

    Because if you follow politics at all, we had prime ministers (I am saying “we” because we are of similar age group) 1)who didn’t hesistate to accept bribery from foreigners even on things as serious as national defense, 2) who didn’t hesistant to pad the government posts with their relatives*, 3) who slept during the parliament sessions, 4) who gotten us to the brink of war, and 5) who didn’t take any decisions without consulting with a foreign-born party leader whose leadership credentials were being married into the right family.

    If you list all the important ideals for being a leader of a developing nation, I would put personal integrity, national interest and economic development as top three choices. But perhaps you put other things as more important?

    “I thought I was commenting on India’s current ruling dispensation and not on Indians.”

    I am giving credit to Indian masses when they elect a leader with unquestionable majority and largest participation in elections, they are showing their will. We can criticize the leader but be aware he was the choice of majority of Indians and their implied approval of him (and approval of his first term actions).

    Are we allowed to debate whether the right leader has “come along” or is it supposed to be self-evident

    Right leader is whoever the people pick to govern them in a democracy. By that metric, people of India have spoken as to what they want. But also, if we (as in you and I) have an ideal image of right leader, it is not useful to debate about current one rather than ingredients that manifest such leaders.

    For example, I had Jayalalitha in mind when I made that comment. She had such a trying life but she was intelligent and a tough cookie and had people building her temples (irrespective of her other failings). People respond to human connection with leaders and we will get leaders who reflect more of majority ethos.

    *(I don’t know if you remember watching PVR son’s singing on DD -may be that’s just uniquely Telugu’s privilege to be subjected to singing aspirations of PM’s son).

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