Browncast Episode 103: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra on Indian Defense, Economics, and History

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Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) | Twitter

This episode features Omar, Mukunda, and Akshar talking to Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a defense and policy analyst, about his evolution of political thought with highlights on his former communist affinity, evolving feelings on Modi, and passion for Indian nationalism. We also get into the continued inefficiencies of India and how it has been so detrimental to its development, plus possible reforms to remedy it. The wide-ranging conversation also includes insights into Abhijit’s time in jail, Kashmir, and “Frugal Indian” cooking tips!

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18 thoughts on “Browncast Episode 103: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra on Indian Defense, Economics, and History”

  1. Really enjoyed this one, was great to have playing in my ear while I was on a run. I was actually grinning at many points during the interview, must have looked quite strange to others on the road lol

    Abhijit’s acerbic tone and outspokenness can be hard to absorb at first, as its completely different from the standard Indian approach to conversation which is quite roundabout and indirect and massages any bad news. He’s obviously quite witty and well read, and holds his own even in areas that may not be of his specialisation. And kudos to the interviewers and the questions, they maintained a great flow between the topics while allowing Abhijit time to delve into each.

  2. So Mitra’s love-hate relationship with India reminded me of something i read in Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness which (quite appropriately in current time ) is in the backdrop of 1962 Indo-China war, perhaps the only time he allowed his “Indian-ness” overpower him.

    ” I did not want India to sink, the mere thought was painful. Out of its squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many. Nowhere were people so heightened, rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves up so fully and with such reassurance. To know Indians was to take a delight in people as people’.

  3. Very enjoyable. When Abhijit asked if they would invite poor farmers into their home – I thought that was a rhetorical question even though Omar answered. My view is that the point was not whether one would allow the poor farmer into the home as a “charity case,” but whether they are getting enough dignity to be treated as potential business partners. That’s the ultimate test of equality. A lot of social and economic failures of India at the present moment packed into that hypothetical example.
    I believe a lot of work is happening in this space.

    1. This is why personally I am a socialist. However, socially I’m a capitalist. Mutual respect and care for the society irrespective of the class differences are a rare sight in India.

  4. “Mutual respect and care for the society irrespective of the class differences are a rare sight in India.”

    I do believe there is a ton of inherent goodwill among Indians. Further economic liberalization, ensuring female education and and having a high standard of primary education is way of emancipation. People will start treating each other equally with urbanization. This won’t happen in less than 2 generations, although I see the tide changing soon.

  5. I think Abhijit’s frustrations are echoed by those who have/are lived in the developed West, and can’t fathom why simple (in principle) things like eliminating wastage in say foodgrain storage or electricity transmission can’t be achieved. The old ‘chalta hai’ attitude and the low bar we set for ourselves grates on us. His strong words come from a place of real care and concern, like for many of us. And like he said, time is of the essence as the window for India to get it’s act together is rapidly sticking before the doors of technology and demography close on us for good.

    And leaving the Chinese incursions aside for a minute, the locust invasions have also shown us that the spectre of climate change isn’t far behind.

    1. That is right. He described perfectly well when he said large part of your job is actually failure compensation for everyone else not doing their job properly.

      But as he knows already his outspoken views and very piercing language will make most Indians get defensive and close up their mind even before they get to know him.

      I cant even imagine how his meeting with Indian police, judiciary would have looked even if he was tenth as direct as he was in this interview.

      I felt Omer felt that too initially when he asked do you find anything positive about India at all?

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. He’s definitely an asshole, a la christopher hitchens. Regardless, whether one agrees with him or not, you can’t doubt his intellect. I look forward to him returning, perhaps with Razib as an interlocutor.

  7. I felt like I was listening to myself. I felt hopeless and ashamed when I visited Hyderabad in last August. So much inefficiency and so much utter neglect and “chalta hai” attitude. I noticed these attitudes in my mother who is a government school teacher and my cousin who is a child and women welfare officer at division level.

  8. His complaints around the over-dependence on babus and civil servants is spot-on. This is a system that rewards bureaucracy rather than decision making. Unfortunately the Modi gov’t has doubled down on the civil services rather than moving away from them

    1. The civil services have made India what it is today –

      1. Govt. schools with midday meals have elevated the literacy rate from 18% at independence (when pop was 390 million) to 74% in 2011 (when pop reached 1,25 billion).

      2. The complete health care system which more than ably serves the bottom 250 million people free of cost from small ailments (fractures) to large interventions (kidney transplants). Its 100x better service than a certain market driven model which will charge 25K USD for a birth.

      3. FWIW, let me state it here, the financial bureacracy of India (RBI, state driven banks, lending institutions and micro-finance) have produced better outcomes than what their European, Japanese or American counterparts have done in the last 30 years. You can see the stats quite transparently in whatever mode you want to analyse – Austrian, Keynesian whatever. The private and public debt indicators, central bank balance sheet all show the durability of Indian performance.

      Even today, the majority of people’s demands in MPLAD sessions are for public infra and more of the same. Most political parties reflect this in their manifestoes. Modi govt is not an exception.

  9. Abhijit was spot on about Kashmir. I have never heard someone describe the place exactly as it is with zero BS (other than perhaps Naipaul). Refreshing!


    ‘underlined that on average over 1,000 cases of forced conversions take place in the country every year. A majority of these are suffered by the Hindu community in Sindh.’

    ‘ The same is true in the case of a 13-year-old Christian girl, Sana John. Two teenage girls, Farzana and Sehrish, aged 14 and 16 respectively, were abducted and subjected to gang rape perpetrated by three Muslim men. Despite the fact that one of the perpetrators was apprehended, the family was pressured to settle the case outside of court. Similarly, the case of Maria Sarfraz, an 11-year-old girl abducted and gang-raped for three days, was forcibly settled out of court. ‘

    Really problematic to point at virile fifty years old men of the Muslim polity on North West South Asia with little girls. I can’t fathom where these dashing Syeds are getting pedo inspiration from. So much Islamophobia these days, all these grown up and intelligent men ever wanted to do was a genocide and some terrorism under nuclear umbrella.

    1. The same things have been happening for hundreds of years in Kosovo including the recent communist period when communists took this province from Serbia and gave Albanians political, police and judiciary autonomy. In several hundreds of cases, rapists were supported by local police, judiciary and, the most important, by Albanian public opinion. Courts usually found that the particular rapist was mentally unfit, and he was liberated without any sentence. Such climate is typical for primitive areas which still have not reached the lowest levels of civilisational development.

  11. One of the best episodes on BP. Shows the systemic problems in India. The people who are commenting about his twitter posts have not even heard this podcast.

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