Anglosphere Media’s India and Modi Problem Part 1: An Introduction

Nonsensical Nemo’s Note: I am very grateful to the folks at Brown Pundits for allowing me to publish this. I have followed this blog for many, many years and learnt a lot reading it. If you guys enjoy my writing, you can subscribe to my Substack. Just one note, the piece was written before the 2024 Indian General Election Results came out on June 4. 

That the Occident has been more or less wrong about India from the very beginning is evident from the fact that its most storied traveller, the so-called discoverer of the New World, Christopher Columbus, rolled up to the Bahamas and thought he had discovered India.  It’s a tradition of blunders – sometimes perniciously mendacious and sometimes completely ignorant – that the Anglosphere (particularly its press) proudly continues to this day. Simply put, mendacity is the norm whenever there’s any report in any ‘esteemed’ Anglosphere publications about India. Most reports would fail to pass a basic smell – let alone a copy editor’s – test.

Suppose I was a foreigner and learned about India solely from American, British, Australian, or other Anglosphere news outlets’ coverage. In that case, I’d surmise that India is a genocidal hellhole where the living conditions were similar to, or worse than, sub-Saharan Africa, with a Wakanda-level technological might to run an Orwellian surveillance state, and whose streets are patrolled by saffron-hued Stormtroopers carrying tridents.

Every news report, opinion piece, editorial, and analysis appears to be a regurgitative exercise of the same set of phrases – “democracy backsliding”, “rising intolerance,” or “snarling hypermasculine Hindu beasts” – repeated ad nauseam.

While the WENA (Western Europe and Northern America) has always been suspicious of a rising India, the rabid foaming has only increased since 2014 when Narendra Modi, a man they detest for various reasons, came to power.

As a consequence, most of the reportage about India, including its diaspora, in recent years – from its elections to a citizenship law for vulnerable minorities in its neighbourhood to an Oscar-winning film like RRR – portends to “rising Hindutva fascism.” 

RRR – a troubling tote of Hindutva propaganda 

The latter is particularly hilarious, like this Slate piece that refers to a fantastical action sequence (the protagonist takes out Brit forces with his bow and arrows in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marvel movie), and claims that it’s an “apt representation for a country that employed authoritarian tactics to empower violent Hindu nationalism”.

Imagine this: You see a long-haired man shooting arrows at actors portraying Britishers with a bow borrowed from a Lord Rama statue and your instant thought is: “This is what it must be like for minorities in India.”

The aforementioned piece also takes great umbrage to the protagonist’s sartorial choice of saffron robes, which, in reality, was the choice of the attire of the original freedom fighter that the character was based on.

An interview with the director practically accused him of being a shill of the current dispensation without a shred of evidence.

One piece by Aatish Taseer titled Can Bollywood Survive Modi? in the Atlantic, claimed Rhea Chakraborty, had been arrested for abetting suicide, where the actual arrest was on drug-related charges.

For the uninitiated, Rhea Chakraborty is a Bollywood actor who was dating Sushant Singh Rajput, another actor, who committed suicide. His death became a cesspool of conspiracy theories that made the Indian mainstream media completely lose their marbles (at one point an Indian media anchor thought the text “Imma bounce” referred to a bounced cheque!).

The same piece in The Atlantic claimed that Karan Johar (one of Bollywood’s top directors) was targeted for showing gay themes in his movies, which is supercilious, and without any evidence to back it. In fact, close Bollywood watchers would tell you that Karan Johar’s movies have always been criticised for stereotyping the LGBTQI community, and in the KJo universe one’s position on the Kinsey Scale is determined by the angle of flaccidity in one’s wrist position. Johar, for his part, has even been spotted in selfies with Narendra Modi, and some could even argue that much of Johar’s filmography actually pushed the concept of the Hindu joint family long before BJP was a political force.

That’s not to argue that the current regime (Modi’s BJP) is any more LGBT-friendly when seen from the WENA lens. Still, it must be noted that while they did oppose same-sex marriage, the current regime didn’t oppose the decriminalisation of Sec 377, a law that was continually opposed by numerous “progressive” Congress-led governments.

Even the installation of a statue of one of India’s greatest freedom fighters, Subhash Chandra Bose was deemed by Financial Times’ Edward Luce, to be an “exhibit of Modi’s fascist ideology.” The closest one comes to this delinquency in the West is the way that America’s founding fathers are targeted for their past behaviour that might be considered deplorable now but was once the norm like keeping slaves. And without slave traders funding scholarships, our Rajya Sabha (India’s House of Lords/Senate to draw a crude analogy) would be far poorer intellectually and vocally.

Farm Bills: 250 million protesting in the streets?

A less laughable example is the coverage of the Indian government’s Farm Bills – a set of 3 laws that sought to democratise the marketplace for poorer farmers and end unlimited subsidies for rich ones.

Simply put, these laws aimed to change how agricultural produce is sold across the country by opening up sales outside of the state-run APMC mandis (marketplaces), remove barriers to inter-state trade, and also included a framework for electronic trading.

One of the laws, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, of 2020, prohibited the state governments from levying any additional fees on the farmers if they sold in an outside-trade area, and aimed at breaking the monopoly of the government-regulated mandis, allowing the farmers to sell directly to buyers. Another one had a framework, including a legal one, around contract farming to help small and marginal farmers transfer the risk of market predictability from the grower to the sponsor and realize better prices. The Essential Commodities Act was largely around the deregulation of ECA 1955, to not only help farmers with surplus harvests but also to encourage private and foreign direct investments in the sector to help build a robust supply chain infrastructure for the agricultural sector across the country, enabling both domestic and export markets. While these laws do need more work along the lines of price assurance and educating small and marginal farmers about the laws themselves, the coverage seemed to suggest that the government was forcing poor farmers to hand over their products to big, bad corporations.

If you’d read the coverage – with in-depth insights and inputs from Rupi Kaur, Mia Khalifa, and Rihanna – you would’ve believed that the Modi government was trying to destroy agriculture in India and that the mob was modern-day freedom fighters taking on tyrants.

One of the more fictitious claims about the farm laws protests – that bordered on magic realism and where both math and logic took a hit – was that 250 million farmers were protesting all at once, a number cited by BBC and repeated by CNN. For the arithmetically inclined (or disinclined), that’s roughly 75% of the entire US population (but a mere 17% of the Indian population) allegedly hitting the streets in protest at the same time. It’s fair to say that if that many people hit the streets, everything would come to a grinding halt. What’s more interesting is that these preposterous claims still haven’t been corrected on websites of legacy media outlets that go around accusing every group that doesn’t belong to their particular political persuasion of being “fake news”.

The revolt was largely led by, as Anil Padmanabhan explained in an explainer in Mint, rich farmers/middlemen of Punjab and Haryana, two states with massive agricultural infrastructure that had become used to government doles (starting as far back as the Green Revolution era) who also hold a lot of political clout. The legislation on the other hand sought to empower the poorer farmers, to replace the current trading system controlled by a few which is out of reach for 75% cultivators in India.

For a detailed take on the Farm Bill, here’s a thread with the most cogent pieces on its pros and cons.

Abrogation of Article 370

The abrogation of Article 370 – a temporary provision that allowed extra-constitutional rights to the denizens of the state of Jammu and Kashmir – which was discriminatory against women, minorities, lower-caste folks, and the LGBT community – was also a classic example of a bad-faith argument. The abrogation of Article 370 also led to the abolishment of Article 35A, which defined “permanent residents” that discriminated against women and non-Kashmiris. For example, under Article 35A, women who married non-Kashmiris could no longer inherit property in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, any changes in Indian law, like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) or the decriminalising of homosexuality (striking down Article 377) would not be allowed in Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 was always meant to be a temporary provision but became an albatross around New Delhi’s neck that defined its entire foreign policy for decades.

As a corollary, for non-Indian readers, imagine that there exists a state in the USA (let’s call it Texas) where women aren’t allowed to inherit property, US citizens who have settled there aren’t allowed to vote, and LGBT folks can be arrested for liking JK Rowling. Would removing said provisions be considered a step forward or backward?

Aadhaar – A State Surveillance Tool?

 

Amongst all these, the one that is probably most ludicrous is the coverage of Aadhaar. An identification document technology that has helped the Indian state reach its most vulnerable – which the World Bank believes could help India meet its poverty alleviation target – is coloured as a tool of mass surveillance.

The Aadhaar is similar to the Social Security Number (SSN) in the US, which was originally created to track accounts, and eventually morphed into an identifier. Do we deign to call SSN a mass surveillance tool?

One of the problems the Indian state has often faced is corruption, facilitated by the middleman. In the 1980s, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi noted that for every rupee the state spent, only 15 paise (15% of the amount) reached its intended beneficiary. On the other hand, with a combination of Direct Bank Transfer (DBT) and JAM, the Modi regime claims will help every rupee reach its intended target.

The JAM trinity refers to:

1) Jan Dhan (People’s Money) – bank accounts that provide access to financial services for people in the lower income strata for the first time

2) Aadhaar – a digital financial address

3) Mobile – Mobile phones armed with cheap data (thanks to Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Jio lowering the rates on mobile internet data packs)

Combined, the three have reshaped India’s financial landscape and broadened its access. The Economic Survey 2023 says that 318 central schemes are included under the Aadhaar Act 2016 that facilitate these transfers.

Aadhaar also played a critical role during COVID-19, when it became the backbone of COWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network), which helped India give 2.2 billion doses of vaccines and also helped create a digital certificate. As India’s outgoing Foreign Minister S Jaishankar shared in a delightful anecdote, when he went to have a meal in America, his son, an American citizen, took out a piece of paper to show his certificate while Jaishankar just showed his digital certificate on the COWIN platform.

CAA for Vulnerable Minorities

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which sought to help out the most vulnerable minorities from neighboring states, was painted as a bill to disenfranchise and strip the citizenship of India’s Muslim population. For the uninitiated, the Citizenship Amendment Act’s raison d’etre was to give fast-track citizenships to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsis or Christians from India’s immediate neighbourhood: Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It’s a matter of public record how non-Muslims are targeted in these countries and that their numbers have been dwindling significantly. However, the bill was gravely misrepresented in most of the Anglosphere outlets that claimed that the bill would be used to strip Muslims in India of their citizenship.

Similar to the Farm Laws, misinformation about the CAA ran riot, with mobs clashing with police across India that led to at least 69 deaths.

Claims were made that the CAA could be used to even deport illegal immigrants. The fact remains that irrespective of the CAA, any illegal immigrant would be deported under the Foreigners Act 1946 and Citizenship Act 1955.

As Harish Salve, one of the finest legal minds of this generation,  who also happens to be the King’s Counsel in England and Wales,  pointed out in a column: “I fail to understand how a law which is designed to confer the benefit of an identified class of persons, and which identification is based on a rational criterion, can be condemned as being discriminatory on the ground that the legislation could have created a wider class, arrived at by applying a broader criterion for identifying the class of those who would benefit from the legislation. The principle of equality does not mean that every law must have universal application. The principle of equality doesn’t take away from the state the power of making classifications.”

Salve also points out that there’s nothing “unconstitutional” about classification based on religion and that the Indian Constitution confers special rights upon members of religious minorities in India.

The Prophet Row

In May 2022, comments by Nupur Sharma, a former BJP spokesperson, about the Prophet Muhammad on a TV show were presented without context in media across the world. For the uninitiated, during a debate, a cleric was making incendiary remarks about a Hindu deity when an enraged Sharma quoted Hadiths that sparked worldwide condemnation.

The issue and the subsequent outrage were widely covered in the Anglosphere press. However, none of the pieces sought to mention that the comment was in response to an Islamic cleric mocking Hindu deities. Even the reportage afterward about several beheadings and large-scale riots by the Islamist fundamentalists laid the blame at the feet of the former BJP spokesperson, which is akin to blaming The Beatles for the Charles Manson murders. Much like Salman Rushdie, the spokesperson now lives in near isolation, in fear that she will one day be targeted by some Islamist fanatic for her remarks. Ironically, even Aatish Taseer, whose father was a former Punjab governor and lawyer, Salman Taseer, was shot dead in Pakistan for supporting a blasphemy accused in Pakistan, appeared to enjoy Nupur Sharma’s misery.

A BBC report on the beheading of Kanhaiya Lal – a Hindu tailor who had expressed support on social media for Nupur Sharma – by Muslim extremists had the lead image of angry protesters in saffron that would give the impression that the beheading was carried out by the Hindu fundamentalists. Time magazine even went as far as to publish an article titled ‘Hindu Lives Matter’ Emerges as Dangerous Slogan After Horrific Killing in India right after the murder of Kanhaiya Lal, burnishing the point that Hindu lives didn’t matter. In its own way, it was reminiscent of the gaslighting of Jews that seems to be now rampant in American universities, where the victim is blamed for, well, being the victim.

Also, the quantum of crimes, depending on the religion of the culprit and victim, is often gravely misrepresented in the media.

In fact, WENA outlets have been shoehorning the term “Hindu fascists” into every international conflict, including the Israel-Hamas war, where they claimed internet Hindus were accused of sowing disinformation. The Atlantic carried a piece whose entire edifice was based on the claims of a propagandist masquerading as a fact checker, who has been at the forefront of amplifying Hamas propaganda.

Saffronphobia?

Along with demonising Indians, there also seems to be a growing liberal consensus around Saffronphobia – which states that any news that involves a Hindu anywhere in the world has to be blamed on “rising Hindu Nationalism,” whether it’s a fake caste war in California, America or violence in Leicester, UK. The latter was blamed on “Hindu nationalism” with the heading (with an image of Lord Rama in the main picture) before grudgingly admitting that it “wasn’t one-sided” and that some Hindu religious symbols “might have been” desecrated.

Along with false reportage that put folks at risk, a Henry Jackson Society report stated: “False allegations of RSS terrorists and Hindutva extremists organisations active in the UK has put the wider Hindu community at risk from hate, vandalism, and assault.”

This is even more pernicious since those who are quick to blame Hinduism or its caste system for almost all of the world’s evils are the first ones who go to great pains to explain why Islamist fundamentalism has nothing to do with terrorism.

Tum Ghulam Log…

More recently, the focus has shifted to New Delhi’s foreign policy, which should’ve been expected, because if there’s one thing that irks imperialists who love the imaginary rules-based international order (RBIO), it’s countries that refuse to toe their line or accept the global liberal worldview as their own.

This results in the so-called powers-that-be getting extremely agitated about everything an administration does, even if it’s simply taking care of a law-and-order situation involving students or farmers. Meanwhile, the upholders of the so-called RBIO have no issue treating pro-Palestine protesters on Ivy League campuses like hardened criminals (I’m not sure I get this, it was quite the opposite) or socially and financially ostracising anyone who supports protesting truckers.  GoFundMe even withheld millions of dollars donated to the truckers.  

A lot of outrage in the last six months has been about India’s so-called death squads that make it sound like there are actual Indian operatives who are actually capable of spy-like skulduggery that would gladden George Smiley’s heart. One claim that would’ve really made Smiley smile involved a jihadi shooting down another jihadi in Pakistan with the promise that the agent would then help him join ISIS. A report notes: “Muhammad Abdullah allegedly told Pakistani investigators he was promised he would be sent to Afghanistan to fight for IS if he passed the test of killing an “infidel” in Pakistan, with Ahmed presented as the target. Abdullah shot and killed Ahmed during early morning prayers at a mosque in Rawalkot, but was later arrested by Pakistani authorities.”

One such incident involved the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. Coverage about Nijjar, who was described as everything from a plumber to a priest, did not mention the fact that he received training in Pakistan from that country’s notorious external intelligence agency ISI and that he literally ran a terror cell in Canada.

Justin Trudeau, in particular, went to town after Nijjar’s killing, blaming New Delhi, and his viral tweet about the rule of law became quite a popular meme.

Perhaps he was still smarting from the lack of cameras on him during the G20 Summit in Delhi, where he was also force-fed a millet-based diet. That Trudeau or his government was unable to provide any definitive evidence of the allegations doesn’t bother the outlets that have moved on to the next piece of misinformation.

Of course, in their alacrity to show New Delhi as the great big evil on par with Moscow, they forget to mind their Ps and Qs, like this error-ridden The Guardian article that announced Gurpatwant Singh Pannun’s departure for the Elysian Fields even though he continues to live and breathe and threaten Indians from America soil. It’s fair to say that if a Pannun was to do the same about America – perhaps threatening a RyanAir flight standing in New Delhi – he’d be neutralised faster than you can sing the chorus to Mundiya to bach ke rahi.

And finally, the reportage has entered its peak feeding frenzy to coincide with the Indian General Election 2024, in which critics of the current dispensation have to live with the harsh reality that this might be Narendra Modi’s third term, making him the only Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru – whose pre-disposition to be an Englishman (his words not mine) – was far more palatable to the Anglosphere than the incumbent.

The election coverage has gotten increasingly more ludicrous with time. Among other things, Modi has been accused of building too many highways, attempting to create a messianic cult bigger than Gandhi, metamorphosing the Ashoka lions (India’s national emblem) that are referred to as “snarling hypermasculine Hindu beasts”, forcing the BBC to split its Indian operations to follow the newly-introduced foreign investment rules, and accused of election rigging without a shed of proof.

Meanwhile, the Opposition has been systematically lionised and beatified beyond their actual political standing or ability to elicit a response from the electorate.

The Obama Delusion Syndrome

It has become the norm for Anglosphere outlets to valorise individuals beyond their actual political clout, building them up much like Barack Obama, the patron saint of liberals across the globe (who conveniently forget his drone strike rate). They have done it with numerous Opposition figures including Congress’ de-facto leader Rahul Gandhi, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray (whose father was a staunch BJP ally and hardcore Hindutva leader), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, former Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and, where there are no politicians around, even Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan. In fact, a large population actually argued that the success of Shah Rukh Khan’s film Jawan was a vindication of the Modi government’s targeting of Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan in a drug-related case.

Nowhere is this Obama Delusion Syndrome epitomised than the coverage afforded to ex-TMC MP Mahua Moitra, whose profile fits that of the urban and sophisticated anglophile.

A New York Times piece written by Moitra read: ‘I Know What It Takes to Defeat Narendra Modi’, referring to the TMC’s (a regional party from the state of West Bengal) defeat of Narendra Modi’s BJP in the state elections in 2022. The piece obviously glossed over the excesses of violence that are part and parcel of the state of West Bengal, which was once ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxists) that was renowned for its thuggery and has to its credit India’s biggest massacre of Dalits who came to India as refugees from Bangladesh. For the uninitiated, the term ‘Dalit’ refers to a socially and economically demographic at the very bottom of the social hierarchy.

Their vanquisher and subsequent successor is equally accused by critics of unleashing a reign of terror in the state against political opponents. In fact, in Bengal, to support BJP is to literally risk life and limb. This has often seen BJP legislators, like singer Babul Supriyo (whose car was attacked by goons), switch to TMC (on the other hand, several TMC legislators flipped to BJP ostensibly after pressure from various federal agencies like the Enforcement Directorate).

However, none of the pieces that valorise Moitra mention the serious charges against her (including sharing privileged Parliamentary access with a business rival of Gautam Adani. Instead, Mahua’s disqualification from parliament was labelled a misogynist witch hunt without even referring to the case that caused her to be disqualified.

More recently, when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was released after being arrested for repeatedly ignoring summons by authorities, FT claimed that Modi would face a “shake-up” after the release of a rival without knowing how to recognise the rival’s face. The picture in the frame is that of Sanjay Singh, a legislator of the Aam Aadmi Party, not Arvind Kejriwal.

Now this is not an exhaustive list and if I were to list every single mendacious claim masquerading as a fact in Anglosphere publications, this piece would become longer than Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

But it’s a fair example of the mendacity masquerading as facts in the English publications from the Anglosphere that they will go out of their way not to publish the perspective of the BJP or its ideologues, nor try and understand why a majority of Indians have voted for Narendra Modi in the last two general elections. There is no attempt to understand why Modi is so popular, or why his politics (Hindutva) cuts through caste. There’s barely any mention of the social welfare benefits that are at the heart of the development project with the slogan: Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Everyone Together, Everyone’s Development). In fact, foreign observers would be shocked to learn that Modi’s harshest critics on the right-wing side of the aisle often accuse him of being too soft on Islamists, labelling him Maulana Modi and would prefer a more hard-lined approach claiming that minorities got more benefits under Modi than previous governments.

There’s also no mention of how popular Modi – himself from a backward caste – is actually with so-called marginalised groups – either tribals or those from backward castes. There’s no mention that Modi’s regime has chosen Presidents – the Presidentship in India might be ceremonial but is highly symbolic –from a member of a backward caste as well as from a backward tribe as Presidents during its tenure. The latter was the first instance of a member of the backward tribe becoming a President.

The fact is that they don’t even want to know the BJP’s side of the story or why almost 230 million people (still fewer than BBC’s imaginary 250 million farmers protesting) voted for the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election. There’s no attempt to understand what it means for the millions who got their first bank account, gas stove, or toilet in the house. There’s no desire to comprehend why Hindus might clamour for a temple at Ayodhya, the abode of their most beloved deity, a temple destroyed by a Mughal ruler and replaced by a mosque.

That there’s a desire for constant obfuscation about India is evidenced by the experience of Swapan Dasgupta, a veteran journalist who went from being a Trotskite to a Thatcherite, who has also served as a member of the Upper House of Indian parliament. Dasgupta, who has long been associated with the BJP and its ideology, was commissioned by an editor of The New York Times to write an essay explaining the BJP’s perspective, but the idea was later killed for editorial reasons.

While the misrepresentation of what’s happening in India is not new and certainly not only for Modi and his government, but the misinformation has certainly magnified in recent times.

It would appear that the Anglosphere outlets would rather live in a state of cerebral inertia than try to understand how a party with two Parliamentary seats in 1984 has now won two national elections with overwhelming majorities and looks set to win the third.

A day ahead of the 2024 Election results, The Guardian summed up the mood best when it wrote that it was depressed in a statement that can only be read as deeply dismissive of Indian voters and their right to choose a candidate who might not appeal to the ivory tower philistines:

“In India, poor people often see politicians as gods delivering relief to numb the pain of reality. By claiming to be divine, Mr Modi is making devotees of voters, encouraging a belief that it is God’s purpose to target minorities, outlaw dissent, and ride roughshod over constitutional protections. It is depressing to think that Mr Modi will win a third election victory. There is small comfort in believing the BJP probably won’t achieve Mr Modi’s goal of winning nearly three-quarters of the country’s 543 parliamentary seats. Foreign investors are pulling out their cash from India’s stock market, citing uncertainty about the results.”

Evolutionary biologists believe that the “depression” gene is imperative for human survival, simply because it allows people to not seek out the company of others which helped them survive epidemics that ravaged tribes. So perhaps, a little depression isn’t the worst thing.

All of this brings us to the second part of the essay, which I hope to cover in Part 2, which will hopefully be published before I leave for the Elysian Fields:

Why is there so much misinformation about India in the Anglosphere?

Also Read:

1) Why I love RRR Part 1: An Absurdist Deconstruction

2) RRR Part 2: Why SS Rajamouli’s masterpiece triggers Hinduphobes

3) When are we going to talk about Hinduphobia?

4) America’s Fake Caste War

5)Kashmir Checkmate: Amit Shah planned intricate political chess…

6) A revolt of the rich peasants of Punjab, Haryana
7) Why women vote for Modi

8) Where did the BJP get its votes from in 2019?

9) CAA is necessary: Why the many arguments about its being unconstitutional don’t hold water

10) Hindu-Muslim civil unrest in Leicester: “Hindutva” and the creation of a false narrative

 

Rajaji: Our forgotten hero

In the run up to Indian parliamentary elections in 2024, there is excitement in some sections of social media about “freemarket”  ideas espoused by C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and the Swantantra Party he helped found in 1959.

Sharing a piece here I wrote on Rajaji’s ideological relevance in contemporary politics. This was written after visiting and reporting from the many institutions he built pre and post 1947 for the now defunct Pragati Magazine in 2018.

You can follow me here.

And the food-and-agriculture-focussed independent media platform called the ThePlate.in I run.

Here goes…

Rajaji: Our Forgotten Hero

Among the leaders in the front ranks of the freedom movement, and those counted as the makers of modern India, Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) is perhaps the man most forgotten. Gandhi is the ‘Father of the nation’; the very existence of India as a modern democracy, and lately all its faults—from clogged drains to currency fluctuation—are credited to Jawaharlal Nehru’s side of the ledger; the race to usurp Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy has given India a Guinness record for the world’s tallest statue; Bhimrao Ambedkar is not only a Moses-like lawgiver who framed the constitution but also the messiah of marginalized; Maulana Azad, now firmly located in Indian-Muslim politics, finds an occasional ode to his prescience about the fallacy of Pakistan and subsequent fate of subcontinental Muslims. Rajaji is less lucky than Azad. Continue reading Rajaji: Our forgotten hero

From Udaipur to Okinawa riding on orange peel

The story of twenty-five -year-old Narayan Lal Gurjar might not be out of place in Bollywood.

The playful experiments he conducted in his father’s small farm as a teenager in Kerdi, a village of 300 with 40 homes in Rajsamand district in southern Rajasthan, is the foundation for his patents and the agriscience startup incubated by Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology that has attracted investments from well-known Japanese venture capital firms such as Beyond Next Ventures and MTG.

And all this before he turned 23.

Gurjar’s firm EF Polymer (EF stands for eco-friendly) headquartered in Okinawa with manufacturing plants in Udaipur makes super absorbent polymers (SAP) from orange and banana peel that has the potential to help millions of small farmers in arid and water scarce regions across the world harvest better yields.

Read the full story here 

Follow ThePlate.in to understand India from farm to plate!

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The Caped Crusader

TW: This post contains descriptions of suicide.


Guru Dutt’s 1957 classic Pyaasa is about a disillusioned poet who is aghast at how people treat fellow humans in their pursuit of wealth, lust and power. In the iconic ending monologue, Dutt clarifies that he has no complaints against his friends, brothers and all the others who ill-treated him. His problem is with the structure of society, which peels away the humanity from humans.

19-year-old Abraham Biggs from Florida, USA was a regular on messaging board BodyBuilding.com. Apart from threads dedicated to diet, exercise, powerlifting, etc., there was a miscellaneous section on the site for random discussions not particularly related to bodybuilding. Predictably, this became the light-hearted section of the site- memes, jokes and banter flowed freely.

At 2:35 AM on November 19, 2008, Biggs posted a thread- he was going to commit suicide while livestreaming on Justin.tv, a streaming site and a precursor to Twitch. This was not the first time Biggs was talking about his mental health – he had started another thread in December 2007 about feeling down and how he had attempted to take his life earlier.

Biggs had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been taking prescription medication for it. His plan was to overdose on the meds.

Disgustingly, the comments on his stream were goading him on, or calling the whole thing a hoax.

A 17-year-old regular of the site (username: “Bulker”) chanced upon the thread, and clicked through to the livestream. Bulker was alarmed to see what was happening. He had interacted with Abraham on the site before, and felt compelled to act. The problem was, he was at the other end of the world- in India. He did some quick online sleuthing and found Abraham’s name, number, approximate address and pictures. He posted these details, and even updated Miami police contact details on the thread, begging US folks to do something. But no one did.

This was the bystander effect at play. Like people gawk at traffic accidents but don’t do anything about it if there are other people around. They just assume that someone from the crowd must’ve already taken action, like alerting the authorities. This effect was first identified in the murder of Kitty Genovese.

Bulker realised no one was going to act. He tried emailing Miami police but the mail bounced.  He snuck into his parents’ bedroom and accessed his mother’s phone. After activating the exorbitantly expensive international calling plan, he called Miami police and tried to explain the situation. He kept getting transferred around and he had to explain over and over again. The clock was ticking, his calling minutes were running out and he couldn’t make any headway, except to locate Abraham’s exact jurisdiction and which sheriff to contact. He posted this information too on the forum. Someone finally realised the seriousness of the matter, and called the sheriff. Minutes later, Bulker too got in touch with him- he had now activated international minutes on his father’s phone. The sheriff reassured him that they had already received multiple calls and help was on the way.

Police arrived at the scene about 15 minutes later. It was 3 PM in Florida and 1:30 AM in India. On the livestream, they were first seen throwing something towards Abraham, and when he didn’t respond, they entered the room, checked his body and then covered the camera. Abraham Biggs had already passed.

This incident affected Bulker deeply. He got involved in social work, first in Gujarat and then Bengaluru, where he moved to in 2016. He volunteered during the COVID pandemic, and was able to get acquainted with the city police commissioner, who encouraged him to get more involved in public issues and act as an interface with authorities.

And thus we arrive at December 11, 2021. Bulker, whose real name is Dushyant Dubey, started a new thread on the r/bangalore subreddit:

Bangaluru is a city in flux, with a large number of young people moving here to work at the IT companies and startups that make it India’s Silicon Valley. Many of these kids are away from home for the first time, and do not have a local “contact” that protects their interests from landlords, PG owners, cops, rowdies (slang for street thugs), MLA’s, <insert goon group here>. An immigrant himself, Dubey understood these problems intimately.

He offered to be of help, to anyone and for anything. The requests started coming in, small and big, with many users tagging him in relevant threads using his delightfully named handle – u/St_Broseph.

Someone needed help filing a police complaint. Another user needed therapy but couldn’t afford it. Broseph happily paid out of his own pocket. One young woman had been sexually harassed by a policeman, and broseph helped escalate the issue and make sure the complaint was registered and acted upon. He even maintains a safehouse for people in distressed situations.

Between representing common folks in disputes with politicians, and (I kid you not) rescuing kittens, broseph has done it all. Following the suicide of Aditya Prabhu, he organised a protest to spur the investigation and formed a student support group. The r/bangalore community loves him- many people volunteer time and money towards his efforts. They call themselves the St.Broseph Army, and have a HQ and everything.

What’s next for broseph? In his own words:

Here’s a toast to Bengaluru’s Batman: not the hero we deserve, but definitely the one we need right now.

I’ll end with a quote by Mr. Rogers:

Note: This post originally appeared on Internet Stuff.

A Kerala entrepreneur’s jackfruit startup that’s fighting India’s diabetes ‘pandemic’

Come summer, Indians engage in a unique mango one-upmanship: Alponso or Langda; Ratnagiri or Devgarh Alphonso; Gujarati Kesar or Banarsi Chausa. If you ask me, this kind of mango tribalism is trite. The mango season is short. Eat whatever you can find.

But this is also the season of jackfruit, a fruit far more complex in flavour, and a veritable super food that Indians in its native land love to despise. Jackfruit of course has an exalted status in traditional Tamil literature, alongside banana and mango. Jackfruit can grow prolifically anywhere in peninsular India and the mid-to-lower Gangetic belt, pretty much.

I’ll share a couple of The Plate’s jackfruit stories here.

The first is about James Joseph, an ex-Microsoft executive who found a way to get healthy jackfruit into everyday Indian diet inspired by former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam’s one-line brief to him.

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How a small, sleepy town in Karnataka turned into the vegetable nursery of India

The right socio-economic conditions, availability of trainable talent, clement weather all year-round and a pioneering entrepreneur’s vision to harness it all setting up a sunrise-sector business turns a dozy place into a prosperous hub of startups. This isn’t yet another paean to Bengaluru’s status as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India. It is the story of a place smack in the geographical centre of Karnataka, 300km to the northwest of Bengaluru called Ranebennur that’s the epicentre of India’s hybrid vegetable seed production.

Since seeds are the most critical and fundamental unit of input in agriculture, it would not be an exaggeration to call such a place ‘startup town’.

Seeds of success

Ranebennur is where India’s largescale, commercial production of hybrid vegetable seeds began in the late 1970s. Today, most major national and multinational agriculture companies from Syngenta to Pioneer to Namdhari have operations in the region. The farmers in this small region produce roughly Rs 500-crore worth of hybrid seeds of vegetables such as tomatoes, chillies, brinjal, okra and assorted gourds.

Such is the economic impact of hybrid seed companies on the local economy that it is common to find homes bearing homage to them. A seed company’s name inscribed in concrete suffixed with the word ‘krupe’ (benevolence) on the forehead of concrete homes painted in bright Vaastu-compliant colours ranging from parrot green to lemon yellow and Barbie pink isn’t a rare sight.

All of it is thanks to Manmohan Attavar a pioneering horticulture scientist and entrepreneur who must rank alongside MS Swaminathan and Verghese Kurien in the pantheon of modern India’s agriculture renaissance figures.

Manmohan Attavar, a pioneering scientist who created India’s first commercial tomato and capsicum hybrids

Read the full story here about how a pioneering Indian scientist-entrepreneur turned a non-descript town in Karnataka into India’s vegetable garden.

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MS Swaminathan: architect of Green Revolution; the greatest Indian since Gandhi

On the occasion of India’s 65th anniversary of Independence, television channels CNN-IBN (now CNN News18), History Channel, and Outlook magazine jointly ran an audience poll, steered by a panel of “experts”, to ascertain the ‘Greatest Indian after Gandhi’.

Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, who passed on at the age of 98 on September 28, 2023, barely made it to a shortlist of 50, let alone the Top 10 that contained Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar in a club overwhelmingly comprising politicians.

Such lists are gimmicks anyway and a result of political partisanship, recency bias and media narratives.

In this writer’s view, with no disrespect to those of yours, there isn’t anyone more worthy of the tag ‘greatest Indian since Independence’ than Dr MS Swaminathan. He provided the bedrock of science and built institutions up from scratch with scant resources to usher in the Green Revolution. His contributions made India not just food self-sufficient, helped 800 million poor escape hunger, but also turned it into a leading producer of every major agricultural commodity.

 

Faith and food

Swaminathan can be seen as the male embodiment of Annapoorna, a form of Parvati, the Hindu deity of food and nourishment, holding in one hand a Leitz binocular research microscope and his field notes in another, instead of the pot and ladle filled with food in popular religious iconography.

That both the Goddess of nourishment and Swaminathan, the scientific guarantor of food security, are now relegated in public consciousness is a measure of India’s progress and the liberty we now have to take access to food for granted.

Read the full story here

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West Africa’s bitter chocolate harvest is a sweet deal for farmers in south India

The small, dark godown abutting M Dharmambigai’s large home with a larger courtyard in Kottur, a village 15 km to the south of Pollachi town in Tamil Nadu, has never housed stock so precious.

The value of gunny bags of cocoa beans stacked unevenly, without a great deal of care, is currently more than Rs 12 lakh and almost guaranteed to go up to Rs 15 lakh soon.

The lottery of climate change is such that the misery of farmers in one country is an opportunity to make windfall gains for others in a different continent.

The price of cocoa beans, the primary raw material for chocolate, has more than tripled in the last year. In March 2024 alone, it rose from $7100 a ton to $10455. In fact, chocolate prices now trade higher than industrial metals such as copper.

Can Indian cocoa farmers like her take advantage of rising global cocoa prices?

Read the full story here 

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What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

This is the Immortal quote from arguably the greatest book written on any sport, in this case, cricket from “Beyond the Boundary” by CLR James. This was obviously inspired by Kipling’s poem, “The English Flag “where he asks “And what should they know of England who only England know?” to celebrate the British Empire’s global reach. James says what he said to convey that it’s always in one’s interest to evolve and never stagnate.  I was thinking about this after today morning’s seemingly bitter argument between two friends in one of these ubiquitous cricket themed WhatsApp groups about the primacy of IPL versus Test cricket with the conversation getting increasingly heated and personal. I am assuming thousands if not more such groups will be having similar debates and wanted to think this aloud – I don’t expect any brilliant new insight to emerge but sometimes writing this out may clarify our collective thoughts, or that’s the aim!

At the outset, comparing the two formats is blasphemy, one is a 150-year-old sporting institution with a rich history and legacy and IPL is a15 odd year young upstart that shocks the purists. A lot argue that these two are in fact two entirely different games. I wouldn’t go as far as that but let us see where they get together and where they differ.

Tests with their ebbs and flows almost mirror life, you lose the toss and have a disastrous first session, why the whole first and second day as well or like the first test in the England series that concluded recently, be behind the match so much but still Pope scores an all-time great or freak innings and England win. That causes all of us tragics to rant and rave but suddenly India turns up and beat them 4-1. Or the last Australia series where after the 36 all out ignominy of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Gabba became classics for the ages!  Similarly, all the Ashes rivalries, Bodyline Series, India Pakistan test matches and so on, each cricket lover will have 20 test matches close to their heart for a variety of reasons.

IPL in contrast is an Indian Bollywood like affair with auctions, mix and match of foreign and Indian players, owned by celebrities – Movie stars and businessmen and rules like Calvinball , sort of made up as we go along the tournament over the years . The impact player in the last 2 versions is an example – last year it was a novelty. This year the think tanks of the teams have got a plan to exploit it and we have seen an immediate impact already – scores of 270 plus are common and we may see a 300 soon. The theory is having an additional hitter mentally frees up the other batsmen to bat more freely than they may otherwise. Is this tinkering with the basic structure of a playing eleven – sure it is! However, the crowds love it and so we enjoy the hitting and feel mildly sorry for the bowlers. The cult following of certain teams ( CSK – my team!)  is something else. Anyone who has been in the ground at Chepauk especially if not any ground when MSD Dhoni enters to bat this year will have an experience of a lifetime!

Has the IPL rubbed off positively on the traditional form of cricket – Tests? Let us examine the evidence.  The scoring rates of tests this millennium is way higher than it was ever before. The number of draws is also very few and far in between and mostly we see a draw only in case of a weather exception. (The Sydney- one arm and one leg Horatio Nelson like stand of Ashwin and Vihari being a glorious exception!). It has also enabled batsmen to be way more adventurous in tests – Rishab Pant reverse scooping Jimmy Anderson in a test and Bumrah using slower balls to get Bairstow out in tests in England come to my mind. There are numerous such examples where the innovation, cheekiness and variations of the IPL are brought on to the test matches making them exciting. New talent from the hinterland is unearthed, the kids make their name and fame in IPL and do well for their countries in tests as well. Jurel being the latest case in point. Fear of losing and playing under huge pressure with a lot of crowds is something young Indian players learn very young to adapt and that stands them in good stead in tests too. range and power hitting as seen by the Indian youngsters as well as foreign players and the 150 km and more speeds cranked up by young bowlers is a treat to watch !

Is it all roses then and IPL has no faults?  The age-old virtue of grinding out a session appears to be a bit lost but there are still players like Pujara who do it to great success  ( He does not play much of IPL or no one selects him much !) . Much was made of the Bazball hype by England but when all all-time great test batsman like Joe Root reverse scoops Bumrah to the slips when the series was in balance , the idea lost its hype I would imagine even though the English and their cloying press still cling on to it. The Ashes later this year should settle that argument once and for all!

From Indian cricket point of view, there has been interesting ramifications. In Tests since the inception of IPL, the Indian test team for most parts has done exceptionally well, have been the no 1 test team for long periods of time, have won two away series in Australia and only South Africa has been the last bastion yet to be conquered. However, we have lost both the WTC finals, on the face of it that cannot have anything to do with IPL. More worryingly after 2008 we have not won any ICC white ball trophy, the cruelest cut being the final we lost to Australia last year at Ahmedabad. I do not fancy much our chances in the T20 WC as well later this year in the Americas. Can this too be correlated to IPL – let us see what is the evidence again if any.

One worrying trend is players prioritizing IPL over national duty – classic case seems to be Hardik Pandya, I do not remember him missing any IPL but in national colors, he seems to twist an ankle or pull a muscle even while sneezing. While the Aussies seem to have a party at the IPL almost appear to take it as a lark , earning big money in millions while in national colors, they seem to give their blood and more to win. Maxwell being the case study for this, RCB his team is the butt of a million memes and he does precious little for them on most occasions while for Australia he plays impossible knocks to win them tourneys!  I cannot think of any Indian player like that while like Pandya we may have several examples. Similarly the IPL spin offs owned by the same franchises have undermined test cricket in other countries as well. South Africa sent a third XI to New Zealand to play a test series as their main players were busy with their version of the T20 league. This can be explained away as a scheduling issue, though players can only play for so many days in a year and need to rest and recuperate. The balance between the pride from national Duty to the commercial windfall from T20 leagues is a tricky one. BCCI to its credit has tried to address this by specially incentivizing players for test wins, though the other boards may not have the financial muscle to do that.

IPL has done a lot to popularize cricket with women and children, it has brought a new demographic who hitherto were cold to cricket and made them follow the game and its nuances. Sure, it can be described as a pure tamasha but the basic skills of the game are on display and the next generation is getting hooked on to the game. Given cricket was always a game played by a handful of countries this is important for the game to survive for the next 50 years and more. There was a recent survey in India amongst kids younger than 10 years and for the first time ever football was rated as the game that they followed or played most! That means IPL is necessary for even tests to survive in a manner of speaking.

In summary IPL has its utility, it is more entertainment than pure sport but some elements of the sports are sharpened due to it and the benefits spill over to make the oldest format of the game, test cricket,  more interesting. The caution is young players prioritizing one for the other, it is perfectly fine that a young player prefers IPL over national test duties but the commercials and risk reward mechanism should be structured in such a way that the decision does not become a heavily skewed one to  favor League Cricket . We still will have a Bumrah , a Rishab Pant and a Travis Head making an impact in all formats of the game and entertaining us !

Modi 3 and the fruits of fiscal Tapasya

 

The following post is contributed by @saiarav from X or Yajnavalkya from Medium

Modi does the unthinkable – goes to polls with a non-populist (revdi-free) budget

At the start of this year, I had written about Modi’s excellent economic stewardship during his second term amidst a period of extreme economic turbulence globally – a once-in-a-century pandemic followed by a major war which roiled energy markets and rapid rate hikes in the West to combat inflation (Modi’s fiscal masterclass). I had noted then that Modi:

“has achieved the near impossible of following a disciplined fiscal policy while not just maintaining his political capital, actually expanding it”

But I had fully expected that he would open up the purse strings during the election year budget this February notwithstanding his public remonstrations against the growing revdi (freebies) culture. And for good reasons. One, Modi had gone in for a ‘revdi’ at the end of his first term in 2019 (the cash transfer scheme for 120 million farmers). And the economic scenario in 2024 was decidedly more mixed compared to 2019 with greater level of economic distress among the poor. Two, recent state elections had seen parties winning based on extremely aggressive freebie promises. For example, Congress won handsomely in Karnataka last year with promises of a slew of freebies (or welfare programs if you like) amounting to more than 2% of the state’s GDP. So I must not have been the only person who was stunned to see that Modi had decided that the normal rules of politics does not apply to him. And as of today, his judgment appears to be spot-on because the only debate about the 2024 elections appears to be what his margin of victory will be. The reasons for this  – the so-called “akshat-wave” after the Ram mandir inauguration, the opposition being in absolute shambles, the ever-increasing political stature of Modi – calls for a separate discussion. In this post, I peer into the future and see what Modi’s fiscal statesmanship could potentially mean for the country.

A 10-year long fiscal tapasya….

For reasons that are not entirely clear, fiscal conservatism has been an article of faith for Modi throughout his career as an administrator. He has held on to it steadfastly during his entire 10 years as the the Prime Minister. For anyone familiar with Indian politics, it is easy to appreciate how challenging it can be to stick to fiscal discipline even during times of buoyant revenues. This makes his unrelenting fiscal focus all the more remarkable considering that for most of his tenure, he has been hemmed in by weak tax revenues. Therefore, to call Modi’s 10 year long commitment to financial discipline as a tapasya (penance) would not be out of place.

…might finally yield a Rs.20T (~$50bn) -sized fruit during Modi-3

And Modi is on the cusp of reaping the fruits of that tapasya in his third term. Barring unexpected shocks – electoral and economic – he could be presiding over a period where the economy has sizeable fiscal resources to pursue its socio-economic goals; a rare event in independent India’s economic history. Underpinned by a solid cyclical recovery in the economy and strong buoyancy in tax collections (direct taxes likely grew at 20% in 2023-24, twice the pace of nominal GDP growth), Modi-3 is not only placed very comfortably to meets its 2025-26 fiscal deficit target of 4.5% (vs. 5.8% in 2023-24), it will also have its disposal, up to Rs.4 trillion of fiscal space during 2025-26 for spending on new programs or projects (or >1% of GDP) after meeting its regular revenue and capital expenditure obligations. That is the base case which assumes direct taxes grow at 15% annually. In a bull case of direct taxes continuing to grow at 20%, the above figure could be as high as Rs. 5.5 trillion. Further, this figure will continue to swell with each succeeding year as the economy expands and revenue growth outpaces the growth in base expenditure. During Modi’s third term, I estimate that the central government will have up to Rs.20 trillion of aggregate fiscal space for new programs/projects. Also, note that many of the programs of the central government include contribution from the states, which means the total fiscal resources available could be well higher than Rs. 20 trillion.

(For those interested in the math behind the above numbers, I discuss the same at the end of the post)        .

Potentially transformative, but availability of funds is not enough

What can one do with an annual budget of Rs.4 trillion? Well, for perspective, the Jal Jeevan Mission which was initiated in Modi’s second term with an annual budget outlay of Rs.0.7T (Rs.3.5T over 5 years, 60% funded by centre) will have provided tap water connections to 160 million households by end of 2024 (110 million connections provided as of April 2024). No commentary required on how transformative this project has been for the 100s of millions of beneficiaries.

In the first two terms, Modi’s focus was primarily on building physical infrastcucture – road building under Gadkari has been an unqualified success while in case of Railways, huge investments have been made, it is still a work-in-progress with mixed results so far. Even welfare schemes had a physical asset bias – from toilets to piped water to housing. While the government deserves a lot of credit for strong execution, it has to be underlined that these are relatively low-hanging fruits from a governance perspective. As the priority areas inevitably shift from road and railways to more complex ones, quality of policymaking, human capital and management will be the key drivers of outcomes, and not just availability of funds. To wit, it is way more difficult to develop 20 high quality IITs or a few hundred Kendriya Vidyalayas compared to building 100K kms of roads. Or just throwing around money into PLIs will not deliver a successful industrial policy.

An opportunity for Modi to cement his legacy – a wide range of focus areas to choose from

What areas Modi will prioritize with the Rs.4 trillion per year (~$50bn) of additional resources is anyone’s guess because this is one government which revels in keeping its plans a total secret. One can only say two things with certainty -one, Modi will be extremely keen to cement his legacy with a couple of flagship projects/programs which has a transformational impact on society. Two, the consummate politician that he is, he will have his eyes firmly on what programs will drive the optimal political benefit for the 2029 elections (and all the state elections over the next few years).

The list of potential programs is endless. Below, I discuss briefly a few ones which I see as critical ones. I classify them into 3 categories: A) long term strategic B) medium term economic growth and C) quality of life. Obviously, most of these programs will tick all three boxes, the classification is based on how a politician like Modi would want to see it. Admittedly, some of the resources might also simply get used up in standard fiscal management as well – ie Modi might simply want to reduce fiscal deficit at a faster pace, or execute the long pending reduction on tax surcharges on the rich or fill up the job vacancies in the government.

 

  1. Long-term strategic 
  • Increase defense capex spend – In contrast to his public image as a hawk on national security, the the spend on defense capex has been rather modest. In fact, as a % of GDP, it has dropped from the levels seen during UPA. With the China threat escalating in recent years, Modi would want to increase defense capex by at least 10 bps (100 bps = 1%), if not 20 bps and get back to UPA levels. That would be 0.35-0.70 trillion increase in annual outlay.

  • Increased R&D spend – India’s R&D spend is abysmally low at around 0.6% of GDP compared to 2.4% for China. The spend has seen a steady decline from the 2008 peak of 0.9% and private sector has shown very little inclination to spend on R&D with their contribution being only around one-third of the total spend whereas in countries like China and Korea, the figure is more than two-thirds. A key policy objective for the government, apart from increasing its own direct spend, should therefore be to bring in major policy incentives to crowd-in private investments in this area. As it happens, the government has already signaled that this will be a priority area in the third term, announcing a Rs.1 trillion fund to provide long-term interest free loans for R&D work. But much more needs to be done.
  • Energy security – There are two parts to this. One, as a major importer of oil & gas with demand continuing to grow for the forseeable future, the country needs to own equity in oilfields and LNG plants abroad to enhance its energy security. For example, if India wants to secure say ~20% of the nearly 5 million barrels/d of crude it will import this year, that will mean an investment of $40 billion. Of course, the investment will be done via the government owned oil companies and it will be partly funded via debt. But it might still entail the government infusing a $5-$10 billion of equity.

The second part is investment in energy transition. So far, the Modi government has bet big on solar but now it has also stated its intention of expanding its nuclear fleet (add 15 GW by 2030). While investments in solar power has been largely driven by private players, the government will need to play a big role in setting up nuclear plants. A back-of-envelope estimate for the cost of the plants would be $50 billion and it would be reasonable to assume that the government will have to invest close to half of that amount.

  1. Medium-term economic growth 
  • A PLI-powered industrial policy – An easy prediction to make is that a turbo-charged PLI program will be the topmost priority for Modi-3. After all, the biggest failure of Modi- 1& 2 has been the inability to kickstart growth of the industrial sector and deliver well-paying manufacturing jobs to to a burgeoning labor force. Success or failure to deliver on this during the third term will likely be the most consequential factor in 2029. With the success of the modest sized PLI programs so far, Modi will look to bet much bigger sums on the program. But, at the risk of repetition, PLI itself will not be sufficient. A lot more work needs to be done in terms of improving ease of Doing Business, bringing down land costs, labor laws, building a skilled workforce and so on. One specific area where I really hope Modi-3 focusses on is building a vibrant EV industry (nah, not the two-wheelers, cars are the real deal). We are already a few years behind almost every major auto market globally on EVs. If China is the undisputed leader in EVs today, it is because the government has pumped in nearly $200bn into the industry via subsidies, grants and incentives over the last two decades.
  • Agriculture – The government would be keen on doing something transformative in this sector, not least because it is still the largest vote bank, but I am not sure ploughing in large sums of money will solve the structural issues bedeviling the sector. Having got their fingers burnt during the second term with the farm laws, it is unclear to me what major policy action they could take up for this sector.

 

  1. Quality of life
  • Urban housing and infrastructure – Another easy prediction to make is this (especially urban housing) will be one of the biggest focus areas in the third term given Modi’s penchant for physical infratsrructure. The political dividends will be way higher than what he has received for roads since the change will not just be very visible to the average voter, it will also have deeply positive impact on his day-to-day life. Modi has already delivered well on rural housing but urban housing will be way more challenging, not least due to scarcity of land and a large, ever-increasing migrant population. It will require well-thought out policies and mich greater co-ordiation with the state and local governments
  • Health and education – The public investment in health and education has been woefully short forever and that trend has continued thru the Modi years. Between the two, I think Modi will focus on health because the political benefits accrue faster and it is also relatively less difficult to execute compared to education. On paper, both these sectors can easily absorb, individually, an additional 0.5% of GDP (I.e. almost the entire Rs.4 trillion fiscal space) given the historical underspend in the sectors. But, more than any other programs, funding is a much lesser factor compared to the ability to build quality organisations which can deliver.

The fiscal math

Assumptions 

  • Nominal GDP grows at 11% (6.5% real and 4.5% inflation)
  • Direct taxes grow at 15% annually while GST grows at 13%
  • Divestment (both PSU equity and physical assets) per year of Rs1.25 trillion

 Fiscal deficit falls to 4.5% by 2025-26 and below 3% by 2028-29.

A few points:

  • 2024-25E total capex was Rs. 11.1T but this included equity infusions to BSNL and funds for the Science Fund which will not be repeated.
  • The Jal Jeevan Mission wich has an outlay of Rs 0.7T in 2024-25 comes to and end during the fiscal year, hence lower growth in revenue expenditure in the next year. That, in turn, adds to the fiscal space.
  • Run-rate capex is for ongoing projects across various sectors – more than half of it is for Roads and Railways. The assumption is that the allocation to the two sectors have peaked and will see more a modest 8% growth growth forward.
  • Higher growth baked into 2026-27 revenue expenditure to factor in 8th Pay Commission.

 

Brown Pundits