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Sadanand Dhume | A conservative’s take on India

Sadanand Dhume works with American Enterprise Institute and also writes for the ‘Wall Street Journal’. Photo: Jay Westcott
Sadanand Dhume works with American Enterprise Institute and also writes for the ‘Wall Street Journal’. Photo: Jay Westcott

Over Skype, and from the offices of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Sadanand Dhume spoke about his work, his conservatism, the changing nature of India-US relations, Narendra Modi and the state of public discourse in Indian media. The interview has been edited for length and readability.

So, first of all, tell me a little bit about the American Enterprise Institute.

It's one of the biggest and oldest Washington think tanks. It’s of a conservative disposition. Basically, I would say, most of the people who work here, broadly believe in free markets, democracy, America being a force for good in the world, but we don’t have institutional positions.

I’m the only one who is focused mainly on India here. But if, theoretically, there was someone else doing India in the next room, he could have a completely opposite position, and that would be fine. You generally find that there’s a lot of philosophical agreement, but on specific policy questions we often have completely different points of view.

I’ve been here since 2011, and my other gig, of course, is The Wall Street Journal, which I’ve been doing since 2010. 

From that conservative school of thinking, from that point of view, what does India look like? Is it a problem? Is it an opportunity? Is it a weird thing?

I won’t generalize for the school, but I’d say that, generally speaking, in Washington, India has been seen, broadly, as an opportunity. There’s been a fairly strong consensus, especially among people who work on India, that India is a glass half-full. 

I would say this has been the case, for about the past 15 years, perhaps even a little longer. Different people view the glass as half-full for different reasons.

So, you’ve got the geostrategy guys, and many of them are viewing this through the China prism, and here you have this democratic country, which also has this large population, and has been doing relatively well, economically, for the last 25 years, and here’s an alternative model. These guys speak English. They have elections. They have a free press. This is so much better than what we’re seeing in China.

So, that’s one set of people who are drawn to India for those reasons, and then, of course, you have the economics, which has been a positive story for a while. Because of its size, and the post-1991 growth rates, conservatives see its economic story as a good news story. Not the way it was seen earlier as a bit of a basket case, economically.

And then, on the civil liberties, and some of the softer stuff—this is an argument I often have with some of my friends in India—but these are actually great assets for India. 

And this has contributed to India being seen as positively as it is seen, and there again, just the fact that India is democratic, it has elections, it has a tradition of a free press, it has some semblance of holding on to human rights. 

All that has been very helpful, and, I think, you see that India doesn’t get, for instance, the kind of heat that many other places would get. For example, with what’s happening in Kashmir.

And so, I’d say, by and large, attitudes towards India, in Washington, both on the left and the right, but for different reasons, have been quite positive.

Now, if you look at a slightly broader window of time, let’s say from Independence onwards, Ram Guha kind of indicates this in his India after Gandhi book, and I think a couple of other people have said this. That America never really liked Nehru. And that this equation coloured the India-US relationship for many years. That we’re still clarifying that relationship and renewing that equation. Is that true?

I think it’s true, but I think a lot of that came from the other side too. I think Nehru himself inherited an upper-class, Englishman’s disdain for crass America. He certainly was not enamoured by the brand of capitalism that he saw here. Even less so than, I guess, other brands of capitalism.

I don’t think there was a great natural affinity that he showed. Maybe there were a few exceptions here and there. With a great intellectual like (John Kenneth) Galbraith he had a relationship. But by and large, I think there was negativity. Also from the US side... Frankly, part of the problem is just complete incomprehension, right? What is this weird thing called non-alignment? 

And I think the US really had a hard time understanding this beast called India, because it was just so different from anything else they’re used to. 

In many ways the improvement of the relationship that we’ve seen, you know, though it’s driven by many other things, such as the rise of China, and the Indian economy, and the rise of radical Islamic terrorism, and so on, one of the things that’s also happened is that Americans have become more sophisticated about understanding the dynamics of Indian foreign policy, and how India views itself.

In the 1950s and ’60s, and particularly in the time of (former US secretary of state John Foster) Dulles in the ’50s when some of this starts, you have the American turn towards Pakistan. It was just that Pakistan was understandable. Here is a country that comes and says, “I’m on your side. Can we be allies?”, and there are many, many, many other countries across the world that are doing that at this time.

The idea of this other place that sort of says, “I don’t want to be your friend, but I’m not your enemy.” It’s just too complex; but, you know, I think that Washington has just become better at dealing with complexity.

There’s a sort of cultural disdain, and then the other part of this puzzle: the tilt towards the Soviets, which of course, India showed. Then you had the economic choices India made. I mean, this was one of the least market-friendly economies outside the Soviet bloc, at one point. So, obviously, there was relatively little to hold the two countries together.

Finally, in those days there was no diaspora, and so, yes, the US-India relationship has been seeing quite a dramatic transformation.

Has the relationship shed that historical baggage?

Largely, for sure. I think many of the things that we’ve seen in recent years would have been unimaginable for an earlier generation of Indians, or Americans.

Take, for example, an American president as chief guest at a Republic Day parade, or the military cooperation. The idea that America has emerged as one of the largest arms suppliers to India.

These were impossible to comprehend not so long ago. Not so long ago, US arms sales to India were zero, and now it’s a contender. It’s obviously still less than the Russians, but it’s one of the top three.

So, yeah, things have changed quite dramatically.

Leaving out China, what are the other extrinsic factors helping this?

China is a big factor, of course, but non-China... I’d say that, particularly for this administration, radical Islam is seen as a real problem, and India is seen as part of the solution. That’s certainly one of the factors. Then, of course, the economy, that’s another big factor.

As long as India continues to grow quite fast, as long as large corporations are engaged, there’s always going to be an appetite for this relationship to be positive. Then you have the diaspora, which is not as large in percentage terms as the Indian diaspora in the UK, but wealthy, well-educated, increasingly engaged in politics, and so, quite influential.

So it all looks optimistic for the India-US relationship from that perspective.

I’m broadly optimistic about US-India relations, but to the degree that I’m pessimistic, it springs from concerns about India’s trajectory.

So, if you look at the pillars, take the China part, India is viewed as, not in such crude terms as a counterweight, but it’s viewed as a very important part of any kind of Asian balance of power.

Now, if India falls behind more and more, and it begins to look more like Mexico to China’s US, then, maybe that argument ceases to resonate the way it has resonated. Similarly, if the economy, that’s really been a positive story now, for many years, but if the economy ceases to be a positive story and India does crazy things like demonetisation...

I’m not saying I think any of this will happen. But if India goes back to being a country that’s growing at 4%, and adding a million people to the job market every month, half of whom are spending their time beating up Muslims, or rioting on the streets, or whatever, the economic story could lose some of its gloss.

I think the diaspora is actually much less of a bridge than many people think, because the links with India are actually quite shallow. 

Whenever you go for one of these things, whenever an Indian prime minister shows up, you have one Indian community event. And I’m always struck by how it is completely, and totally dominated by what we call FOBs—fresh off the boat people like me—and how little emotional investment there is from Indians born in America. How little interest there is, in either India, or the US-India relationship among many people who are considered Indian American, but who grew up in the US.

Interesting. One common criticism of American journalistic coverage of India is that some of it seems anachronistic. Some of the coverage is stereotyped. That there is so much generalization. What do you think? Do you think American journalists get India, broadly speaking?

That’s a great question. You know, I think there’s some very good reporting out of India, and there has been some very good reporting out of India for a while. The New York Times comes to mind. 

But if I had to generalize I would say that I do think that the British newspapers get India better than American newspapers.

I used to write for The Wall Street Journal news pages. Now I’m a columnist, but I was on the reporting side, and I was always struck by how the Journal was, to my mind, better than the Financial Times in Southeast Asia but not in South Asia. 

I don’t know if I would still say that, but it was certainly the case when I was working as a journalist in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And the FT was just much better than the Journal on south Asia, and I think a lot of that has to do with the historical legacy. There was just that much more knowledge in the British media, and also, a more knowledgeable reader.

I would say that the Brits have, historically, done it better. But there’s some very good reporting on India by the US also. A lot of what happens though, in terms of criticism of The New York Times in particular, is that there is also some tremendously ignorant stuff being published. 

And a lot of that, unfortunately these days, comes out, in the case of the Times, from the editorial board. But most people in India simply don’t know the difference between the editorial board and the reporters.

And so you can have a very talented, and very thorough journalist, someone like Ellen Barry, who is doing, to my mind, excellent work out of India. But then you could have some ignoramus on the editorial board write some half-true editorial which has been culled from two-and-a-half conversations with someone in Sujan Singh Park. And that’s grating. But that ends up tarring, not just the newspaper, but also US journalism.

So, that’s part of it. But part of it also has more to do with Indians just becoming more and more thin-skinned, and averse to criticism. And I see that in responses to my own work.

Obviously, I don’t live in India, but I grew up in India. I follow it quite closely. I go there very often. So, for instance, I’ve been there every month since October, and in May I was there twice. 

So, it’s not as though I’m a stranger to what’s going on in India, but I find that there’s this paranoid idea of Western media that has gained currency. This nonsensical notion of “breaking India forces”, which I’m sure you’ve seen also on Twitter, and elsewhere. And what that effectively means is that if you say anything critical, you’re immediately accused of having some kind of agenda.

And so, let me rewind. I’d say, yes, it’s true that there’s room for criticism of some of the reporting and some of the editorializing that’s done by the Western press. But I also think, in general, it has improved over the years. The reason we see such a paradox—the journalism is probably better than it was 25 years ago, but people are also much more upset about it than they were 20 or 25 years ago—is because of this other narrative that has taken hold. People in India are just becoming shriller and more thin-skinned.

Now about your first book, My Friend the Fanatic, published in 2008. How did you end up writing a book on Islamism in Indonesia?

So, I was working with a magazine called the Far Eastern Economic Review, which was part of Dow Jones. I started out as their India correspondent. And then—this is quite ironic, and it tells you about how India’s place in the world has changed—but I was writing a lot, enjoying my job, doing quite well, and they decided that, as a reward, I would be moved to Indonesia. India wasn’t considered as important as Indonesia by my editors.

I was in Indonesia when the Bali bombings happened (in 2002), and I covered them extensively. I was in Bali for a few weeks covering the aftermath, and the more time I spent in Indonesia, the more I felt that there was this story that just wasn’t being told, a story to which I brought a different set of insights having grown up in India. Essentially this relatively gentle, Indic, inclusive form of Islam that Indonesia had adopted, particularly in Java, was now being overlaid with something that was harsher, a more Arab form of the faith. 

I felt that this was now the central question facing that country. How do you deal with diversity? How do you deal with pluralism? How do you deal with those questions?

I felt that no one had asked these questions, and I wanted to write that book. So, I quit my job, travelled, wrote the book, took longer than I thought, which, as you know, is the nature of books. So that came out about 10 years ago now.

When did you become a conservative? When did you recognize that you were a conservative?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t shy away from the label, but it's interesting because it means so many different things to different people. 

I would say that I’m mostly an economic conservative. I’m certainly not a social conservative by any stretch of the imagination, either in an American context or an Indian context. As an economic conservative, I'm somebody who basically believes markets should play a larger role in the economy, and that, broadly speaking, markets work.

The idea that all-knowing bureaucrats can somehow interfere with the economy, and get these complex economic decisions right, has been generally proven wrong. I’d say that, for the most part, conservative ideas came to me with a degree of certainty since my time in Indonesia. 

When I moved to Indonesia in 2000, that’s when it really came home to me, and it really struck me how much better South-east Asia had done than India, and how big a mistake India had made by sticking to socialism for decades after we could see it wasn’t working. Studying in the US had not done that because the idea that the US was rich and India was poor was not new. Moving to another ostensibly poor country, but one that was clearly much better off than India, came as a jolt. 

It’s not as though I was some raging Marxist or anything before that. I think, in many ways, it was the South-east Asian experience that solidified what would already have been an inclination, and that’s pretty much where I am.

And then, of course, I’m conservative in a US sense of the term. I’m conservative on the question of radical Islam specifically, because I just think conservatives have got this right, and liberals and the left are just plain wrong. This is not about poverty, and it’s not about colonialism. It is about a set of ideas, and I've spent enough time with people who espouse those ideas to see this.

So, I think one side just has the right argument, and the other side might have good intentions, but they’re factually wrong on what this phenomenon is.

So, that’s where I end up on the conservative side of that debate over here. But in an Indian context, I’m not even sure. People in India think… It’s quite funny actually, I’m accused of being a leftist all the time.

India is the only place in the world where someone who writes for The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and works at the American Enterprise Institute, is regularly accused of being a leftist.

Is it an ongoing process? Do you constantly deal with your conservative ideas?

I don’t know if I deal with them in some self-conscious way. I read, and I watch things, and I form opinions. And on many things I instinctively end up on the conservative end... That’s just how I view the world.

But again it is tricky. And many people think that if you’re an economic conservative, or if you’re a bit of a foreign and defence policy hawk—which I am—you are also going to be a social conservative, and I’m not.

I mean, I believe that strong families are fundamentally good for society, and that a stable family is a good arrangement for bringing up children, and all those kinds of things, but I’m not losing sleep about gay marriage. I have no problem with it in Washington or anywhere else.

I’m not plugged into what matters to social conservatives here, and I certainly am not within the Indian context. Like I said, I’m extremely liberal on the social side, because those are just the positions I hold.

Now, coming to India, what do you think about (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi? I know that’s a very loaded question right now. It’s always a loaded question. But how has your view of him changed, if at all, from before and during the elections to now?

I guess if I had to sum it up, I’d say that, at this point, I am a disappointed Modi supporter. I think that would be fair to say. You're free to make your own assessment, but that would be my self-assessment.

Not entirely disappointed. I think he’s done some things that I’d hoped he’d do, and he’s done them quite well. For instance, he’s been quite successful in terms of foreign policy, in terms of establishing a coherent centre-right foreign policy.

You have the Obama (former US president Barack Obama) visit to India as Republic Day chief guest. You’ve got Modi's recent visit to Israel, which I thought went off very well. Then you have India being, generally, more self-confident on the world stage, not hung up on this idea of always having to prove its non-alignment or strategic autonomy.

In many ways I think he’s executed all that quite well, and I’ve been quite supportive. Even on Pakistan, where there were terrible flip-flops early on, the policy has stabilized.

I’ll give Modi fairly high marks for foreign policy. My disappointments are on two fronts. The first is, and this is first and foremost by a long way, is that I viewed Modi in 2012, and 2013 and 2014, before he was elected, predominantly through an economic prism.

Now this was partly just because of my own preoccupations. It’s just what is most important to me: prosperity, getting rid of poverty, making sure that people can feed themselves, clothe themselves, educate their children. 

I was viewing Modi through an economic prism, and viewing him through that prism, I certainly felt that he was the best bet for India to come back decisively on the reform track from which it had drifted away.

Like many others, I strongly felt that Modi would be a significant reformer. Three years in, we just have to concede that this has not panned out.

You can legitimately criticize my hopes as perhaps being overly optimistic. And my counter to that is that I’m not expecting any Indian politician to be exactly like Margaret Thatcher.

When I said Modi could have been India’s Thatcher, I didn't mean that you could take India to where Thatcher took Britain in terms of rolling back the state, and the market playing a much larger role in the economy.

What I meant by that is, in an Indian context, could you be a bold reformer, and could you do much more? That’s my response to that particular criticism.

In hindsight, I also underestimated the hold of the Sangh Parivar in terms of the government's economic thinking. 

For instance, demonetisation is a policy that I call too crazy for Venezuela. People can try and dress it up, and explain it after the fact, and so on, but you can't get away from the reality that it was too crazy even for Venezuela.

This is not to say that Modi hasn’t done some good things, right? He’s done the bankruptcy law. India has got GST (the goods and services tax), on which the jury’s still out, but you could argue that some kind of GST is better than no GST. He’s been very good in terms of attracting FDI (foreign direct investment) and wooing foreign business more broadly.

So it’s not like he hasn’t done things. If he could in fact privatize Air India, I think that will force sceptics like me to take a look at his record again. But at this point, based on what has actually been done, not based on what has been promised, I think it’s fair to say that he has not proved to be the economic reformer that some people had hoped for.

That’s been my major disappointment. And then, of course, increasingly, I’ve grown quite concerned about the rise of the extreme far right. The nutty right... In his party, and in his movement.

Now, again, you can criticize me, and say, “Well, you know these guys, what were you thinking?”

Again, it comes back to being a conservative, and in my view, that’s part of the conservative condition. Anywhere in the world, the coalition includes some people you and I would probably regard as crazy. But the deal is that the crazy people don’t get to be in charge.

In terms of my own writing and views on political Islam, I was once way to the right of the English-speaking consensus in India. I’m still saying exactly the same things, but now, in this current environment, I’m seen as this lily-livered moderate guy who doesn’t understand the problem. That’s the kind of criticism I’m getting on social media.

I haven’t moved, but what’s happened is that the discourse has moved. India has gone from being a place that was too timid to challenge Islamism, which is my long-standing critique, to a place that is increasingly unable to distinguish between ordinary Muslims who have absolutely nothing to do with any kind of terrorism or militancy, and a small minority of radicals. It’s like a pendulum has swung so violently. I can’t put all of this at the feet of the prime minister, but certainly his government and party have played a role.

If I were to grade him on these three different papers, I’d still say he’d get something like an A on foreign policy and strategic vision. Obviously, there are problems, but considering what he was given, and what he did with it, he’s done a pretty good job.

But it’s hard to give Modi high marks on the economy or on the social side.

There is a view, not a particularly original view, that the more things seem problematic on the economic and social side, the more you are going to see violence against Muslims. Especially in the run-up to the 2019 elections.

Yes, I think that will happen. I think that may happen independent of 2019. But I’m not sure if it’s necessarily one or the other. People could turn more against Muslims even if the economy improves.

A few things are happening and one of them is that, fundamentally, I mean I haven’t asked them about this, but if I had to guess, I would say that Modi and (BJP president) Amit Shah think that the BJP made a big mistake in 2004 by neglecting the base. And they’re not going to make that mistake again.

The Vajpayee project was to drag the party to the centre, and also to acknowledge, either explicitly or implicitly, that there are problems with elements of this party. I think that project has ended. I don’t see anybody punished for being too extreme, and on the contrary we’re seeing people who have been given significant rewards. Appointing Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is about as clear a signal as you could send that the BJP is a party that rewards religious extremism.

Is there no other way to maintain the base? To take it along with rest of the party?

I would think there is, and I would hope there is. But I don’t think that they think there is such a way. 

This is the worry. That there are so many other things that they could appeal to, but they seem to end up in this place. 

To be fair to the government, or to be fair to the party, a lot of this just has a life of its own. How much can you control?

But the fact remains that for many of the party's grass-roots supporters, there is no statement you could make about Islam or about Muslims that is too harsh. What we have in India is that the BJP is both a far-right party, and a moderate centre-right party. 

It is both, and you have many people, scholars and so on, who treat it only as a far-right party. This is very, very true of, for example, political science departments in the US. I think this is unfair, because we all know good, regular, decent people who are voting for the BJP for good, sensible reasons.

This is not the Nazi party. That’s just preposterous. 

But far too many people on the right do not acknowledge that there is a problem. There is a problem when you have the violence, when this kind of anti-Muslim bigotry ends up being rewarded instead of punished. Again, Adityanath is the best example.

Now they will turn around and say, “Well, there’s also a problem in Indian Islam.” And there is, and that’s a separate conversation. That’s a healthy and important conversation to have. And I think that many Indian secularists have actually opened the door to this epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry by being coy about having that conversation in the past.

It’s actually beyond the party in a way. It’s about the country. How does the country have this conversation?

Take the example of television. A few years ago, Zakir Naik, who to my mind is an unreconstructed Wahhabi zealot, was being praised as a moderate. The Indian position, the Indian establishment’s position, including the government, the intelligentsia, influential journalists, was that this man was a moderate. This was preposterous.

Here is a guy who’s praising bin Laden as a role model, and is banned from entering the UK and Canada. But you had people saying, “Well, he speaks English, so he must be moderate.” People actually said that.

That is one kind of problem, which is this complete blindness to Islamic extremism. This is now being replaced by another kind of problem, which is extreme bigotry towards ordinary Muslims. 

I have two questions. Both kind of have to do with what you said before, which is that is time the nation had several conversations. The first is, is it even possible to have these difficult conversations online? And the second, by extension, should we not have them online at all because of the nature of the platform? Should we instead be having them in the real world?

I don’t think it’s to do with the medium. I really don’t. You can be reasonable in any medium. You can discuss all of these things reasonably, whether it’s in 140 characters, or whether it’s in a TV studio, and also I don’t think that the solution is to not have the conversation. 

But I do worry that we sort of... I think the state of the national conversation today is a symptom of how people actually think. And so the question is, how do you get to this point where so many people, in fact, think this way? And it’s going to be very hard to back out of it.

Part of the problem is also—and this is the case in the US and many other places as well—that secularists have not taken on board the genuine grievances and the genuine concerns of people who are threatened by radical Islam.

Not everybody who is threatened by radical Islam is a bigot, and not every criticism of Islam or Muslims should be beyond the pale. I think that, to the degree that there is more of a conversation happening, you can view this as a good thing. 

If you’re an optimist, you can hope that—and I know you have to be a real optimist for this—but you can then hope that over time, this crude, hysterical, anti-Muslim conversation evolves into something more nuanced and fair-minded.

In the meantime, you try, to the degree possible, to anchor the conversation in reality, and hope that it makes it more sophisticated. But on the whole, I’m firmly on the free speech end of this debate. It’s not possible, and also undesirable, to try to go back to the past where the way we dealt with this kind of sensitive subject was that only people who had the “right views” were given any kind of platform. And they determined the conversation we had.

I think that genie’s out of the bottle. We can’t put it back in.

Now, about your next book. I believe it’s on globalization and how India’s changed because of that?

The book keeps shifting shape, because it’s been taking so long. That was the original idea when I started working on it, but now, at this point, it’s become much more about the recent political changes of the last three years, and where India is headed.

When I first started, when I finished with the Indonesia book, and first started thinking of doing something else, India and globalization was the idea. 

Obviously, globalization is still very important, and in many ways I’d say India is still globalizing, but what is increasingly occupying my mind is just how much of a rupture 2014 is for India. And what does that mean. That’s much more of what I’m looking at now.

And that meaning is still... happening as we speak.

It’s very hard, because it’s a moving target. Two years ago, you could say that, all things considered, things had been fairly good on the social side.  

Of course, they could have been better. The prime minister could have spoken out more actively after a few high-profile incidents of violence and so on, but all things considered, things were good. The lived experience of most people was nowhere close to the horror stories that some had expected, and that Modi’s fiercest detractors had all but promised. I think it’s harder to be sanguine today.

We also don’t know what the economic story is going to look like. Will they say, “Okay, now we really need to reform. Let’s privatize Air India. Let’s do a few more big things like labour reforms because jobs aren’t being created.”

It’s a tough one because it’s a moving target. But I am increasingly of the view that the changes seeded by the 2014 election are fundamental, and that what is coming down the pike is not something that, those of us who are born in India, and of a certain vintage, have seen before.

If you had to give any advice to a young Indian journalist working in India right now, handling politics, economics and so on, what would you tell them?

I think that’s actually quite simple. Don’t go with the herd. We live in a time where, for journalists, for columnists, for public intellectuals of all kinds, it’s very tempting to just go with the herd. It can be intimidating to not belong to a tribe, because the national conversation in India is increasingly organized on tribal lines. I would say that if you can avoid that, it's great.

Of course, if your views are naturally completely aligned with some tribe, then it's another matter. But if you can maintain your own set of views on individual issues and not be in a rush to join any crowd, that will be good for your personal intellectual growth, and for journalism as a profession. That’s the advice I’d give.

And lastly, what would you recommend to someone trying to understand what the conservative ideology, as it were, is about? A reading list of sorts...

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke 

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek 

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman 

Animal Farm by George Orwell 

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

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