At an e.Adda held this week, international affairs columnist, CNN news host and author Fareed Zakaria spoke on democracy in America, the challenges for journalism, big tech and why India needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world. Zakaria was in conversation with Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express and Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group
On whether the Trump era is over
The good news that is coming out of Washington DC right now, and I realise it is difficult to discern that there’s good news here — Winston Churchill when he lost the election of 1945, woke up in the morning, saw the newspaper, his wife said, ‘darling, this is a blessing in disguise’, and he looks at her and says, ‘at the moment, it is rather effectively disguised’ — but the good news here is that not only has democracy prevailed, it is that in 60 court cases, every challenge that Trump brought was turned down, including by judges appointed by him, including by Supreme Court where conservatives have a very large majority now. It was then turned down by Mike Pence, his own vice-president, whom he urged repeatedly to overturn the election, and then it was held up by the Congress, including the Senate, with a very strong Republican majority at the time, including a majority leader Mitch McConnell, who was very powerful, all of them locked his efforts. So, there is that very good news there. You’re asking the central question, which is what comes after. My own view is that there’s another piece of good news here, which is, I think, finally, we’re seeing a break in the Republican Party. We’re seeing people willing to find a way to separate themselves from him… (but) the base is still with Trump. This may seem fantastical, it may seem unbelievable, but it is basically true, that something in the range of 60-70 percent of Republicans still believe that Trump is right, the election was stolen. You’re talking about 50-60 million Americans. Part of it is that they have been fed a steady diet of lies for the last six months — remember Trump began this conspiracy theory a long time ago. So, the challenge will be for the party, how do you dissociate from Trump without dissociating yourself from the base, the energy and the intensity of support that comes with it. So, my own sense is here what’s going to happen, the Republican Party is going to break. And if it were to fracture, there would be a Trump-led very large segment of populous nationalist types and there’ll be a smaller group that will be more of the traditional Republican agenda, low taxes, less government, less regulation, etc. It may not happen formally within the party, there may not be two parties, but there would be these fights over every nomination, etc. You can see McConnell has broken with Trump, Pence has sort of broken with Trump, Kevin McCarthy, the No.1 guy in the House of Representatives, is for Trump but his No 3 person Liz Cheney, the daughter of (former) vice-president Dick Cheney, said she will vote for impeachment. In the leadership, you are seeing cracks. In any dictatorship, you know that things are getting bad when you see division and dissension at the top. I think you’re beginning to see that. You may end up with a new party system in America, you may end up with three parties, you may end up with a Republican Party that is dominated by Trump but there is a permanent minority party, because they get 70 per cent of the Republicans but that’s not enough to win a national election. So, I think, something interesting is happening here and the reason I say it is good news is this: there are two right-wing ideologies in America. One is a very honourable, ideologically defensible position, small government, low taxes, that’s what my friend Van Jones at CNN calls the “clean right”. Then there is the “dirty right”. And the dirty right is the right that appeals to people on the basis of race, religion, culture, that plays with these things like fire. And, by the way, this will sound familiar to you in the Indian context. There is a clean right and a dirty right. And certainly in America, what you have is Republic politicians who play both sides, who will dip into the clean right when they are in front of people like you and dip into the dirty right when there are rallies in their hometown and they are trying to get people to turn out and motivate them using anger, jealousy and envy. So, that game has to stop because it’s highly destructive, and what you might have is a greater separation, where one part of the party is dominated by this dirty right, but then there is a more honourable clean right as well.
On the dangers of illiberal democracy
When we think of democracy what we really mean is liberal democracy and there are two elements to liberal democracy: one is the democratic element, popular participation, vote, election, but there’s another part which is the kind of constitutional element, sometimes, in a sense, called the liberal element, meaning protecting liberty, rule of law, separation of Church and State, separation of powers, independence of courts, and those features were being systematically undermined in a lot of countries that had elected governments. So, the elected government was then systematically abusing those rights and that phenomenon I called ‘illiberal democracy’. I did write a book a couple of years later in which I talked about the dangers of illiberal democracy and of creeping illiberalism in the US, but I have to confess I did not, in any way, imagine that we would get to the point we have gotten to in the US right now. But it’s not just the US, it is happening in other countries that are Western established, it’s happening in places like India. I did talk a lot about India in the book, because I always thought that there is a danger of majoritarianism in India, the majority ruling somewhat arbitrarily and tyrannically. Indira Gandhi, this is one of the great problems we had in the ’70s. And, of course, it is a problem we have now. I think the lesson of the deterioration of democracy in America is this, and this is the part I didn’t adequately understand when I wrote the essay, you can look at systems and say this one is weak because these institutions are new, the independence of the courts is new, the separation of powers is new, they haven’t had the time to build. I think what I didn’t realise is institutions are human, they’re fragile by definition, that at the end of the day, an institution is only so strong as the people who are willing to defend it, the people who are willing to uphold it, and that they can shift very easily. I should have realised this honestly during the Emergency growing up in India, because I think most Indians don’t realise what a fluke it is that Indian democracy was not subverted permanently, because once Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, all the elites went along with her, the ones who she did not jail, everybody fell in line, people started treating her like a dictator. Most of the courts fell in line, most of the newspapers, with the honourable exception of The Indian Express, fell in line. It turned out to be remarkably easy to turn a democracy into something that was close to a dictatorship. Now, in the US, this did not happen. But I’m not so sure, at some level, that the US, by design, was obsessed with the problem of tyranny. So, it has many checks on it, the Congress, the courts, the President and the independent agencies, every element of the American system is designed to prevent the accumulation of power, which is why it’s so hard to get anything done in America. But the central role, again, went back to individuals, you have to have people of honour and decency, exercising independence, engaging in norm-making. I would say democracy depends on a well-designed system, institutions, but it also depends on norms, on behaviour, on the character of people. And one of the tasks of a democracy is to build those norms. It’s one of the things that Jawaharlal Nehru did superbly in India, people forget that this is the guy in the 1950s, he had two-third majority in both houses of Parliament and two-third majority in two-thirds of the state assemblies, and yet, he observed democratic norms to the extent that he would engage in his own kind of self-criticism. He famously wrote an anonymous article warning of Nehru’s accumulation of power and tendencies towards dictatorship. And later it turned out that the author of that anonymous article was Jawaharlal Nehru himself. So, that kind of norm-building is something that we have to pay more attention to. Otherwise, you can very easily, with the most beautifully designed Constitution, still lapse and still move towards some kind of tyranny.
On the need for India to make strategic choices
In the US, people don’t pay enough attention to this because we air our differences in the US very openly. But there’s actually a remarkable degree of bipartisanship in foreign policy. If you take Trump out of it, over the last 30-40 years, if you think about the policy towards Russia, China, India, the big countries, US policy has been remarkably bipartisan, and as you say, particularly with India, and it has been moving in only one direction, which is closer ties to India. So, if you think of the (Bill) Clinton administration that really began that outreach, then you have the Bush administration, which very critically decides to, in a sense, legitimise India’s nuclear programme. But there you have to give enormous credit to (former prime minister) Manmohan Singh, because this was an area where the Bush administration essentially signalled that they wanted India as a close partner and asked, ‘what can we do?’ And it was Manmohan Singh who said, the single-most important issue for us is that you have to get us out of the nuclear sanctions box. And it was a big ask, you were asking the US to reverse 30 years of bipartisan foreign policy. And this will go down in history as one of the great turning points for India. Then you have the Obama administration, which even further made the ties closer because of the pivot to Asia. And now you have the Trump administration, which has talked big, but as you know, in practical terms has actually done very little. My guess is the Biden administration would pick up where Obama left off, and continue in substantive ways to do things. The challenge is that India hasn’t figured out what it wants. In a sense, the US is an open door, you can push on that door, and the answer will be ‘yes’, most probably. But what does India want? And in order for India to decide what it wants, it needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world, its place in Asia. And it doesn’t have that right now. Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi says his policy is multinational, etc, but I’m going to be nice to everybody. That is opposite of having a foreign policy. Foreign policy is making choices. You have to make choices, strategic choices, and orient yourself in a direction and some people will be happy and some people will be unhappy. I think if India were to decide that it wants a strategic partnership with the US, centred around cooperation and shared information and know-how on technology, energy, education, and defence, that would be a transforming relationship for India and the US. But India needs to be much clearer about this. Indians still remain, at the highest level, ambivalent about that idea of picking sides, aligning with America, there’s still a certain amount of the non-aligned mentality that is still part of the Indian foreign ministry. So, until it can get rid of those phobias and realise it’s actually in a new world, I don’t think you’ll get as much out of the American relationship as you could.
On the India-US relationship
So, the danger for India is that the relationship becomes a narrow defence-oriented relationship, which is merely about that issue. Whereas what is in India’s interest is a broad strategic relationship that helps India to modernise its economy, its educational system, move to the next frontier in energy. In a way, India has the opportunity to have the kind of deep country-to-country, a people-to-people relationship that Britain and the US had. That is that is a much deeper kind of strategic alliance than, say, the one that the US has with Saudi Arabia. That’s a State-to-State relationship, what India can achieve as a society-to-society relationship is much deeper, much stronger. And the reason is, obviously, both are open, messy democratic systems, both understand each other in that sense. Americans don’t understand these black-box dictatorships, like the Chinese government: who is making the decisions? How do they get made? You want to look at the smoke coming out of the chimney to figure it out. India is open, messy, chaotic, diverse. Americans understand that kind of system. That is the system they have. And, so, there is an opportunity here for a much deeper relationship.
On the link between political fanaticism and the pandemic
Look, I quote this line of Lenin’s in the book that there are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen. The pandemic has sort of put life on fast forward, it’s accelerated many trends taking place around the world, within our system. And, so, it has intensified everything that’s happening. Now, if you look at this election in the US, it was a heroic achievement, you had real pandemic with real lockdown, social distancing, masks taking place everywhere. And yet, we have had the record turnout and the largest participation by Americans, in percentage terms and absolute terms in a hundred years. So, it was a heroic achievement to get that. But what it did was it has raised the stakes, it has heightened the intensity, it has made people feel that this is a make-or-break moment, and when those kinds of things happen, the atmosphere gets charged in all directions. So, that’s the sense in which I would the pandemic had an effect, it has something to do with the #BlackLivesMatter protests that happened, again, this same feeling of intensification and high stakes, it has something to do with the challenges to democracy because the election became a high-stakes game, but I wouldn’t discount the reality of Donald Trump. Trump is not produced by the pandemic, he precedes it. And it’s important to understand how significant the figure of Donald Trump is. He really is a break with 70 years of American politics. You’ve had people like this in the past, Huey Long, (Joseph) McCarthy, but they’ve never been able to be elected president. There always was a limitation to this kind of right-wing nationalist populism, the fact that Trump was able to get elected by a kind of a fluke. Remember, he loses the national vote by 3 million. But the fact that Trump was able to get elected that had a significant amount to do with the events of January 6.
On fixing accountability for the storming of the Capitol
I feel the pandemic lets us all off the hook. If you say, well, it was because of some once-in-a-century pandemic that this happened, no, a lot of it was because right-wing populism and right-wing nationalism grew and grew and was accommodated by the Republican Party in exactly the game they play with the clean right and the dirty right. Parts of the media absolutely turned into just amplification mechanisms and loudspeakers for Trump and, more importantly, created a kind of ecosystem in which people really never got the truth. One of the central things people need to understand is that the most egregious attack on democracy was not the attack of a few 1,000 people who stormed the Capitol and tried to enter the US Congress, but the fact that the US president, 150 members of the Republican Party in Congress and the House of Representatives and the Senate were voting and did vote, and, in president’s case, were urging the overthrowing of a democratically elected government. After all, that was what the vote was if you are voting to say, we are not going to recognise the results of an election that was certified by 50 states, and reaffirmed by 60 court decisions, what you are trying to do is overturn an elected government. That is the definition of a coup and insurrection, they were just using illegal means to do it, or quasi-legal means to do it, because, actually, Congress does not have the authority. That is the insurrection that matters. And my fear is actually that if we just talk about a pandemic and things like that, people forget that these are human beings who are responsible for this, they decided to take these actions because they were weak and cowardly and wanted to pander to what they saw as their political base. The writer Ezra Klein has made this point, we should not just punish the weak using legal mechanisms, all those people who stormed the Capitol, and let the storm, the politicians, who voted for the same thing, go scot-free, because they are the political class and they should also be held accountable.
On why experts tend not to listen to people
So, first, let me own up to that mistake. I said (at an Express Adda in 2012), something like… he’s (Modi) a regional leader, there’s no evidence that he’ll be able to become a national leader. And look, let me be clear, I was 100 per cent wrong. My thesis at the time was that Modi was trying to become a regional leader, but the BJP was a powerful hierarchical organisation. Vajpayee and Advani did not want him, that they would effectively keep him at the regional level. I turned out to be dead wrong. I think I misunderstood the degree to which the BJP had actually changed. There was a lot of grassroots activity. It’s actually a very similar phenomenon to what happened to the Republican Party in the United States, which is that this bottom-up fervour of populism and nationalism dislodged what the elites in the Capitol wanted to happen. And you’re absolutely right, it’s a very good reminder that elites also need to be much more careful about understanding what is going on, how it’s happening, and such. The reason this is a particularly dangerous trend is because we have this big and growing divide in almost every society — between an urban, educated, somewhat richer group on the one hand and a rural, less educated, somewhat poorer group on the other. And I say somewhat because it varies from country to country. It’s not only about money, it’s really about a sense of class difference, class resentment, class anxiety. And unless we are careful about this, we will create a permanent politics of resentment and grievance, which can then be used very effectively by skilful politicians. Modi uses it in India, Erdogan uses it in Turkey, Putin uses it in Russia, and of course, Trump uses it in the United States. So those of us who are living in cities, more educated, who claim to have the expertise, have to recognise that we sometimes get things wrong. What I always try to do is, I try to explain my reasons. And the fact base that I use to come to conclusions. As you say, I’ve been lucky to be right in a number of cases. Of course, I’ve made mistakes. And the best thing you can do is to try to explain why you come to the position you do, explain how it’s based on a fact pattern. Either people will read with the fact pattern or dispute your reasoning. But to do it also with some measure of humility. Even with Covid, the kind of arrogant certainty with which medical experts started out saying things and then contradicted themselves and then reversed themselves and claimed to be experts on things that they don’t know. I mean a doctor cannot understand the impact of a lockdown on the economy, on society, even on health. You have to have other people involved. It can’t just be doctors running the country. You have to have economists and urban experts and people explaining what would the effects of a partial lockdown versus a full lockdown be. We need to hear from everyone.
On the one lesson one can learn from Trump
Probably the one lesson would be to remember sometimes what people forget more than anything else is that human beings want dignity, they want a sense of recognition. So it’s not just about economics. I think a lot of people on the left, let’s say, broadly speaking, think that our programmes are going to help these poor people, why don’t they? Why don’t they support us more strongly? And what Trump makes you realise is that a lot of his programmes help the millionaire class — the corporate tax cuts and things like that. But he still has this incredible support among the working class. Why? Because he speaks to them with dignity, he gives them dignity, he recognises them, he doesn’t look down to them, he doesn’t disdain them. And that feeling that I see you, I hear you, turns out to be very important for people’s emotional and psychic well being. The last Democrat who was able to do that really effectively was Bill Clinton. And it’s not an accident that Bill Clinton came from the white working class, in a sense that he grew up in modest means in a small town in Arkansas. It maybe gave him, naturally, an understanding of how to connect, that sense of how to connect with people, how to make them feel honoured. It’s not about the programmes you’re doing. The other way I will put it is most people don’t vote from the head, they vote from their heart. It’s a different way of making people feel seen, heard, honoured, respected. It’s not about the technical evaluation of your particular subsidy scheme, or tax scheme or anything like that. Most people subcontract that to you. They say if I trust you, I’m going to trust that you’re going to look after me. But do I trust that you really respect me? Do I trust that you get me? That’s the association we have to find a way to make.
On the challenge for journalism
I think there’s no going back to the old world. The old world was one where you had a limited supply. And the limited supply gave a shape to journalism in those days. So in the United States, you had three networks, you got all your news from those networks, then four or five big national papers. And the most important thing about those networks was they knew they had a mixture of people — Democrats, Republicans, Left, Right. Fortunately, they had a lot of people who were not very political. And so they had to provide a kind of centrist, fact-based diet of news. This shift that’s taking place is two-fold. One, you’ve lost that cartel that was able to just feed people what it thought was the important thing. And you have now many different platforms of various kinds. But the second is that a large number of people who were listening, watching, reading in the old days out of a sense of obligation, out of a sense of limited supply — they actually turn out not to be that interested in politics. So what happens is, now political journalism has to contend with the reality that they are only getting the junkies, they are only getting the groupies. And those tend to be more partisan, those tend to be more deeply engaged, which means they are picking sides, they don’t want to just hear the news. So I guess one lesson I would say is, you can’t escape that. Your universe of people is that of partisans. And you will have to, to a certain extent, pick, broadly speaking aside. The challenge is that you have to still maintain your standards, you still have to try to provide the best fact-based journalism. And I think there is and will be a room for quality to shine. I think that the challenge in terms of profitability and such is a slightly separate discussion. But I think at the end of the day quality matters a lot. Because one of the things you’re trying to do is figure out how to get people to pay for a product in whatever way you do. And you have to be distinctive. If what you have is commoditised, it’s very hard to get pricing power on a commoditised product.
On quality, not quantity of government being crucial
One of the things that I noticed is that I’m beginning to think about this as a research project for myself. The 20th century is really marked by this big debate. How big is your government? Should you have a big all-encompassing government that owns the commanding heights of the economy or should you have a small limited government that allows the private sector to dominate the economy? And that debate, which was basically socialism versus capitalism, dominated the 20th century. And we still continue to think in those terms even though the Cold War is over, communism has collapsed, socialism in that sense has collapsed. But the reality is that all governments around the world actually have a very large role for the private sector, but there’s still a large role for governments. There is a kind of new equilibrium that has set in. The real challenge is the quality of a government, not the quantity of government, that turns out to be the crucial dimension, which is do you have bureaucracies that function independently? Do you have a system by which you train, support and promote these people? Do you give them autonomy so that they can engage and are non-corrupt? One of the most important factors, to me, when you look at the places, particularly in the less rich countries, where they succeeded — Vietnam, for example — is that the bureaucracies have developed a reputation for being less corrupt. Why is that important? It gets back to the issue of trust. If these bureaucracies are seen as rapacious, predatory, and the only reason they exist is to milk people for bribes, then when they issue a guidance, you’re not going to take it seriously. Whereas when the Singapore government issues a decree, people know at the end of the day that these are clean, this is a clean agency, a clean government, and they follow it, and they believe in it, and they adhere to it. So it turns out that the quality of government matters, the way you structure these groups matters. Places like Taiwan and Singapore operate their bureaucracies on small budgets. They do not have the vast scale and scope of Western countries. But I bet if you look at Indian Railway, it probably has a larger bureaucracy than the entire government of Singapore, but they are well run, the Singaporean government. It’s not the size, it’s quality.
On what does the political party have to do in a time of populism to regain itself
So first, to explain to people why political parties are so important. The parties are the mechanism by which popular passion is translated into policy. The parties are the mechanism by which you take the somewhat vague demands of the public and channel them into a productive platform that says, okay, these are your concerns. So these are the three policies we’ll come up with, rather than just reflecting a series of emotional outbursts, which is often the way that the electorate expresses itself. So parties have always played that role of reconciling differences within a population, channelling passion into policy, those mechanisms which moderate and stabilise the political system have traditionally been done through political parties. The problem, as you say, is not just populism, but a kind of democratization where everybody thinks that these elites are bad, party elites are bad. Why should they be making the choices? Why shouldn’t the people decide everything? So when you move into that world, it becomes very difficult for parties to play that stabilising role, and to play that role as gatekeepers. I pointed out that there have been populists in the past in the United States, who have been quite dangerous — Huey Long, Father Coughlin, McCarthy… and they don’t become President largely because the party intervened in some way to place a kind of limit or check on them. And this has, by the way, happened in India more dramatically. So to me, the single most important event in that respect was what happened in 1971. Indira Gandhi suspended internal party elections in the Congress Party. So before that, the Congress party was a very vibrant bottoms-up grassroots organisation that produced a lot of local leaders from the bottom, who then came up through the states and became powerful. So if you look at somebody like K Kamaraj in the south, if you looked at somebody like YB Chavan in Maharashtra, these were all people with deep reservoirs of local support, who then moved up through the party structures, so the party was highly representative. So it was able to be a moderating force, but it had the legitimacy that came from being representative. When Indira Gandhi suspends internal party elections, what that does is basically turns the Congress party from a grassroots organisation into a court. Now, every ticket for every seat, not just in the national parliament in Delhi, even for the state legislators was granted from Delhi. So what that meant was that the game politically was no longer to build a base in your home state or to build a base in your local area but to go and act like a courtier here in Delhi, to sit outside the offices of the secretary to the secretary to the secretary to the secretary of the Prime Minister. The two most powerful people in India at the time became Seshan and Dhawan, the two gatekeepers to the Prime Minister’s schedule. That is a total distortion of the democratic process. Something similar, interestingly, is now happening to the BJP, which has become essentially a one-person organisation or maybe a three-person organisation. And so there’s a danger there as well. As you pointed out, Congress has never really recovered from that period and essentially has been a series of courts that have been dominated by this by one family. So it’s easy to say what should be done. These parties need to be more grassroots oriented, they need to be more responsive because then you can play a gatekeeping role and a moderating role. If you are a court, it’s very hard to do that. Even for the BJP, it will turn out… Modi has an uncanny ability and a very good sense of what people want. But will his successor? Will the next person who runs the BJP, if he has the same powers that Modi does or the same almost dictatorial control, will that person have the same level of skill to know and read and manipulate public opinion? I don’t know. If you want to guide and if you want to lead, you also have to take care to maintain a very close connection to the base, maintain a close connection to the rank and file, to the grassroots, which in India has happened much less than it then it should. The one thing I’ll say about the Indian party system is that at a local level, the saving grace is that a lot of these states have local or regional parties, which are relatively strong. So while at the national level you have increasingly two court-like parties, at the local level many of these parties are strong. And my suspicion is that the challenge to the BJP will not come right now from Congress, the other national party, but it will come from a series of regional parties in the south, which by the way is the way the first challenge to the Congress party came in the 1960s. It was southern parties challenging the Congress on linguistic issues which might themselves play a role in the challenge to the BJP.
On whether any government is big enough to regulate big tech
There is a structural reality here, which is that between the information revolution and globalisation, mostly it is the technology that is driving us towards the single platforms, which means that these single companies have enormous power. You have an extraordinary reality, and it’s impossible to imagine another market like this where you look at ‘search’, and Google’s market share is between 80 and 95 per cent, depending on the country you look at. You look at Amazon and in most places, there is no number two player. The pandemic has actually accentuated that reality because we all want to be on the platform everybody else’s on because that’s the nature of digital space. There are huge advantages to being on the same platform that everyone else is on. That’s what people call network effects. So that network effect is so powerful, but it means that one country and one company dominates. The reason I make this point is because I don’t know how easy it is going to be to regulate it. I am sure about one thing, which is that the market is not going to provide a solution to this. I think people who think that the market is going to provide a solution misunderstand the problem. Markets solve for inefficiency. This is a super-efficient system. You are getting all the benefits of the fact that everyone else is on this platform, which means that you have maximum access, maximum ease of use, lowest cost of the transaction, but it is creating a monopoly. So the only way around this is politics. So the state, the government has to find some way to regulate. But even that is not going to be that easy. So you separate YouTube from Google. I’m not sure what that would do. Probably the shareholders of Google would make money because their vote would rise, there’s a certain kind of unlock value that goes up. It was after they broke up with Standard Oil, that John D Rockefeller became the richest man in the world because the seven companies that were created all rose in market value over the years, and that made him even richer than he was before. So I think there needs to be some intelligent regulation of these spaces. I do think that you cannot leave it just to the economic space. And you’re right, it’s happening in every country. But it is all the more reason to try to come up with some intelligent set of regulations. Look, in the old days, the monopoly used to be thought of as something where the private company had too much power. In the ’70s, with the Market Revolution, what happened is people started to think that the only measure is — does the consumer get a lower price? If the consumer gets a lower price, it’s not a monopoly. And then by that definition, of course, all these tech companies are not monopolies because the consumer gets the product for free. But that can’t be the definition. You are creating massive concentrations of power, you have the inability of smaller companies to compete, the inability of smaller companies to even bargain on reasonably fair terms with these large behemoths. So in every broader sense, these companies are monopolies. But it is true that the consumer gets a free good, but that can’t be the sole criteria. So that is, I think, where the basic intellectual unwinding has to happen. We have to realise the consumer price is just one measure of whether you have too much concentration of power. And it is the role of the government to try to place limitations because you do want a more open, more diverse system where small companies can rise where these companies don’t have too much political power. The Twitter ban on Trump, to my mind, is completely egregious. I don’t think it’s a good idea. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to ever ban somebody for life. If you look at their criteria, it makes no sense, because they have other people who incite hatred, and even violence. I mean, you have Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, who has seven Twitter accounts in seven different languages. And the President of the United States doesn’t… What sense does that make?
Shashi Tharoor, Congress leader and MP
On the last exchange on the social media companies, in our parliamentary Standing Committee on information technology, the issue has come up. At the same time there’s been a lot of public criticism of these companies for not calling out politicians when they make egregious claims. I think you’ll remember the famous attacks on Mark Zuckerberg by a whole series of people and it got a lot of attention a few months ago because he was essentially taking the position that anyone could say any lie on Facebook and get away with it because Facebook didn’t take any responsibility for policing content. Now that they’re actually doing something, the social media companies are under the cosh. So it’s not an easy dilemma to resolve.
I also wanted to take you back in my question to an earlier book more than a decade ago in which you had written that what we were seeing in the world was not the decline of the West, but the rise of the rest. And I’m just curious if I can get you to revisit this a dozen years down the road. Because the West has been through all the convulsions since then, it has seen the rise of strong men rulers, some of whom are fairly undemocratic, and some of whom have been anti-democratic, as you could rightly argue about Mr Trump and his cohorts in Washington. And at the same time, when you speak of the rise of the rest, it’s essentially been, for the most part, the rise of China. Yes, some of the smaller Asian countries, perhaps one or two other countries that weren’t amongst the risen have risen a bit now.
Fareed Zakaria: So let me start with just a comment on his comment about the social media companies. Look, I agree, it’s a very tough challenge. If you don’t do it, you’re damned, if you do, you’re damned. If you don’t, it would only add to the complexity of the challenge. Imagine that it is not Mark Zuckerberg who would be determining what can appear on Facebook or and not, but Rupert Murdoch. In other words, would you be comfortable with one individual deciding what was going to be? I think I would be more comfortable with a democratic political system that provides certain guidelines which all these companies have to follow. And it has to navigate doing that around freedom of speech issues, but you can do it because there are licenses involved, and there are regulations involved. So that’s the direction I’m more comfortable with, rather than hoping that Mark Zuckerberg will do the right thing. But that’s just a comment and to agree entirely, with Shashi’s point that it’s a very difficult challenge.
On your main point, I think you’re absolutely right. What you have seen is less of a rise of the rest than I would have expected. But I think it still has altered the international system substantially. So without any question, China is the big story, now the second-largest economy in the world, and soon to be the largest economy in the world. But let me give you an example to show you how the world has changed. You look at Turkey. 35 years ago, when the United States wanted Turkey to do something, the Pentagon would literally just tell the Turkish government which was run by generals and the generals would say, you know, how high do you need us to jump and they would jump. Now you have three decades of economic growth, you have a consolidated new political system that I would describe as quasi-democratic but fairly stable. You have the arrogance of cultural confidence that comes from 30 years of economic growth, per capita GDP, and Turkey has quadrupled, almost quintupled. And so, what you find is a Turkey that will not listen to Washington, on almost any issue. A Turkish foreign policy that is entirely independent, it may be, by the way, often quite self-defeating. It may kind of have its own problems. But they are certainly no longer willing to play the game of being pawns in a larger chessboard with the great powers acting. And that is the way in which the world has changed. Turkey is not unusual. Brazil has become more like that. Obviously, India always was like that but has become more so. So each of these countries, while they have not risen quite as much as China, they have changed their character. But what you’re referring to as I think something that I worry a great deal about, which is whether it’s because though these countries have risen, whether it’s because of the rise of China, one thing that is clear is the post-American world appears to be a less liberal world. We knew that probably it was going to be a somewhat less orderly world. But what is striking is the degree to which it is less liberal. And this is now I think, the great challenge we face going forward, which is, is a post-American world, a post-Western world, going to be a post-liberal world. And by liberal, I mean values that are centred on the preservation of individual liberty and freedom. And here, the challenge is this. Are these values, universal values, or are they Western or American values? Are the institutions that were set up after World War II institutions fundamentally resting on American power? Or are they institutions that can be co-opted and continue to function in a world of greater multipolarity, of greater disorder, in which other people like the Turkeys and Brazils and Indias of the world have a greater say. I worry a lot. Look, I mean, the reason the world trade has come to a standstill is as you know, because India and Brazil, in the last Doha Round, killed any further progress. It wasn’t China. So it’s not just that China is illiberal, it’s also because other countries are also providing a kind of break on this process. My hope is that you will have a period of tussling and, and navigation and negotiation, but over time, you will still continue to see a broad acceptance of these universal values and an instantiation of these values around the world. But I’m an optimist. I suspect that Shashi also would hope for that, having worked for so many years in the United Nations. But let’s face the reality, it is possible that this entire world order that has been created after 1945 fundamentally rested on American power, and American values, maybe Western power and Western values. And, you know, it could crack and fissure very easily again. Back to our discussion of democracy, a lot will depend on what we do. This is not a machine that will work by itself automatically. And if countries decide that they’re going to, for their own narrow advantages, break that, you know, stretch and strain and stress the system, it could easily crack.
Dinesh Trivedi, Member of Parliament and former railway minister
The largest democracy and the oldest democracy, India and America have a lot in common. And one thing in common is knowledge, the hunger for knowledge, and that’s why these two democracies have really come together. Now, that knowledge, which is turning into a digital dictatorship, almost, has a lot of good points. And what we have seen on Capitol Hill, to my mind is just a symptom of a bigger thing, which was behind those symptoms. And if we just blame an individual, that I think will be simplifying a lot of things. So what I’m trying to get at is that people are angry. People are angry and the world has polarised, whether polarisation in India on account of religion or the West on account of the colour of the skin. Would you agree with me that when we talk about the liberal values of democracy, that spirit of democracy has gone, and in this vacuum would you say that China would take a lot of advantage of it, and maybe technology, whoever is ahead in the world, will rule the world, because there is one common thing which I have learned early in my life, that whoever has the gold, makes the rule? And that is what the golden rule is all about.
Zakaria: You raise a very, very important point, Dinesh. Actually, several points. So the first one is what is happening to Western democracy, as you have this polarisation, which is not just polarisation in terms of ideas but is polarisation around race, religion, the colour of skin, caste and creed. And I think that kind of ethnic, racial, religious division is very dangerous for democracy. It is one of the reasons why I so admire what Gandhi and Nehru tried to do in India, which was to emphasize the secular character of the country because it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do from the point of view of communal harmony and racial reconciliation, it is also the only basis on which you can have a sustainable democratic experiment, because otherwise, what ends up happening is, people move into armed camps as it were. And you know, you’re sort of declaring war on each other, using democracy as the means to wage war. And we saw the outcome of that in Capitol Hill. There’s almost no place in which this has worked out well. Even if you look at a place like Belgium today, an advanced, rich country, and you see it when you have at the heart of the division is an ethnic division, it is fundamentally, you know, deleterious to do your democracy. And by the way, it’s not an accident that Belgium has the highest number of COVID deaths per capita in the Western world. It’s partly because of the dysfunction, the distrust, the decay that sets in when you have that kind of a thing. So I think, to the extent that politicians use and deepen and widen these kinds of divides, they are playing a very dangerous game with democracy itself.
Now, to your other point, what I would say is this, I continue to be something of an optimist, that if democracies can get their house in order if we make some wise choices over the next 10 or 15 years, we will live in a messy, chaotic, but open and somewhat liberal world, and that China will not dominate. And the reason I think this is, you know, at the end of the day, there is a democratic spirit that has an enormous amount of power. It’s messy, it’s chaotic. But look at all the dictatorships, I mean, from Germany to the Soviet Union, to Mao’s China to Iran and Khomeini, they have ultimately never really been able to hold that. So, China was able to do so because it essentially opened up a vast part of its society, the economy, and is now trying to play this balancing game, where it has a very open economy when it wants productivity and a very closed society. You know, what Nikita Khrushchev calls Market Leninism. We’ll see how stable that is. I mean, that’s a very difficult trick to play over the long run. I think that if you look at China, externally, what is striking to me is Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has basically been a failure. I mean, what is the goal of your foreign policy, to win friends, to influence people, to set standards around the world, you have a situation where India is now more strongly and stridently anti-Chinese than it was 10 years ago, Vietnam is more strongly stridently anti-Chinese, the Philippines, which was trying to cosy up to China, possibly because Duterte has been favoured by the Chinese government in various ways, even they have now committed to joint military exercises with the United States. Australia is becoming more and more anti-Chinese, Japan was always was in that direction. So I’m looking around China and thinking to myself, what neighbouring country has it not alienated in the last five years. And if it continues down this path, these tendencies will only grow, the Chinese seem to have fundamentally misunderstood their position. They are not the United States, which was growing rich and powerful in an isolated hemisphere with two weak neighbours surrounding it. China’s growing rich and powerful in the middle of a crowded continent, Asia, and if it’s not careful to navigate those relationships with its neighbours, it is going to find itself surrounded by a ring of hostile adversaries around it, supported, by the way, by the most powerful country in the world, still, the United States of America. That does not strike me as a recipe for strategic dominance of the world. It strikes me as a recipe for a kind of, you know, potentially nasty Cold War, but not one in which China will by any means clearly prevail. So, I still tend to think that China, you know, let’s not make the mistake of painting our enemies 10 feet tall. China is navigating its own complexities. It has a huge demographic crisis that it is going to have to address in the next 20 years. It faces this reality of countries increasingly alienated from it. It has many strengths, of course, but in democracies, the United States and India being particular examples, we air our dirty laundry in public very, very conspicuously, so it’s very easy to see all the problems, but China has problems too, you just go to jail if you mention any of them in Chinese media.
Anant Goenka: You said that the US relationship with China is so different from Russia. And you’ve actually said that it’s not in America’s interest to villainise China beyond the point. Is it at all conceivable for India to have a friendly relationship with China?
Zakaria: The point I was making there was, you know, at the height of the Cold War, the best years of US-Soviet relations, the US and the Soviets did $2 billion of trade every year, the United States and China do $2 billion of trade every day. So, you are living in a much more connected, interdependent economy. So that’s why I just brought my hope, but also my prediction, we will not go down the classic Cold War path. Because it’s in no one’s interest. Everyone benefits from having this global economy and having the level of openness and connectivity in some areas that will get closed down, particularly around technology and defence. But in other areas, I suspect that Walmart and Amazon will continue to source a lot of their products from China, I suspect China will continue to buy a lot of agricultural products from the United States. So, I think that India has to find a way to navigate this. In social media, there’s this term ‘frenemy’. It is a useful way to think about relations in this new world, where you’re going to have a lot of economic contact with China, there are going to be areas where there are barriers and there is suspicion and there is an effort to create a containment or deterrence. Call it what you will. And by the way, the Chinese are comfortable with that as well, because that’s what China does. I mean, the Chinese do a lot of business with the United States, but they walled off their technology so that Google and Facebook and Amazon were not allowed to enter the Chinese market. You know, they are perfectly comfortable in a world in which there is some degree of economic cooperation, interdependence activity, but there are some areas which are walled off.
Ajit Gulabchand, Chairman, HCC Ltd
Why did you leave India – a land of opportunities after independence? You are one the first few free born children of this country. Why did you decide to stay away abroad? The second question is that both America and India, the world’s largest democracies, had very different paths after their Constitution was formulated. The First Amendment to the American Constitution gives so many freedoms that are even today respected by everybody, and you seek that protection every day, whereas the First Amendment to the Indian constitution was carried out by the Constituent Assembly and not by a freely elected government or Parliament. So, what is it that you found so sexy about Jawaharlal Nehru being a great protector of democratic rights?
Zakaria: On the question about American rights and such, look, my point would be, the Indian Constitution, in many ways, is a very admirable product. I think that you’re slightly wrong about the actual sequence because the Bill of Rights in the United States was also enacted by America’s Constituent Assembly, as it were. Those rights were also ratified almost instantly. So, it’s not that different. The issue is that the American system found a way to divide power, and to put checks and balances in place, that has worked remarkably well, and required remarkably little tinkering with. If you take the first 10 amendments out, the United States has had essentially 15 or 20 amendments, many of them relating to the Civil War and slavery. If you look at the Indian Constitution, you know, it has had hundreds of amendments since only 1947. I would not claim one is far superior to the other.
Which gets really to the question you were asking, which was personal. I would not claim that my decision to go to the United States and to emigrate to the United States is some kind of great choice between the two political systems or two societies in some grand sense. I’m just one human being who made a very personal choice.
When I was growing up in India in the ’70s, it was a pretty rough time. You will remember this was the death of Indian statism and socialism. Indira Gandhi had nationalised the banks, declared a state of emergency, you had an economy that was utterly stagnant. And to somebody like me, who did not come from any great economic means, my parents didn’t own a vast industrial house or something like that. They were salaried employees. And as a result, while we were very well situated, and they had very strong connections with Indian society, I did not have any great industrial fortune to worry about. I was looking at it as an individual. And for me, personally, I found it immensely attractive, the idea of the openness, the spirit of adventure, the canvas on which you could paint in the United States. India seemed a very cramped, difficult, stagnant society at the time.
I don’t know how I would feel if it were 25 years later and you have had all the reforms and India has become as dynamic as it has. But I would also point out, I was also living in a much more secular India when I was growing up. I am struck when every time I come back to India, and I always go to, not just Bombay, Delhi and such, my father set up a whole bunch of charities in Aurangabad, so I’ve been to rural India and his constituency was 1,000 villages around Aurangabad city. So I’ve seen a lot of it. It’s much more communal. The level of tension, antagonism, suspicion is much more. The lack of co-mingling is so much greater. When I was growing up, we celebrated Holi, we celebrated Diwali. At our Eid parties, half the people there would be Hindus, we even celebrated Christmas. And this was all done in a very conscious effort to build a kind of national secular democratic character to the country. It was very important to my father. As a very young man, he made a choice about whether he was going to go with Jinnah’s vision of religious nationalism, or Nehru’s vision of a secular democracy. And for him, that choice that he made when he was 13-14 years old, was the most important choice of his life. And his whole life’s work was to reaffirm that choice.
So, I don’t know what it would look like to somebody, to me growing up in India today, there are pluses and minuses. But the most important point I want to make is, I don’t want my personal decision, which comes from my own, that’s one man’s choice. And I don’t think it says anything bad about India or good about America. It was a particular idiosyncratic choice. I’m comfortable with it. But I don’t pretend that it is some kind of ringing affirmation of one society over the other.
Pallava Bagla; Author and Science Communicator, New Frontiers in Science and Development
We are having a dialogue between the oldest and the largest democracy. We saw America turning into a banana republic last week. In this circumstance, do you think India should be sending peacekeepers to secure American nuclear weapons since Trump has his hand on the button?
Zakaria: I think the important point to make is that America did not turn into a banana republic. As I pointed out, it’s not, if you look at how American checks and balances work, it’s actually quite impressive. You had Republican governors and Secretaries of State ratifying an election in which their candidate lost. They then recounted where the recount was mandated by law, they certified it. There were 60 cases that Trump took to the courts. All 60 cases he lost, including with judges whom he had appointed, in some cases one year earlier. It was then sent up to the Supreme Court that twice ruled against him. It then went to the United States Congress, and he tried to get the Vice president to use a kind of creative interpretation of his own authority, the Vice President issued a legal opinion arguing that he did not have that power under the Constitution. And then the House voted it down and the Senate voted it down with Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, saying this is the most important vote I will cast in my life, which is to not allow this subversion of democracy. I don’t think that describes a banana republic. I think that describes a constitutional democracy that was placed under tremendous strain, that faced one of the gravest challenges it has ever faced, and ultimately affirmed itself and affirmed its ability to work. Obviously, we’re all very nervous about the prospect of it not working. And, as I say, it depends a lot on character and leadership and norms. But that is the truth of all democracies. You know, the Weimar constitution was one of the most beautifully designed and written constitutions in the world. But what happened was ultimately a failure of leadership in Germany, that allowed Hitler to rise and the Weimar constitution to be destroyed.
Dr Sachchidanand Shukla, Chief Economist, Mahindra Group
How much damage has the US soft power sustained post-Capitol fiasco? And more importantly, what will it take to salvage it? Will the US have the moral authority to lecture other countries to improve upon their democracies now? Or do you think the Rubicon has been crossed?
Zakaria: The soft power in the US after the Capitol, I think it’s damaged. There’s no question. It’s much more awkward for the United States to lecture other countries about democracy. But, as I say, you know, one of the ways to interpret what happened here is that the American democracy triumphed and American democracy prevailed. If I were to approach it, if I were to advise the State Department, I would say, be open, be honest, say, that we face challenges too. We understand these challenges you’re facing, we understand the difficulty, but what we would argue is learn from our mistakes, learn from the successes we had. This is, by the way, why it’s very dangerous when the Hungarian government decides that it is going to dispense with the independence of the judiciary because one of the things that saved the United States was the independence of the judiciary. This is one of the reasons why we should maintain some division of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch. You know, though there are ways to present this that are more humble, more recognised, we all are facing our own demons. And I think that at its best, that has always been the way the United States presented itself, not as this sort of shining city on the hill, but as a country that is grappling with the complexities of freedom, but wishes and is a well-wisher and supporter and either of all those other countries that are grappling with the problems of democracy as well.
Jamal Mecklai, CEO, Mecklai Financial
You were talking about the New World Order in the US and China and India’s role in it. I’m curious, nobody seems to be talking about Europe. You know, to my mind, the social and economic structure in Europe is perfect compared to everything else. Why does nobody see that as the future? In the old days in school, I’m sure you add, compare and contrast — could you compare and contrast Donald Trump and Narendra Modi?
Zakaria: At some level, Europe is the future to which we should all aspire. It has found a way to create a vibrant capitalist system that still provides a fair degree of social equity and opportunity to people. It has a functioning safety net that is probably better than any other in the world, while at the same time maintaining a great deal of vitality and dynamism. It has found a way to solve the oldest problem of international relations, which is, with a small sacrifice of sovereignty, it has found a way to essentially make war unthinkable in the European continent. Think about the dramatic nature of that change, between 1850 and 1950, France and Germany fought three bloody wars, in two of which they dragged the rest of the world. And they both became world wars. Today, war between France and Germany is unthinkable, right? So, to have achieved that transformation is really extraordinary. The problem is, I think that the forces that produced that transformation for two bloody wars that tore Europe apart, 50-60 million people died, and that you are unlikely to reach that level of transformation and that kind of decision to make those kinds of sacrifices of sovereignty, for example, without that.
On your broader question of why Europe is not a greater model, I think part of it is this. Europe does not act in a sustained strategic manner as one entity. And they talk about it that way, they like to think of themselves doing that. Maybe in trade, they’re able to do that in one narrow area, they are active with one voice, but by and large Europe still remains a collection of countries that have agreed to have a degree of common governance, but do not actually have a common government. And that distinction means that they don’t project themselves strategically and purposefully on the world stage in quite the same way.
The second reason, I think, is Europe, in some ways, is the future. But the reality is that it’s the past, by which I mean, Europe demographically is simply in decline. Italy has become essentially a retirement state. Germany, even though it has arrested it by taking in these immigrants from the Middle East, is on a similar trajectory. You know, you’re seeing a very significant demographic slowdown in Europe, which is why you do not see much growth there, you see a little bit but not significantly. So, part of the reason may be, the kind of demographic slowdown, which has become part of the kind of the inevitable story of Europe and in that sense, you know, people talk about Europe as a museum. Larry Summers had a great line where he said, you know, the dollar will remain the global currency, as long as Europe is a museum, Japan is a retirement home, and China is a prison. So, you know, at the end of the day, you need some standard and the US provides the only standard.
On Trump and Modi, I think that they do have a lot in common. I think that they both are nationalists, both are populist, both have certain authoritarian tendencies, is the way I would put it. I think Modi is a much more skilled, smooth politician. He understands how to play the politics of resentment, of division in a way that is careful, calibrated, signalled, he pulls it back when he needs to, he pushes it when he needs to. I think he has an advantage, if I may be honest, of a society which has fewer barriers and fewer obstacles. Therefore, he knows, when he has greater reign. Look, you’d have to say that Modi has been much more successful in what he has attempted to do partly because he is a more skilled politician, but partly because I think at the end of the day, I leave it to you to tell me whether you think Indian courts have been as effective at asserting their independence, whether the Indian media has been as resolute in calling out things that it regards as assaults on democracy, or cases where facts are being manipulated, things like that, whether regional governments have been able to do it. In India, I’ve been somewhat disappointed by the lack of these intermediary authorities and institutions to push back. I think that’s not Modi’s skill, that’s India’s failing.
Sanjay Pugalia, Editorial Director, The Quint
What should be done with Trump? Should he be left alone, so he becomes irrelevant? Because if law takes its own course and democrats go for impeachment, he will crave for that kind of relevance, and he will still dominate the political space in America. How should Trump be dealt with?
Zakaria: I think that ultimately you defeat this kind of force, politically, not legally. So, I’d be much more comfortable with what you are hinting at, which is, let’s try to find a way to fight the phenomenon, rather than imprisoning the person. People will remember after the Janata Party came into power after the Emergency. Well, I think one of the biggest mistakes they made was to try to criminalise the issue of Indira Gandhi, sending her to jail and things like that. So, I worry about that. I think one strategy would be a congressional censure, which might attract a lot of Republican votes, and has the advantage of, in a sense, sending that signal without allowing for the drama of a trial and impeachment, and then you rally his base in various ways. But ultimately, you have to hope that what will happen is that the public will get tired of him, see through him. And I think there will be some court cases that will run the course, because look over his life, and even in the last years, he has engaged in illegal activities using your campaign funds to pay hush money to a porn star, with whom you had sex, is illegal. And if he has to suffer the legal consequences of that, so be it. So, I’m certainly perfectly comfortable with the law taking its course where it should, but politics should be aimed at discrediting him politically, rather than criminalising this activity. Even though, what he did at some level might be, you know, considered criminal in the incitement to insurrection.
Jeetu Panjabi, CEO, EM Capital Advisors
China’s aggression with Australia, with India, on the Taiwan issue, on the Hong Kong issue, as Xi Jinping tries to legitimise his existence as a leader rather than a way of China broadly trying to flex its muscles. How do you see this play out? And do you think that Xi Jinping succeeded? The second question is that you meet a lot of leaders all over the place. Are you seeing any rising stars?
Zakaria: The question you are asking about China is in many ways, a very important and difficult question to answer. There is no question that what you say is right. What you are seeing is, in terms of Chinese foreign policy, is part of what is being described as the third revolution in China, the first being the Maoist Revolution, the second being Deng Xiaoping’s revolution. The third being Xi Jinping’s revolution, where he has taken China into a more stable direction economically, more repressive direction politically, and in a more expansionist or aggressive direction, externally. Will it succeed? I cannot tell you, honestly, that I can predict that. What I can tell you is that right now there does not seem any opposition to Xi Jinping. He has consolidated power, dramatically and successfully. You know, it’s possible that there will be a fourth revolution. There are people who think of China as having this very long-term view, and they think in centuries and things like that. I don’t look at China that way at all. I mean, I think that what is striking is, you first had Mao with his fairly bizarre foreign policy and domestic policy, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, it drove China into the ground. Then you had Deng Xiaoping, this remarkably enlightened opening of China to the world. Now you have Xi Jinping going backwards again. You know, in China there have been lots of course corrections, maybe there will be another one. But there are no signs of it right now.
On your other question, what’s striking about the world right now is in China, and Russia and America, you have had these populist nationalists, because I would put Xi Jinping in the same category in some ways. But in a lot of other countries, you have had very spirited, effective, liberal democrats who have been running their countries very well. I’m thinking of everywhere from Canada to New Zealand, you have in Germany an extraordinary woman who is now one of the longest serving Chancellors in German history, who has been utterly committed to liberalism and democracy. In France, you found a man in Macron, who has found a way to thread the needle by being, both dynamic forward-looking and at the same time maintain a certain degree of popular support, not overwhelming, but in France, generally speaking, if you can get 40 per cent approval rating in France, you’re a national hero. It’s a very, very difficult country with many divisions. So, I think there is a lot of good news in the world, I think that people tend to focus – that’s the nature of the beast – you tend to focus on the things that are going wrong. But I think there are a lot of places where things are going right.
And by the way, I think one would have to say that Biden is really the man for the hour if you’re looking for somebody who can reconcile, who can heal, who can bring the country together, who can place just good, competent people in government? If you look at his cabinet, by and large, these are overwhelmingly people of very high quality, the very high degree of competence, is not particularly ideological. So, I suspect what we will see, even in the United States, is a period of good governance that will surprise on the upside, just as unfortunately, Trump surprised on the downside.
Ashok Khemka, Principal Secretary, Government of Haryana
We are witnessing an unprecedented farmers’ agitation around the National Capital. My question is that when just two Indian corporate groups can get away with swindling amounts equal to the annual incomes of nearly 8 million Indians, what do you think is the present farmers agitation against the new farm laws more an expression of corporate mistrust or misgovernance?
Zakaria: I think the answer to your question, it is both I think. Agriculture in India has been mismanaged from the start. I think the very fact that agriculture is protected in the constitution is obviously a mistake. It prevents the dynamic process of resorting that must take place in every economy. Look, one of the reasons India has not grown as much, and industrialised as much and modernised as much as China is that the classical pattern of industrialisation, that takes place, is that peasants move from the farms to the cities, they move from farms to factories, and that process has been in many ways blocked by the fact that the Indian government constitution structure has frozen the agricultural sector in a kind of perpetual state of dependence.
So, at this point, the problem is when you have a problem that’s been festering for so long, any kind of change is going to produce convulsions. So, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the government. They’re trying to make reforms finally, but it’s just very hard because you have left this problem unattended, and, frankly, allowed to exacerbate for so long.
But there is this other challenge that you talk about, which is very important to understand, which is the degree of mistrust that is being created by the corruption that you see and in my opinion, this is fundamentally all about the insistence that the government has on maintaining so much control over the economy. Principally through the finance sector. You know, there’s this show on Netflix right now about Indian billionaires. And it’s all about the bad boys, the Vijay Mallyas and things like that. The striking thing about the show is that in every case, what has happened is some Indian businessman finds a way to expropriate, swindle, vast amounts of money, billions of dollars, 1000s and 1000s of crores of rupees, from government-owned banks, because these banks are ripe for picking – you have these low-salaried employees who are running these banks, sitting on 75 per cent of the savings of the Indian people. And they milk these. And that’s how they managed to make themselves multibillionaires. You know, the fundamental question is why do we need these government banks? What is the purpose served by these banks, other than to allow the government to exercise patronage power, and as an open invitation to this kind of corruption? So I think that part of it is a very important piece, as well.
VN Dalmia, Director and former Chairman, Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd
Is a little disruption bad for America? Was it becoming too set and established in its ways, too fat and complacent, too flabby and prosperous?
Zakaria: If this is a good time for disruption, you’re 100 per cent right. But I think that the main wake-up call that has come to the United States, and it’s one that I think frankly will need to come to other countries as well, including India, is we are moving into a world where if left unattended, you are going to have 10 to 20 per cent of the population generate huge amounts of economic wealth, huge amounts of dynamism, huge amounts of innovation, and 20 to 30 per cent of the country will simply be left behind. And there’ll be some group in the middle, that this cannot be a viable, social safety system. You know, a lot of what you’re seeing in the United States is this deep backlash, that is being produced by people who feel as though their world is disappearing. Part of it, by the way, is cultural and racial, but part of it is economic. And when you have that reality, it is very hard to find a way to make the country come together. So, this is the wake-up call for the United States. The United States has found a way to be super productive and super dynamic, invent the future, that is continuing to happen. You want to look at any of the major fields of innovation from nanotech to biotech, it’s the US that is dominating. But the question becomes, how do you bring the whole country together? How do you not have a situation where just 10 per cent is moving forward, 20 per cent is moving forward, and the rest are being left behind? The United States has to grapple with this. You are going to see the same dynamic in every country, and every country is going to have to figure out what is their answer to making this. You cannot end up in a situation where you have that degree of difference, not just in sheer inequality, but in dynamism and the trajectory forward. Because when people feel that their world is disappearing, they have nothing to lose. And that’s what you were seeing on Capitol Hill. I think people who felt the world was disappearing and felt they had nothing to lose.