Thinkers who best explain a rapidly-changing India to the world (and the world to India)
Forbes India wanted me to list India-based intellectuals who are well regarded outside India. This isn’t that. Instead, this is a list of smart thinkers and doers who I—and a few others whose judgement I trust—think ought to be closely followed and read to get a smarter understanding of today’s India and its place in the world.
All lists have biases. Let me spell out mine upfront.
In a country where the largest news organisation has led a general dumbing down of public discourse over the years, a key to getting a more nuanced understanding of India is to try and mostly avoid India’s many oft-trotted out columnists and TV pundits, with very few exceptions. The depth and quality of established public discourse from India is more opinions and anecdotes than a quality discussion.
The best thoughtfulness often stems from experience. But in the highly personalised, politicised ‘he said/he said’ abusive debate that passes off as spirited discourse, lack of accepted individual rights and a scarily slow legal system have led to self-censorship among many who have good ideas.
Since I was asked to focus on those living in India, it excludes some very smart thinkers such as economist Gita Gopinath at Harvard and Carnegie Endowment’s Milan Vaishnav, one of the best young political scientists of Indian origin whose writing is usually based on previous empirical work.
So here is a list of 24, in no particular order.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
For a consummate New Delhi insider, he has emerged as the most respected political commentator in India with his habitually centrist perceptive views from his perch as president of Centre for Policy Research.
One of the most influential policy economists of a new generation in India. A sharp mind, but one that comes with a combative style that gets him about as many enemies as fans.
Representing a regional party, Jay is the new face of Indian politics: Young, articulate, liberal and quite vocal about policy issues, ranging from parliamentary reform to campaign finance, and a clear voice of the youth in India.
Lucid, analytical, sparse writing on economics and policy that challenges you to engage with facts and empirical assertions than ideology and conventional wisdom. A must-read.
A radical, feminist poetess who speaks for Dalits, her writings are more introspective, yet give a good sense of the new thinking in India’s oppressed castes.
Gave up one of the best banking jobs to pursue his passion for rural development. Knows more about the changing face of rural India and financial inclusion than most contemporaries.
An RSS intellectual who has become very influential in the new BJP regime, he represents the more thoughtful wing of the Hindutva movement. He is ready and willing to engage with ideological opponents.
A failed politician, yet perhaps the most thoughtful one in contemporary India. Ignore his electoral debacles, but pay attention to some of the best thinking and speaking on political reform.
Runs The Takshashila Institution, a new think tank. One of the new generation’s must-read foreign policy thinkers in India, whether you agree with his right-of-centre views or not.
Executive director of The Centre for Internet and Society. Has deep insights into India’s rapidly growing digital culture as well as the threats to it from misguided government regulation.
Runs Raqs Media Collective and is a founder of the Sarai Collective which does the rare examination of the interplay of urban India/technology/culture.
The former journalist who directed Peepli Live is now a filmmaker. Peepli was the first ever Indian film to be screened at Sundance. Her response to broadcast media and society issues always make you think.
Ex-Infosys and now with the Manipal Group, he is active in public policy and corporate governance issues, and is not afraid to speak his mind. He was behind the Bangalore Political Action Committee—first-of-its-kind in India—and is also an activist shareholder who has minority shareholders’ interests in mind.
Ex-Citibanker, who heads Janalakshmi, a micro/alternative finance organisation, that has attracted Wall Street money. Offers honest and workable solutions through Janagraha, a hybrid public-private partnership initiative.
A brilliant cartoonist from Mangalore. A small-town guy whose views on Indian politics and Indian sport are spot on as he traverses the fine line of cartoons in India: Not too cerebral, but never clichéd and banal either.
A young MBA who chose to go back to her ancestral village, Soda in Rajasthan, to help bring management skills to grassroots governance. Won elections to be its sarpanch. A high-profile doer, she will be worth listening to about hands-on governance.
While her past claim to fame is taking on Coca-Cola over workplace harassment, as a lawyer and founder of her own law firm, Juscontractus, this University of Chicago alumni would be a good way to track India’s troubled legal system.
A professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at BITS Pilani’s Goa Campus, he is particularly good on a major challenge for India: Reforming its education system.
A Supreme Court lawyer involved in major commercial and human rights litigation and legal policy, she has contributed in a major way on gender justice in India, recently helping with the new anti-rape laws.
She fights racism against people from the North East and says it like it needs to be said in a country with deep geographical and regional prejudices.
This former McKinsey consultant has a lot of good things to say about smart cities.
Economic and Political Weekly
Ignore its left-leaning interpretations and conclusions. Focus on its outstanding data.
GVL Narasimha Rao
GVL knows his psephology like few others do. His current turn as a spokesman for the BJP yields unrelenting evidence that is often hard to refute. And he takes sides when taking sides can be personally risky.