My review of Snigdha Poonam’s “Dreamers”


I cannot recommend Snigdha Poonam’s new book, Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing Their World, strongly enough. I found it to be one of the most insightful books of recent vintage when it comes to explaining the social churning that is going on in 21st century India.

I wrote a review of the book for Foreign Affairs. Here’s the key takeaway:

Dreamers smashes the slick hype that has been constructed around India’s aspiring middle classes, calling our attention to the corruption, frustration, and dashed hopes bubbling beneath the surface. It may be convenient for India’s elites to whitewash these inconvenient truths. But, as Poonam shows, it would also be suicidal.

You can read the full review here.


New column: The credibility crisis facing India’s elite institutions

Last week, I published a lengthy column in Mint on the credibility crisis facing India’s elite institutions.

To make a long story short, we have long assumed that India’s apex institutions function reasonably well even while its lower level limbs and appendages struggle. This is at the core of Lant Pritchett’s notion of India as a “flailing” state. Unfortunately, recent events raise questions about just how healthy the “head”–these elite institutions–are.

To quote the piece:

Against this backdrop, one cannot help but reflect on recent events and wonder whether India’s elite institutions are as healthy as we had once thought. In the last 12 months, each of the aforementioned institutions [the Election Commission of India, Reserve Bank of India, and the Supreme Court] has experienced a crisis of credibility. These events—and the systemic infirmities they point to—suggest that we should no longer take the health of these apex institutions for granted.

You can read the entire column here.

New column: the 2018 Indian Budget’s most cynical act

I have a new column in ThePrint on 34 words of fine print in the draft 2018 Finance Bill that have the potential to reshape how elections are funded in India.

The offending words?

In the Finance Act, 2016, in section 236, in the opening paragraph, for the words, figures and letters “the 26th September, 2010”, the words, figures and letters “the 5th August, 1976” shall be substituted.

These words seem mundane on the surface, but they constitute the latest stunt in a multi-year, subterranean effort to rewrite India’s election finance rules.

You can read the full piece here.


New column on India’s “electoral bonds”

I have a new column in the Indian Express on a signature electoral reform of the Modi government–a new campaign finance vehicle called “electoral bonds.” The new scheme was first announced in last year’s Budget presentation by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Since then, details have been scarce. That is, until last week when the Ministry of Finance formally notified the scheme.

Here’s the upshot (in my own words):

Billed as a victory for transparency in political funding, the bonds, in fact, are anything but. Far from reducing opacity in how politics is financed, this new vehicle merely legitimizes it.

You can read the full piece here.

3 Lessons from the Gujarat Election

I have new column for The Print on my three key takeaways from the recently completed Gujarat elections. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored an important victory in its western bastion, the close fight between the BJP and the Congress Party suggests a bruising 2018 election season. Here’s the final paragraph:

Given the BJP’s marked advantage in terms of leadership, organisation, and material resources, no one should question that it has the political upper hand headed into the new year—irrespective of economic realities. The retention of Gujarat, not to mention the addition of Himachal Pradesh to the BJP’s kitty, will allow Modi and Shah to breath a heavy sigh of relief. But the relief could be short-lived if Gujarat is any indication of the fight that is in store in 2018.

You can read the entire piece here.

John Harriss reviews “When Crime Pays”

I was really pleased to learn that John Harriss, one of the most distinguished political science scholars of India, recently reviewed my book for Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. I was even more pleased to read that Harriss calls the book a “tour de force” and a “rich source of intriguing observations and acute commentary.”

Here’s a snippet:

The presence in politics of criminals with very serious charges standing against them was evidently accepted as being more or less normal. Vaishnav went on to complete the thesis at Columbia University on which the book is based in order to explore how and why this has come about and the implications of the presence of so many criminals in politics. It is a remarkable book, combining vivid narrative – some based on the author’s own fieldwork – about election campaigns, and the lives and actions of criminal politicians, with painstaking analysis, especially of a dataset based on the affidavits submitted by nearly all the many thousands of candidates who stood for state and national election between 2003 and 2009. The book is meticulously argued and has prodigious numbers of endnotes reflecting extraordinary monitoring of media sources.

You can read the entire review here.



India: a middle-class nation?

Yesterday, Mint carried an editorial on the issue of whether India is a middle-class nation. The matter has been a subject of recent discussion, thanks to two new papers on the subject, including our recent chapter (which you can find here).

Here’s what Mint says about the two studies:

Two very insightful academic studies on the Indian middle class were highlighted in a recent article by Soutik Biswas of the BBC. Economists Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar of the Mumbai School of Economics and Public Policy have concluded from their analysis of incomes that there are 600 million people in the Indian middle class. They have defined the middle class as anybody living on between $2-10 a day, in terms of 1993 purchasing power parity dollars. The two Mumbai economists have used an objective measure to gauge the extent of the middle class, and their estimates are at the higher end of a bunch of similar estimates that analysts have made over the years.

The other study is by political scientists Devesh Kapur, Neelanjan Sircar and Milan Vaishnav, and their estimates are based on subjective considerations. Respondents in a large sample survey conducted in 2014 were asked whether they considered themselves to be middle class. Almost half the respondents said they did. The answers to the later questions are especially revealing. A large proportion of those who identify themselves as middle-class citizens believe that their children will have better lives than they did, that the social status of their family has improved in a generation and that India is prospering.

Interestingly, the editorial writers at Mint conclude the piece by cautioning readers about irrational exuberance regarding the rise of the middle class. The entire piece is worth reading.