April 22, 2019

India Ideas Conference Tackles Indian Elections, Economics, and ‘India in Transition’

The third annual India Ideas Conference included a series of keynote speakers, panels, and breakout sessions to discuss India’s economy, foreign policy and diplomacy, the upcoming elections, and social and economic innovation.

Left to right: Milan Vaishnav, Seema Sirohi, and Rick Rossow
Left to right: Milan Vaishnav, Seema Sirohi, and Rick Rossow

The conference, run by the Georgetown India Initiative, was themed “India in Transition.”

Launched in 2015 and led by Irfan Nooruddin, India Initiative director and Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Indian Politics, the initiative is a platform for American and Indian leaders, scholars, and policymakers to collaborate on a wide range of issues.

India’s Economic Future

The opening keynote featured a conversation about the state of India’s economy. In the conversation, Krishnamurthy Subramanian, chief economic advisor for the government of India, stressed India’s significant economic growth.

“A lot of purchasing power has been put in the hands of the middle class and the bottom of the pyramid,” said Subramanian. 

While Subramanian is optimistic about India’s economic outlook, he acknowledged the inequality between the median person in India and the wealthy class.

“We should be trying to create the space for taking care of the vulnerabilities of people who need the attention,” he said.

2019 Elections

In a panel on the 2019 India elections, speakers discussed potential outcomes and what the results could mean for the future of U.S.-India relations. 

Moderator Milan Vaishnav, the director and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace South Asia Program, summarized that while alliances have formed with the goal of taking current Prime Minister Narendra Modi out of power, the latest polls suggest that Modi remains popular.

“Modi’s popularity is quite enduring,” said Vaishnav. “Despite whatever grievances people might have about the economy, about majoritarianism, about nationalism, people seem to like Narendra Modi quite a bit.”

Television journalist Barkha Dutt answers a question from an audience member
Television journalist Barkha Dutt answers a question from an audience member

Seema Sirohi, a columnist for The Economic Times, described that voters typically vote on bread and butter issues like unemployment and the agrarian crisis, though foreign policy is becoming a larger issue in the 2019 elections.

Sirohi discussed how the recent escalating tensions between India and Pakistan may be advantageous to the ruling party, pointing to Modi’s comments that he alone can keep the country secure. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Sirohi is confident for the future of the U.S.-India relationship.

“The upward trajectory of U.S.-India relations will likely continue in all scenarios, because security interests don’t change because government changes,” she said.

A remote interview directly from the campaign trail provided some unique insight into the Modi campaign.

“People don’t understand how complex Indian elections are,” said Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for civil aviation for the government of India. “There are 543 separate elections across the country. Much of this complexity cannot be captured in surveys.”

Tackling Challenges with Innovation

The conference also explored how new technologies can address social and economic problems in India. In a breakout session on “Social Impact at Scale,” panelists discussed how their organizations contribute to social good in India via creative methods.

K. Thiagarajan, the COO of the Agastya International Foundation, discussed how he uses a curriculum involving science to encourage rural children in underserved schools to love learning.

“We work with these children to continue their curiosity and creativity and get confidence in them,” Thiagarajan said. “The more confident you are, the better you learn.”

Prerna Mukharya, the founder of Outline India, is a data-collector who helps think tanks and politicians draft policies that are representative of their stakeholders’ needs by directly speaking to people—70-75% of Indians live in villages, and she believes their voices need to be heard.

“How do you reach out to the superset of the Indian populace?” Mukharya asked. “You go out and have a conversation with them.”

The India Ideas Conference took place on April 12, 2019. A list of sponsors, speakers, and full videos of the day’s events are available on the India Ideas Conference website.