Point of view

India’s 5 most important public intellectuals – and what this list says about our national discourse

Women, minorities, multilingual writers and Right-of-Centre thinkers are completely under-represented.

Amid the hectic Indian conference season – the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in December, the Raisina Dialogue in January, and now the Jaipur Literature Festival – it is worth asking ourselves a simple question. Are we witnessing the dawn or the demise of the public intellectual?

At one level, everyone with access to a smartphone and an active social media presence is a public intellectual today, or certainly acts like one. It has become easy to share one’s views with a large number of people on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or any other social media platform.

Paradoxically, we also seem to be witnessing the global decline of public intellectualism, as politics becomes more rancorous, the media becomes more clickbait-driven, and academia retreats further into the ivory tower. Moreover, subject matter expertise has become more specialised and siloed, so that we are today less likely to have the archetypal man (or woman) of letters – a Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, or Michel Foucault.

On Republic Day, I posed a question to friends on Facebook: Who are the five most important public intellectuals in India today? The inspiration was an article by Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner on his Washington Post blog, which was itself inspired by a tweet. Some of the responses I received were predictable. Former public servant and writer Gopalkrishna Gandhi and the historian Romila Thapar featured prominently. Economists such as Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu, and Bibek Debroy, who are also fluid writers on a variety of subjects, made appearances. So did conservative writers and political figures like Arun Shourie and Swapan Dasgupta. There were some curious suggestions, including the widely-ridiculed if even more widely-read popular writer Chetan Bhagat.

Some absences were surprising. No one, for example, mentioned social theorist Ashis Nandy, who would perhaps have been foremost on people’s minds a couple of decades ago. I would also have expected influential figures such as economist Jean Drèze, environmentalist Sunita Narain, sociologist André Béteille, or Yogendra Yadav, Madhu Kishwar, or Mukul Kesavan to have made the cut for some people.

An assessment of an intellectual’s importance should not be conflated with concurrence or correspondence with one’s personal beliefs. Nor should it simply be correlated to influence or public profile. In this context, I would primarily equate importance with irreplaceability. Whose voices would be felt most by their absence? Obviously, there will be considerable disagreement even on this criterion, but these would be my humble suggestions:

  1. Ramachandra Guha: Guha has written eloquently on history, politics, environmentalism, and cricket. No other writer is read as much by aspirants to the Indian civil services examination. Despite its many shortcomings, India After Gandhi still remains the go-to introduction to contemporary India. Until someone else can produce as broad and accessible a body of work, Guha would have to feature on any such list.
  2. Pratap Bhanu Mehta: An institution-builder both at the Centre for Policy Research and now at Ashoka University, Mehta has become a household name from his regular newspaper columns. There is no aspect of public policy that has not been covered in his pieces in The Indian Express, and he has driven important work on public institutions. One may disagree with him on many accounts (and many on both the Right and Left certainly do), but few people today drive and shape the discourse on public affairs as much as he does.
  3. Shashi Tharoor: If anyone puts the public in public intellectual in India, it is perhaps Tharoor, who writes faster than most of us read. Despite a political perch in the Lok Sabha, he finds time to pen a critique of the British Empire and a commentary on Hinduism, all while remaining a ubiquitous presence in the media, on the conference circuit, and at literary festivals. He is also an active presence on social media and commands some respect across the political aisle. His voice – and vocabulary – remain unique in India’s public sphere.
  4. Ashok Malik: My inclusion in this list of Malik – who was appointed press secretary to the president of India in August – might appear the most surprising, but his is the most demonstrable case of importance by (temporary) absence. A journalist and columnist, Malik has written thoughtfully and critically on everything from the business of airlines and television, foreign policy and trade, and regionalism and high politics. Guha, Mehta and Tharoor often defy precise ideological pigeon-holing, but none could be said to be consistently conservative or Right-of-centre. The paucity of prominent Right-wing intellectuals despite having a notionally Right-wing government in power for the past four years in my mind necessitates Malik’s inclusion in such a list. He provides a lucid window into elements of politics, economics, and policy that most Indian intellectuals have long overlooked – and, unfortunately, continue to overlook.
  5. Raghuram Rajan: At least one of the five should be an economist, and India has in fact produced its fair share of eminent economists (Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, and Arvind Subramanian come to mind, in addition to Sen and Basu). A few years ago, Sen would have been the obvious candidate, as India’s only Nobel laureate in economics and writer of The Argumentative Indian, among other less scholarly and more popular works. However, Sen’s legacy has been tarnished somewhat of late, and based on his star power and outspokenness on a variety of issues, Rajan should probably take precedence in such a list today.
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Congress MP Shashi Tharoor commands some respect across the political aisle.

Lack of diversity

A significant problem many might have with my list is that all five are elite-educated (Doon School, Oxford, St Stephens, La Martinière, and the Indian Institute of Technology) middle-aged males. Three of the five are based in New Delhi, none belong to religious minorities, and all write primarily in English. At least three of the five are ardent cricket fans. This lack of diversity is a fair criticism.

While such potential criticism does not alter my submissions, it is only fair to highlight some of the emerging voices contributing in various ways to India’s intellectual discourse. Such a list can never do complete justice to every sector and viewpoint, but people like the prolific political theorist Madhav Khosla, the founder of the Takshashila Institution Nitin Pai, or the former banker and non-fiction writer Sanjeev Sanyal (currently principal economic advisor to the Finance Ministry) come immediately to mind.

There are also a very large number of women now shaping intellectual trends and undercurrents, among them writer and Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy, economist Gita Gopinath (currently an advisor to the chief minister of Kerala), president of the Centre for Policy Research Yamini Aiyar, lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, journalist and author Snigdha Poonam, and the economist (and my Brookings India colleague) Shamika Ravi.

We also have the phenomenon of non-Indians who comment intelligently and perceptively on several aspects of Indian public life, such as British biographer and historian Patrick French, Nepal-born political journalist Prashant Jha, and Washington-based Indian-American political analyst Milan Vaishnav. I am sure many others would come to mind upon further reflection.

Some of these names might make it to a list of most important public intellectuals in India in some years’ time. But even a superficial list of such emerging talent shows that while younger voices and women might soon feature more prominently in Indian public discourse, minorities, multilingual writers, and serious Right-of-centre thinkers remain under-represented. This remains something to remedy.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India.

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