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The Big Story: Foresight

India began 2020 in turmoil.

The subsequent 12 months did little to resolve the causes of that tumult: there was no reckoning for the economic mismanagement that saw the finance minister trigger an emergency clause before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the debate over the Citizenship Act amendments that promised to fundamentally alter India was postponed rather than resolved. In addition, while Jammu and Kashmir is no longer under lock and key, the discontent arising out of the crushing of civil liberties in the territory is only starting to be aired.

Instead, the year offered many more challenges: nearly 150,000 Indians died after contracting Covid-19, an unplanned national lockdown led to economic free-fall, a migrant crisis, pandemic figures that were much worse than India’s neighbours, Chinese aggression in Ladakh resulted in the first casualties in 40 years on the Line of Actual Control and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party continued its illiberal turn including passing laws based on a conspiracy theory.

The year ended – like 2019 – with thousands of protesters camped on Delhi streets, this time farmers protesting deregulation amid fears of conglomerate capitalism.

Where does that leave us at the start of 2021?

Rather than predictions, on the Political Fix we prefer to think about subjects to which it is worth paying closer attention. At the start of 2020, for example, we heard from Scroll.in journalists on the topics they were keeping an eye out for. While the word “pandemic” did not make the list, questions about majoritarianism, the Supreme Court’s image and religious freedom all anticipated important developments over the year.

The question of power sharing between Centre and states, which I had expected to become one of the major fault-lines over the 2020s, ended up fomenting a tremendous crisis, that has yet to be resolved.

We will continue to track all of these issues over the coming year. We will also keep an eye out for new ones that are bound to turn up – like the challenge of rolling out a vaccine or designing a post-pandemic budget. And we will keep speaking to experts on the Friday Q&As. Do send in suggestions for who you would like us to feature next, by emailing rohan@scroll.in

Since you’ll be hearing from us all through 2021, for the start of the year, we decided to ask some of our favorite newsletterers, podcasters and YouTubers what they are going to be paying attention to over the coming 12 months.

Rukmini S is a data journalist whose podcast, the Moving Curve, provided deeply insightful glimpses of how Covid-19 played out in India all through 2020.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“The Indian Census. The first phase of the decennial Census was to be held from April to September 2020, but it was of course put off on account of Covid, and there should be a new plan in place soon.

How polling and surveying resets for the pandemic era is going to be interesting to watch on its own. But the background here is also that people in India’s statistics establishment had told me in March 2020 that they highly doubted that the Census – and many other national surveys including the National Sample Surveys – were going to be able to run as usual on account of huge anger and suspicion on the ground against a proposed National Register of Citizens, which had, in Assam, caused such distress and disenfranchisement.

A national NRC would be derived from the National Population Register which has been conducted in the past alongside the early house-listing phases of the Census, and this time around too, an NPR would have gone on along the Census.

There are now some noises again about beginning work on the NPR. The massive protests against the NRC (and the NPR as a result) were curtailed by the pandemic, so it’s going to be interesting to see both how the statistical establishment and activists on the ground respond to the possibility of Covid receding and the NPR resuming.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

This interview I did with a Tamil Nadu Member of Legislative Assembly that gave an insight into how politicians are managing politics in the Covid era. His self-awareness around his own privilege was also surprising to me.”

Ragamalika Karthikeyan is editor, special projects and experiments at The News Minute, and frequent author of TNM’s newsletter for members, ‘Here’s the thing.’

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“2021 is a big year in terms of elections in the south, with both Tamil Nadu and Kerala going to the polls. That’s definitely going to be one of the big things that The News Minute in general and Here’s the thing in particular will focus on. In the context of the elections, I’m hoping to focus on Union-State relations, federalism and secularism this year.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

“‘Indian media’ as a whole has been a bigger disappointment than ever before in 2020, and this reflected in my writing this year. Three editions of Here’s the thing headlined by me focused on different aspects of the media this year: Are you funding hate online?, JK Rowling = ‘UPSC Jihad’ guy? and The Arnab & co circus.

As a former television journalist, the downward spiral of TV news was cringeworthy and particularly difficult to watch. I wish more people would demand better of our mainstream television media, demand more than the drama of ‘Breaking News’, and hold our ‘top journalists’ accountable. At the same time, I’m glad we have readers who are our conscience keepers and who communicate with us about what we’re doing right and wrong – I hope that’s one trend that gets stronger in 2021!”

Lou Del Bello tracks climate, energy and business on Lights On, a newsletter that takes a closer look at a subject that doesn’t get enough coverage in the mainstream Indian press.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“In 2021, Lights On will pay close attention to India’s efforts to measure up to China’s climate change ambitions. Rumor has it that India will come up with a pathway to net zero emissions, like China and many other countries have done this year, an aspirational plan that will involve most Indian industries, from power to the transport and construction sectors, as well as demanding a dramatic political shift.

In turn, many of these goals – particularly when it comes to the energy transition – are dependent on cooperation with China, at a time when relations between the two countries are at a low point. Lights On will keep following the story as it unfolds in the new year.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

“The environmental aspect of the India-China border conflict remains underreported, but it’s at least as meaningful as its defence implications, with impacts that will last much longer than a months-long standoff. The Himalayan region is one of the most fragile ecosystems on Earth, and sustains two billion people through ten major rivers. Its complexity means that countries will need tighter cooperation as climate change poses ever-increasing threats. This story I ran is only one example of how China and India are doing just the opposite:

Dam warfare: What China and India’s rival mega-hydro projects mean for South Asia.”

Manisha Pande is executive editor at Newslaundry, where she anchors TV Newsance, a show that reveals both what is ridiculous and also insidious about much of the commentary on Indian TV news.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“People’s fight against Big Media, or what they like to call ‘Godi Media’. From the Shaheen Bagh protest to the farmers’ protest, we’ve seen a growing mistrust towards ‘national’ news television channels that’s now crystallised into pure dislike. To counter relentless demonisation of protestors or even the idea of protest, we’ve seen a mushrooming of independent Instagram handles, YouTubers or even a newspaper like Trolley Times.

What will this clash between the media and the public, which the media is meant to serve, look like in 2021? That’s something I’d like to keep an eye out for. Sporadic incidents in 2020 have told us that much of the brunt of people’s anger is being borne by field reporters.

Will that result in any sort of introspection among studio anchors who set the agenda? I am not holding my breath but it’ll be interesting to see how reporters deal with this. At the Singhu border, some reporters have removed channel tags from their mics. That’s fascinating. From the Anna movement where media was an ally to the farmer’s movement where the media is perceived to be an ally of an unjust government – we’ve come a long way.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

“The profile of Republic TV’s newsroom and an interview with one of its former employees. With the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case, we’ve seen the clear advent of tabloid TV in India and the power it can wield. My profile explains why two of India’s topmost channels are unlike anything else in the world of right-wing TV propaganda and why we need to listen to what some of its former employees have to say.”

Pranay Kotasthane is research head of the Takshashila Institute, co-host of the Puliyabaazi podcast, and co-author of Anticipating the Unintended, a newsletter that consistently brings clarity to thorny policy issues.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“Rapid economic growth is a necessary condition for yogakshema [prosperity] of all Indians. After doing well in the 2000-2010 period, India’s growth engine lost steam over the last ten years. Decadal GDP growth per capita has declined from 11.9% in 2000-2010 period to only 3.1% in the 2010-2020 period. This trajectory is what worries me the most.

Without economic growth, conflicts over scarce resources will get sharper along existing fault lines, and India’s ability to influence global affairs will decline. So I will be on the lookout for measures India’s union, state and city governments take in 2021 to revive the Indian economy. With the pandemic jolting governments into action, 2021 could be the year to execute reforms that prepare India for the challenges and opportunities of the coming decade.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

“We need to reimagine the role of the state, market, and society; the three institutions need to work in tandem. So I want to draw your attention to our work from 2020 discussing each of them.

Aman Thakker is the JB and Maurice C Shapiro Scholar at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford and author of the Indialogue newsletter, which offers succinct analysis and links to key pieces on Indian policy ever weekly.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“After 2020, there will be so much to study and analyse going into 2021 from a policy perspective, but I think the one issue I’ll be focusing on is the trajectory of India-China relations. Obviously, India-China relations will not revert back to business as normal after what has transpired in Eastern Ladakh since May 5, 2020. But 2021 may start to give us indications of where that relationship goes, and how India will orient its diplomatic strategy, its military posture, its relations with key partners across geographies, and its overall grand strategy. So that will certainly be something I will be studying.”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

“I’d like to point to two pieces of mine that are linked by the same theme that I certainly think has not only been important in 2020, but will continue to be so in the future.

Back in February 2020, I wrote for The Diplomat about how Prime Minister Modi’s messaging on India’s free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific concept was littered with references to India’s commitment to those values at home, and tried to think through what the implications were for this concept in India’s foreign policy if those values were being eroded at home.

That debate really came to the forefront in September, when Ashely Tellis, one of the smartest and most respected voices on US-India relations, argued that “if India keeps diluting its liberal character, the West will be a less eager partner”. I dove deeper into this question of whether or not India’s liberal democratic credentials (or lack thereof) will affect its foreign relations with important partners in the September 28 edition of my newsletter.

I recognise that this issue tends to evoke strong responses from all corners of the foreign policy landscape in India, but these questions will certainly continue to persist as India positions itself to play a major role in the geopolitics of Asia and the Indo-Pacific for the coming years and decades. With an important issue as this, there has to be an informed debate, and so I hope that drawing more attention to these questions and not just some of my writing, but some really thought-provoking ideas from Ashley Tellis’s writings as well, can contribute to such an informed debate going into 2021 and beyond.”

Finally, one that goes a little beyond the bounds of policy and politics.

Deepanjana Pal is the author of Hush A Bye Baby, an associate editor at the Hindustan Times and author of Dear Reader, a newsletter about books, Indian or otherwise, that manages to keep you interested and updated without necessarily making you feel guilty for not having read everything.

One thing you will be paying attention to in 2021:

“Despite seeming like an infinite loop to many of us, 2020 contained multitudes – in addition to the pandemic and lockdown that forced us to introspect at an individual level, across the nation there were protests, riots, abuses of power, institutions crumbling, icons dying etc. I’m curious to see how we will process all this as a culture and the impact it has on our imaginations. How will the stories we tell and the art we create respond to the turbulence, unrest and anxiety of the past year?”

Your work from 2020 that deserves more attention:

Supriya Nair, editor of Fifty Two, and my podcast on literature and reading, The Lit Pickers. We had a lot of fun putting the episodes together and given how the prevailing wisdom is that clickbait and movies are the only kind of culture audiences are interested in, it was heartening to see how many dedicated listeners it found.”

That’s it for the first Political Fix of 2021. We wish you a Happy New Year and will be back on Friday. For suggestions, feedback or funny gifs, email rohan@scroll.in.