It was a ridiculously hot evening; my phone informed me, as I got off the train, that the heat index was still above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. NYC was doing its annual late-summer impersonation of Calcutta, which was an appropriate comparison for me, as I was on my way to see Mahanth Joishy, the founder of United States – India Monitor. I was curious about his blog and his sometimes controversial opinions, and thought that our readers might be as well. We met up at the Old Town Bar (which has been serving thirsty New Yorkers since 1892) for some beer, cider, pub grub, and conversation. Here’s what he had to say:
Date: September 8, 2015
Home town: I don’t really have one. My parents were born in India. I was born in Malaysia, but when I was a kid we moved to Bloomington, Indiana. I’ve also lived in England, Missouri, Ohio, and Saudi Arabia while growing up, and I went to college in DC. And I’ve traveled a lot as an adult person.
Current town: New York City for the past 14 years. Now I’m in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, which is my fourth borough and the one I like the best to live in.
Occupation: Operations Manager, NYC Fleet, and blogger at usindiamonitor.com.
How and why did you get started with your blog?
I have a background in foreign policy and a deep network of contacts in India and the U.S. who help keep me informed. I’m interested in foreign policy, business, and culture in general. There was no media outlet that covered the issues of relations between the United States and India in a neutral manner and I felt my knowledge of all that is both positive and negative on both sides could help me be a voice in this niche area.
Who are your readers?
My audience is pretty global. A majority of people tune in from India and the United States, but I get hits from Europe, the Mid-East, Southeast Asia. Wherever there’s an Indian diaspora. Readers might be coming for the politics, military affairs, business angles, or just interested in trends in dance or music.
I’m proud that one of my stories really did go viral, about my trip to Pakistan, so I have some tens of thousands of page views from Pakistan as well. That piece was a bit controversial, but people found it interesting one way or the other. Comments ran the gamut from extreme gratitude to really ugly hate speech, including jokes about my death.
Do you create all of the content?
Yes, with the exception of an occasional high quality guest blogger. I’d love to get some other people involved as partners, particularly on the web development and social media front in order to help to grow the site in the near future.
Are you making any money off of this project or is it a labor of love?
Right now it is a labor of love; I was making a little money using advertising revenues for a while but I felt that it detracted from the site. It changed the design, and not for the better, while forcing people to watch totally irrelevant ads. It’s possible that I’ll make money from it someday but probably not from advertising. I could see potentially using my expertise and contacts for a consulting service to help people in the U.S. and in India connect and do business together. We’ll see. Currently the U.S. and India do about $100 billion (U.S.) worth of trade annually, and it’s been on a steep trajectory. When I was in college, it was only $7 billion.
And you’re not that old!
Right! College wasn’t that long ago for me. Things are changing really fast.
I’d like to do more with my blog but I also want the content to be good. I am not about click-bait. I want to make sure that I’m providing something of substance. So I’d rather have fewer posts, but better ones.
Can you give us a brief overview of US/India relations in the past?
Sure. India is a new country. It’s only been independent since 1947, and during the Cold War era, it was aligned more with the Soviets than with the United States, while the U.S. was aligned more with Pakistan than India. But this arrangement constantly fluctuated. India and Pakistan have traditionally been hostile: three major wars and constant skirmishes have been fought since 1947. India is very jealous of the US relationship with Pakistan, which increased even more after 9/11 and the War on Terror. Kashmir is still a disputed territory. At the same time, though, India has been a democracy and did maintain certain ties to the U.S., especially in immigration, science, and commerce. It’s always been a stable democracy. There’s never been a military coup or any kind of coup, which is saying a lot for Asia. Transitions of government leaders have been orderly. In 1991, India really started to open up its markets, and U.S. companies started moving in: Pepsi, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Microsoft, Google. This also coincided with the end of the cold war. With 65% of the population aged 35 or younger and gaining in purchase power every day, India will be the leading marketplace for American companies for decades to come.
What is going on with the “bromance” between our current leaders?
Narendra Modi has been the Prime Minister for over a year now. In 2014 he came to the United States for the first time as Prime Minister. He hadn’t been permitted to come here for most of the previous ten years due to a US government visa ban, but the ban was lifted because he is now a head of state, and world leaders always have access to the United Nations. Modi has been widely blamed for Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in the early 2000s, and with some reason. At best he was considered incompetent for not stopping the violence that killed thousands of people, mostly Muslims, in his state. (He was in a position somewhat equivalent to a governor of a U.S. state.) At worst, he was complicit and had a direct hand in the conflict; I believe there is not sufficient credible evidence of that, though people are still suspicious. Pakistan is very wary of him as well. His roots are in the RSS, which is the more extreme wing of the Hindu BJP party, and the group that made him take a vow of celibacy, preventing him from ever having a wife or family. So he was a controversial figure, but otherwise, he’s had a good record: economically, environmentally. He focused on solar energy as Chief Minister of Gujarat and he’s considered by many to be a historically great leader. He came to the U.S. last September as part of the UN General Assembly, and the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, and he gave a sold-out speech at Madison Square Garden, which was packed. I was there. The crowd was deafening, and the speech was fantastic. This event truly rocked. While he was in the U.S. he spent some time with Barack Obama and they really did a lot to promote diplomacy between the countries. I do not think it was manufactured; I think they sincerely really hit it off. Modi right away invited Obama to visit India just a few months later as guest of honor at India’s Republic Day and he accepted; it was the first time any U.S. President has ever made a second trip to India, and again they spent a lot of time together. Obama himself was greeted as a rock star in India. I think they both know they have a limited amount of time together while they are both in office and they want to get things done. And all accounts indicate that they genuinely like each other.
How similar is India to the USA? I know it is a large and diverse place; is it a “United States of India”? Or is it more like the European Union?
That’s a good question. I’d say it’s somewhere between the U.S. and Europe. The United States is much more homogeneous, and it shares a common language and a lot of common culture from coast to coast. There are a few outliers: for example Miami and New Orleans both have a unique character within the American tapestry. They’re very clearly not like the rest of America. But people like Miami and New Orleans. They still fit in. Europe is in danger of losing its unified identity now with the economic crisis and the migrant crisis, Russian belligerence, and wildly varying languages and cultures. There’s really not a common and unified Europe. It’s been tried before; Napoleon couldn’t do it, Hitler couldn’t do it. India, while it has the wild diversity of Europe, manages to stay cohesive like America.
My one brief visit to India was fascinating and a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, there seems to be a very strong sense of family and tradition and order and propriety; where does this all come from?
Although India is a young country, it is a very old culture. There are temples and mosques that are hundreds or even thousands of years old throughout the nation. The Taj Mahal goes back to the 1600s, and tourists have been coming to look at it since then. There are very old traditions, and Hinduism is the world’s oldest major existing religion. I think the religion is where the societal codes of conduct come from. And a tradition of marrying within your own caste and language group. There is a lot of family pride. Marriages are more between families than individuals even now. Even in the modern word there are many family businesses that get passed on from generation to generation.
What is changing in India culturally? What still feels old fashioned and quaint? What traditions are no more? What will happen next?
Many things have changed in the last 20 years. The caste system is, slowly, phasing out. It has been outlawed, but it is still practiced. People are changing how they dress. Most young people are fluent in English, wear blue jeans, watch western movies and listen to western music. With the internet and globalization, and a huge young population, things necessarily have to change. There are 700 million young people in India today. That is partly the reason that people are now more impressed with education and what someone’s accomplished than with what caste they were born into.
What inspires your work with United States – India Monitor?
My agenda is really to inform my readership. The relationship is forming the backbone for the world order in the 21st century, and yet this relationship is highly misunderstood by both sides. I also believe it’s by and large a failed relationship and does not have to be.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
To go to school, study hard, and get an education. I owe a lot to my parents and extended family for this. My parents are educated and always encouraged me and supported me with school, college, and graduate school. And what I’ve gained at school is not just the knowledge, but the networks. I know people in all over Asia including China, Hong Kong, Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, South America, really all over the world, thanks to the institutions I attended. Education really gives you long term dividends.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would that be?
I think I should have started blogging earlier. If I’d started earlier the website would probably be at a more advanced stage by now. I’m trying to take it to a higher level and I really need to find ways to dedicate more time to it and build a team around it.
What do people here not know or understand about the relationship between the U.S. and India?
I think the U.S. and India will soon form a full security alliance, with a mutual defense treaty signed due to common enemies and common threats. Today this appears light years away to most foreign policy experts. There’s currently too much distrust there, but the U.S. doesn’t have a more natural ally. India is a solid democracy- the world’s largest democracy. India needs the United States’ resources to focus on climate change and technology. The U.S. needs India’s markets and also strategic assistance. I would predict a full security alliance in the next five to ten years, which very few people are envisioning these days, least of all in the halls of power.
What does the U.S. get wrong about India?
There are misconceptions. Diplomatically, there is a dramatic lack of empathy to the difficulties foreign countries face due to U.S. policies. India feels neglected and insecure and taken for granted by Americans. For instance, India is friendly to Iran and needs its oil and gas, and it doesn’t feel threatened by their potential nuclear program. The U.S. just doesn’t seem to appreciate how its actions on the nuclear issue, such as forcing India to cut Iranian imports under an aggressive sanctions regime have impacted India. The U.S. isn’t always aware of what is going on in other parts of the world; there is some anti-intellectualism, anti-science sentiment, proud ignorance, and a lack of intellectual curiosity.
So, the “Ugly American” on a large scale?
What does India not understand about the U.S.?
India doesn’t yet have a mature foreign policy. It spends an inordinate amount of time focused on Pakistan. It doesn’t have a strategy for how to behave in a complex world. Indian leaders want to be a player in world affairs, but they don’t act like it. They find it hard to trust other countries, with the history of the Cold War, and before that, colonialism. But they will need to have a strategy, project it, develop it, in order to be taken seriously as a global power. India also needs to understand that it needs the United States at this time more than is true in reverse.
Is India facing any refugee crisis the way Europe is now being overwhelmed?
Not on an appreciable scale. It’s a huge problem for many countries, but I think India is not seen as an attractive place for refugees to go; there are serious linguistic barriers and religious barriers. There aren’t enough jobs available either. India exports labor far more than it imports labor. A lot of Indians immigrate to work in the Middle East, doing construction, domestic labor, nursing, janitorial work. India even exports labor into conflict zones: there are Indians in Syria and Iraq working there.
Is there are lot of tension within India between diverse groups currently?
Although India is very diverse and truly vast, conflict between religious groups is not generally a huge problem. Minor pogroms crop up periodically. It can be a problem from time to time in a specific place, but overall, and for many centuries, people of different backgrounds manage to get along fine, while prospering together.
Is there a book you’d like to recommend?
India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, by George Perkovich is really good. I wrote my college thesis on nuclear proliferation and this book is an excellent historical perspective on nuclear weapons in South Asia.
Also, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God by Jonah Blank, about exploring India through the journey taken by Rama (who is one of the avatars of the Hindu god, Vishnu).
And there’s this great set of comics, Amar Chitra Katha, which tells of Hindu mythology and history, including all of the avatars of Vishnu and much more. This is great reading and artwork for children and adults alike to learn about Indian history, religions, and culture.
Is there a movie you’d recommend for our readers?
American History X, about the neo-Nazi movement in Southern California, and racial tensions and the psyches of kids who got caught up in it is one of my favorites. Also The Shawshank Redemption. And Quiz Show, about a game show cheating scandal. All good movies from the 1990s.
You’re very well-traveled…so, what is the best place you’re been to?
I was really nervous about going to Pakistan. I’m Hindu, of Indian descent, and an American citizen. I was really scared all the way up until I got through the airport. It was nothing like what I thought it would be, nothing like my vision of it as a scary and dangerous place. My friends there said they would take care of me and they did. Because it was so different from what I expected, and changed my entire worldview, this was a highly pleasant trip.
Can you give us some restaurant recommendations? How about one in the US, one in Pakistan, and one in India?
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! My website: http://usindiamonitor.com/
Check it out!
Lead-In Image Courtesy of esfera / Shutterstock.com
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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