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India Rising

Featuring Ravi Agrawal

What does the surprising outcome of the Indian elections mean for the state of democracy there? Zachary and Emma delve into the failure of polling predictions and discuss the implications of the election results with Ravi Agrawal, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy. The conversation looks towards India’s future growth and the challenges it faces. While India has the potential to attract companies and become a destination for business, average incomes remain low, and further reforms are needed.

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Ravi Agrawal: If you are just someone who believes in democracy and checks and balances, then this is a good thing. Then this election actually means that everyone wins out to a certain degree and that democracy wins, which is not something we can say that often these days.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by my co host, Emma Varvaloucas, the Executive Director of you’ve got it, The Progress Network. And this week on our podcast, we’re going to look at something that in many ways went much more spectacularly right than almost anyone anticipated.

Right in terms of the process, right in terms of the entire arc, and I suppose for some people, given that we’re about to talk about an election in one of the world’s democracies , in fact, in the world’s largest democracy, I’m sure some people didn’t like the outcome of the election, in which case it didn’t go right at all.

It went spectacularly wrong, but from a democratic process perspective, it certainly went right. And from an outcome perspective, for those who were despairing about the future of democracy, it also went rather well. So we’re going to talk about India. For many Americans, and a lot of our audience is American, this may seem a bit other, but the fact is India is the world’s largest democracy.

It says a lot about the nature of democracy in the world. And we are tethered to that just like we are tethered to everything else. We are, whether we like it or not, global citizens and the results in India are dramatically important because this is a sizable portion of the 8 billion people on the planet.

It’s nearly a fifth. of the entire population of the world resides in India, and it’s a democracy. So we’re going to talk to somebody who has looked at these things deeply, continues to look at these things deeply, and who I believe will shed some light on what was both a surprising and in many ways, unexpected outcome.

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Ravi Agrawal. He’s the Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy, and he also hosts Foreign Policy Live, which is the magazine’s video channel and podcast. Before that, he was at CNN, I believe for more than a decade, and Zachary mentioned we’re going to talk to him all about India, of which he has also written a book that’s called India Connected, How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy.

Are you ready, Zachary?

Zachary Karabell: I am ready. Let’s talk to Ravi. Ravi Agrawal, it is a pleasure to have you on What Could Go Right?. You know, when we scheduled this interview, we, and I think, an astonishingly large percentage of everyone else who either cared about the Indian election was polling, expected an extraordinarily different outcome.

And before we get into the weeds of that, I mean, this, I think for those, we have a predominantly American audience, for those who are listening to this, It’s unclear right now whether this also should tell us something about the contemporary state of polling, you know, whether there was an aspect of what went on in India that just kind of says weirdly enough in a world full of data and data mining and AI, and what appears to be the ability of us to marshal huge amounts of data in evermore.

Slice and dice and micro fashions that our ability to get things completely wrong has not changed at all. So, I mean, maybe if we could start there, Robbie, I mean, again, we’re going to presume that there’s a generalized understanding that the BJP, which is the ruling party of prime minister Modi, while it, did returned to power in a coalition, vastly underperformed, I think it got, 240 seats as opposed to whatever, you know, they had said, Oh, we’re going to get 400 seats and have a super majority.

Lost what, 63 seats? I think that was, I mean, it’s a, it’s, it was a big electoral setback, even though it is certainly true that Modi is still and will be now prime minister for the third term. So I guess maybe Ravi, if we could start with how did everybody, including Modi’s party as well, get this so wrong?

Ravi Agrawal: Yeah, it’s a great question. So there were three sets of expectations that were dashed. One is all of the opinion polling over the last year or so, all of which suggested that not only would Narendra Modi and his BJP come back to power, but that they would win an outright majority on their own. So more than 272 seats and that they would easily exceed that as well.

Modi and His deputies themselves then closer to the election time said that they expected to cross 400 seats, which has never been done before in Indian electoral history. And this would mean that they would get a super majority. It would allow them to push through constitutional reform even. And then finally on June the 1st, which was.

Three days before the election results emerged, and India’s elections go on for six weeks. They’re just this incredibly long process and various phases in various parts of the country. On June 1st, poll after poll, these are exit polls conducted by different news channels and media companies. Almost all of them predicted that not only would the BJP win a majority on their own, but some of them went as far as saying that, yes, The exit polls show that they would get 400 seats.

So everyone got it wrong. This could be a fundamental misreading of the national mood. This could be the fact that vote shares don’t always translate into seats. And India is especially complicated here, partly because this is not a two party system. This is a multi party system. And then there’s some evidence now that the opposition’s vote share combined and coalesced in a way that it hadn’t in the last two elections, which made it much harder for pollsters to try and wrap their heads around how this converts into seats.

There are some theories and I won’t endorse them that, this was part of a ploy that there were some very powerful people who wanted to put out Flawed opinion polls, flawed exit polls, even to make a killing on the stock market. I have seen no real proof that is the case where I fall. I think is that everyone just got it wrong because they’d gotten it wrong before as well in underestimating how powerful the BJP is and was and Modi.

And I think in fear of getting it wrong again, and thinking that Modi tends to overperform, not underperform, if you look at his history, that’s kind of where everyone was.

Zachary Karabell: In U. S. elections now, I think there’s a policy not to report on exit polls, or at least to not report on them as if they’re conclusive.

So people will talk about them with some kind of If they want some descriptive flavor before the results come in, but it is one of these things where you, I mean, you would think, right, someone leaves the polling place and someone goes out to them and says, you know, who did you vote for? You’d think that would be a fairly binary, simple equation.

And yet for reasons that I’m not sure everyone understands, it’s just not. So I get the exit poll factor. It’s the, It’s everything else that seemed, was how badly he underperformed in the North and places like Uttar Pradesh and kind of areas that had been the Hindu, you know, Gangetic Plains stronghold of the BJP, the Hindu Nationalists and, that really, like if you’d massively underperformed in the South, and for those who don’t know, there’s a real South North divide in India, politically, culturally, linguistically, historically, but like that seemed surprising.

Ravi Agrawal: Yeah, it was surprising and surprising in part because I mean, if you go back to the start of the campaign, Modi inaugurated this big temple to the God Ram in January. And at the place where this was inaugurated, Ayodhya, his party lost the seat there. This was meant to be the thing that the people really wanted.

This was meant to be the thing that would consolidate the Hindu vote. And yet it didn’t. And I mean, there’s several lessons you can draw from it. One is that Hindus are not this monolith, you know, they’re not all going to vote on one issue and one issue alone, which is religion. Two is that, you know, when a leader comes out publicly and says, I’m going to win all these seats.

I’m going to dominate. It’s not the most likable thing. And there is now some sense that they just completely overreached. They, in telling the people that we are coming back to power with this huge landslide majority. I think there’s an element here of the people just wanting to check that power and to check that.

Not just the power itself, but the perception and the self perception of power. And in a sense, it doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum, checking power and checking in general, too much power. and one could argue, one should argue in fact, that Narendra Modi weakened The media, he weakened the judiciary.

he may have been seen as business friendly, but he was also, seen as too cozy with billionaires. there were elements of his power that needed to be checked and needed to be balanced out. And India needed a stronger opposition and obviously hindsight is, you know, 2020, but, it could be that India’s voters as diverse as they are made a set of choices that was a check on what they were hearing in the media about dominance.

And there could be lessons there for other countries and parties around the world.

Emma Varvaloucas: I mean, do people feel generally like, yes, like, let’s go forward, let’s do the thing or are they worried or what’s the general vibe?

Ravi Agrawal: I would say the general vibe is actually quite good. If you are a fan of Modi’s, he is prime minister.

If you want his agenda, which is a mix of welfare policies, subsidies for the poor, a focus on infrastructure and development, a very bullish projection of Indian power overseas. If you like all of that stuff, if you like his pro Hindu agenda, most of which has been accomplished already, to be clear, then you’re pleased in that he is still your prime minister.

If you supported other parties, you now feel like you have a shot. You now feel like your parties have more of a say. You feel like parliament matters again. So parliamentary debate, which Modi shunned largely, is now going to be much more important. The media will feel a little bit more emboldened. And I hope, frankly, the media will Chastised and ashamed of the fact that most of the big news channels were quite subservient to Modi over the last decade or so.

If you are just someone who believes in democracy and checks and balances, then this is a good thing. Then this election actually means that. Everyone wins out to a certain degree and that democracy wins, which is not something we can say that often these days.

Zachary Karabell: You know, there had been a narrative emerging and it’s a global narrative, but it was also particular to India that you had this form of kind of authoritarian or as Fareed Zakaria talked about illiberal democracy years and years ago, and it’s still talking about it.

And you did a conversation with him recently as well, as did we. And. That Modi was the, like the prima inter Paris of this narrative, that it was the most obvious example of a sort of populist leader with authoritarian nationalist tendencies who was Using that animated spirit to get more votes and kind of crowd out the public sphere using the levers of democracy.

And then also some levers that were much more questionable. I mean, it’s true. The press had become quite subservient, but what does it do about that narrative? I mean, was that narrowed like, cause the international community bought into it as well. I think we all bought into it, right. That this was working.

It was successful, it was popular. Does that mean that we should have been telling a different story or was it working for a while and then suddenly it didn’t?

Ravi Agrawal: So, I don’t think we got it wrong in that sense. I think the diagnosis that authoritarianism is on the rise globally is, a correct diagnosis, and a correct trend line.

I think illiberal democracy is on the rise globally. That is also a trend line that You know, holds true, even with this election, by the way, I think what India’s election tells us is that trends work until they don’t. When people get to vote, they vote based on a certain set of parameters. And frankly, to some degree, one of them was these trends.

I think they wanted. a more democratic India. I think they looked around them. They saw the dominance of one party, the absolute dominance of one man. I mean, if you get a COVID vaccine in India, or if you get free grain, Modi’s face would have been stamped on it. This was, you know, absolute cult of personality.

And again, don’t get me wrong. He still has many, fans in India. He’s easily by far and away the most popular politician in India, even after these elections. I think what we saw was just a check on untrammeled power. And in a sense, India may offer some lessons for the world in that despite the deck being stacked against the opposition in terms of funding, in terms of media access, in terms of incumbency, when you have an election that is largely free and fair, anything can happen and people aren’t stupid.

I think people are able to distinguish between narrative and reality. They also understand trend lines and they sometimes correct, they sometimes overcorrect and then go back. And so in India’s case, India’s, the mean from the 1980s until 2014, when Modi came to power was this. Sense that coalition governments are the way forward, you know, to have a pluralistic democracy work.

Then there came this yearning for a strong man leader, someone who can quote unquote get things done. And I think the mood in India seems to have shifted a bit and that they’ve tried that. And now they’re trying something a little different, a mix between the eighties and nineties mean and the 2014 to 2024 mean of Modi and dominance.

And they’re trying Modi with checks and balances. So you’ve got to respect that. And I imagine globally, just as dictators learn from each other and autocrats learn from each other. I think voters learn from each other and will be looking to India with some sense of hope and optimism wherever they are in the world.

Emma Varvaloucas: Do you essentially agree with the piece that Foreign Policy ran recently that India has reached peak Modi, like despite the fact, as you were just talking about, his face was everywhere, people give him a lot of credit for India’s booming economy, whether or not that’s valid to give him that credit. Do you think that from here, it’s going to be like a slow slide down, or is it possible that we could like.

Go back in the other direction again.

Ravi Agrawal: I edited that essay. This is an essay by Devesh Kapur who teaches at Johns Hopkins. He’s widely seen as one of the leading authorities on Indian politics in the United States. He’s trained many South Asia scholars, in this country. So, he has a lot of fans, and his piece was titled, Modi’s peaked, and the BJP is peaked.

And, you know, he basically looks around the world, at various other kind of dominant parties, whether it’s the PRI in Mexico, or the ANC in South Africa, you know, makes the point that when you have dominance for a long time, a range of problems begin to set in. and, you know, you’re not as efficient as you could be Cult of personality is the kind of thing that just erodes a party’s power over time.

I think he’s broadly right. we, by the way, discussed this essay weeks before we published it. So, I’m not saying Devesh was prescient about the results. The results surprised him and me both, but we thought it would be Provocative, to posit that the BJP had peaked. and then the election results came out and we rushed the piece out, because, it was no longer a provocation.

It was an explanation of what had happened. And I think Devesh is right. Look, if you claim to be fixing a problem at some point, you either have to fix it, Or you have to move on. So when you’re in power for long enough and you’ve railed against previous governments, at some point you’re carrying the can, you have to fix it or you have to be judged.

And I think that’s part of the cycle of parties around the world. And as long as you’re a democracy, then, you know, the judgment is one that actually works and then you get booted out or you get corrected as we’ve seen in India.

Zachary Karabell: You know, what makes India fascinating is. You had this moment at the beginning of the 21st century where there was a lot of sense that there were a bunch of countries that had whatever troubled, challenging, interesting history they had in the 20th century that were poised for sort of some sort of breakout politically and or economically and India and China, as well as Brazil and some others were kind of part of that mix.

And then you had a 20 year period where China very evidently, at least economically. surpassed even the wildest expectations of what was possible. And India in many ways underperformed even modest expectations about what was likely. And now you have this moment in the 2020s where, you know, when I was in India last year, it felt very much like what people were saying and thinking about China in 2002, three and four, there was a sense, kind of a palpable sense of possibility of confidence of like, this is our moment.

And some of that was in spite of Modi, not because of him. Some of that clearly was, you know, a feeling amongst more professional classes that whatever Modi’s faults in terms of Hindu nationalism, that there was kind of an economic stability slash opening that was new. Is there still a sense of If the kind of the global story was, largely shaped by the emergence of China, let’s say for the 20 years after 2001.

And what I mean by that is like, that was a potent X factor that has shaped a lot of the world. Could you say the same still being true? Or is it, do you think going to be true of India for the next 15, 20 years?

Ravi Agrawal: So yes and no. I think China is just an outlier. I think China’s growth miracle, double digit growth for four decades is as big a deal in the global span of history as like the industrial revolution was.

It’s just something that was a very specific set of circumstances for an incredibly large, Number of people over a prolonged period of time that seemed to sort of defy market forces. So it, sort of had a lot to do with China’s style of government and very sort of single-minded focus on development and growth.

I don’t think that can be replicated anywhere else in the world, maybe even ever. Having said that, I think the Indian growth story is remarkable. I think what India has achieved in the last 20 odd years, 30 years, if you look at 1991 was the year that India’s Congress coalition government, by the way, put in place a set of reforms in a moment of crisis, they opened up to the world, which allowed India to India’s growth to really take off from the nineties onwards.

If you look at all the trend lines, they, point to the nineties as the period where people first began to see India as this economy that had immense potential. Modi’s done some good things and actually has stood in the way of some other things. I think there’s little doubt that he has worked hard to make India a friendlier place for business, for both domestic and international investors.

He has really pushed hard to improve infrastructure. So building thousands and thousands of miles of highways and roads every year, doubling the number of airports in a decade, building more rail lines. You know, little things like gas connections, electricity connections are up by 45 percent in the last decade.

So a lot of infrastructural pushes, that are commendable, to say the least and have won them support by the way, women, for example, have voted for him in droves in 2014 and 2019 at the very least, in part because of, you know, his focus on the construction of toilets or electricity or gas connections, I think where he’s fallen, and we’ve seen some of this in the way in which people have To some degree moved on from him in the 2024 election is job creation.

He has really struggled to create, good jobs for people. unemployment is in the seven, 8 percent range, just too high. Youth unemployment for a country as young as India is, around about 15 percent by some estimates. That’s just, way too high. and means India could well face. a demographic disaster in the coming years.

So those are all things that I think, another Modi government and other governments after that we’ll have to address. There’s one very interesting data point. However, FDI foreign direct investment in India is actually down in the last three years. And there are a range of potential reasons for this, but one reason is that some investors are spooked by the fact.

That if you want to get something done in India, you’ve kind of got to be within this sort of special cabal of Modi friends. so for example, there’s India’s second biggest billionaire, this guy called Gautam Adani. all of the stocks linked to him, that bear his name, so various Adani stocks, they’re known on the market as Modi stocks.

And the day that the election results began to emerge, those stocks tanked by double digit percentages, all every single one of them, because, there was this broad acceptance that, you know, if you, if Modi wants to build, I don’t know, a factory for semiconductors, he’s going to call one of his friends and say, build it.

And then they will build it. And so if you were a foreign investor or even a domestic investor to get something done, You needed to be in that circle. It could be that in a coalition government with more checks and balances, market forces may actually be strengthened, not weakened, which actually bodes well for India.

If you look at historically coalition governments have actually been better for Indian growth and development than the

Zachary Karabell: opposite. Yeah. I’m really glad you mentioned this point about FDI foreign direct investment, because the contrast there with China is so extreme. You know, we had literally trillions of dollars of foreign direct investment in China from 2001 until the late to mid 2010s.

In many ways, a lot of China’s industrial base or contemporary manufacturing base was paid for by outside China. and you’ve, almost none of that in India. I mean, there is definitely foreign direct investment in India, but it is just, it’s fractional. I think it’s one 20th or less than one 20th.

I don’t, I mean, that’s, that may not be an accurate number, but it actually may be worse than that. and that’s a huge differential in, the way things work.

Ravi Agrawal: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, as, I think the American companies, especially, I don’t like the word decoupling, but as they look to French shore or near shore, or turn to other markets, Apple, for example, is trying to build more of a manufacturing base in India, perhaps because it was over reliant on China.

Yeah. As countries, as companies and countries look to do that, India will be a destination, regardless of the government and power, will be a country that they turn to. And, of course it’s competitive, right? They will also turn to other Southeast Asian markets, maybe even Latin American markets. But if you look at the mix of, political stability.

availability of skilled labor, and the potential for, land acquisition, which by the way has always been a problem in India, land acquisition and labor laws. If the Modi government can look to focus on those, they’ll be, they’ll remain a very attractive place for companies to come and do business.

Emma Varvaloucas: So this vision for India, you know, in the next 25 years, I think there’s a goal to become a high income nation, right? And there’s also a goal of becoming a global, a leader for the global South, becoming a leader generally in the world. You know, you just described both some of the factors that would lead India toward that direction and some of the missing ingredients.

I mean, taking that all together. Would you place your bet on India making it to this vision that’s been described, or do you think it might be a little bit rocky?

Ravi Agrawal: It will muddle its way there. I think, one distinction to make here, and again, perhaps the Indian voters voted based on this, is there’s a lot of noise about India being the fifth largest economy in the world.

And within a decade or so we’ll become the third largest economy in the world behind only the United States and China. And I think what that narrative of a big rising collective ignores is that average incomes in India are still extremely low. So the average Indian makes the equivalent of two and a half thousand dollars a year.

That is about a fifth, what the average Mexican makes. similar, about a fifth of what the average Chinese makes. And in terms of what the average American makes, gosh, you’re looking at one 20th or something like that. One 25th. India is a poor country and it takes a long time for average incomes to actually rise.

And so while India may have all these billionaires, and if you travel to one of the big cities, there are a lot of things that look impressive. Again, I mean, India has a lot of median growth that would need to take place for India to become a middle income country. That’s five X to reach Mexico’s levels of.

median prosperity. So I think the path to that is not an easy one. I think India would have to liberalize further. There are a lot of reforms that would have to put in place. And there are a lot of structural hurdles, that begin with, you know, the fact that it has simply been unable to create manufacturing jobs, let alone moving up the, skilled ladder.

So it will not be an easy path. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all.

Zachary Karabell: Broadening the aperture a bit. And you, referenced Mexico a moment ago in terms of comparative, rates of affluence and or poverty, depending on whether you want to look at it as a cup half full or cup half empty. There has been, you know, we talked a little at the beginning about the trend toward, let’s say authoritarian democracy or illiberal or, and yet you do have over the past several months, multiple countries, multi ethnic, complicated, challenging, go to the polls, have an electoral result that was widely accepted within those countries.

And there’s always accusations of fraud here and there and corruption and produce governments in many ways that were governments of change. So you had Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, India, obviously Brazil last year. Does that offset or counter the narrative of democracy and retreat, a rise of You know, it, just, it strikes me that if you had said to somebody in 1960 or 1970, that at this point in the 20th century, you’d have a series of quote, unquote, non Western countries go to the polls and produce unequivocally democratic results that would be widely accepted and would then kind of go about their business, that would have been seen as an unbelievably optimistic scenario, given the world.

I mean, in many ways, I don’t know if we take it for granted today, but I do think it’s something you know, worth stepping back and recognizing that it’s, been an awfully positive few months for just the concept of democracy, hasn’t it?

Ravi Agrawal: It really has. And especially with India, I think more than any of the other elections you mentioned, India strikes me as the one that is the most positive in that there was a trend of less democracy.

And democracy corrected the trend line. that to me is the most powerful example of how democracy can be self correcting despite, all kinds of things that are arrayed against it from authoritarian leaders to pillars of democracy being systematically weakened, whether it’s the media or the judiciary.

It’s interesting that you mentioned Mexico and South Africa. I feel like they’re at different stages of the India curve. So. South Africa, for example, with the ruling, African National Congress, ANC, they kind of remind me of India’s Congress party in that they were at the forefront of a freedom struggle of some form.

And then over time, a mix of corruption, inefficiency led to decay. And then eventually led to coalition governments and then led to the emergence of an alternative. So if you look at what happened with India’s congress in the fifties and sixties and seventies and eighties, in a sense the A NC in South Africa is pretty much on that same trajectory where it is going from, absolute power and popularity to now struggling to figure out how to form a coalition government.

And then you may see the rise of. Stronger alternatives in the future. Mexico is a very complicated one where PRI could be, you know, the Congress, in the Indian reference point, that then declined. And then you had essentially a much more democratic Mexico, in the early two thousands. And now you have this party, Morena, which is led by, or was led by, founded by AMLO Andres Manuel López Obrador, who like Modi is a leader who is immensely popular, very populist, raised the minimum wage, for example, has been very good for workers, but not business friendly.

But also increasingly authoritarian, a real cult of personality, has essentially allowed for the military to control all kinds of institutions, whether it’s policing, whether it is control of the airports, ports, the military is really just back in Mexico in a big way. And in many senses, while on the one hand, we’ve been wanting to celebrate the victory of.

Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first female president, breaking a glass ceiling. she is AMLO’s protege and the signs are that democracy is still weakened in Mexico, that, yes, the people have voted for her, in essentially a landslide victory where the polls were proven to be correct for once, but.

There are many people who rightly will worry about democracy in Mexico, where you have, you know, a person in power, a party in power that is all powerful, that is reducing the role of the state and increasing the role of the military, to achieve their ends. So, It’s a mixed picture globally. And I think we are right to worry about the trend lines of the rise of a liberal democracy, the rise of nationalism, jingoism, all of these forces that make it harder for true democracy to flourish.

And then you have an example like India’s where it self corrects despite the system, not because of it.

Zachary Karabell: I get that none of these are perfect and there’s a whole series of shades of gray and you know we can kind of cherry pick around the world whether you want to see examples of whatever democratic backsliding versus democratic efflorescence.

People can point to Poland as an example of it didn’t, you know, it looked like it was going down the path to kind of Hungary and semi authoritarianism and then Donald Tusk and his party won and they’re kind of doing their best to reverse that. You know, you thought Bolsonaro was going to be on the verge of a kind of.

a darker version of 1970s Brazilian politics. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it won’t, but you know, Lula won. I don’t even know what to make of Javier Mille in Argentina. I mean, that’s its own kind of interesting sui generis. It’s not like Argentina’s politics have been anything resembling functional for an extraordinarily long time, if ever.

But it does show me that this is the challenge of like, we all live in the present, right? And, there’s a human desire to have very conclusive narratives about what’s going on. That will then extend presumably into the future so that we can, you know, grapple with the unknown by stamping it with false certainty.

And the present’s always going to be messy, certainly compared to the past, because we don’t know how the future is going to turn out. So there are all these threads and there are all these possibilities, and we don’t know which one, and we’re always trying to guess and ascertain. I’m just struck by, if you had felt and done the temperature of how I think people have been feeling the past few years, these outcomes in my mind don’t follow that narrative neatly.

Now that doesn’t mean they won’t, and it doesn’t mean that all these things aren’t true, and that, you know, Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico will prove to be some sort of weird, you know, maybe she’ll be the, Medvedevs of Vladimir Putin and AMLO will be pulling the strings. that’s an obscure reference, but it’ll do as an analogy.

So I don’t know, it just, I am more heartened by the fact of what’s going on in the past year and the demonstration of people, at least, you know, collectively deciding their future with all the messiness that it entails, as opposed to Oh, well, you know, the great experiment of the 20th century and some version of democracy and open markets and open societies has proven to be an abject, if not failure, then it’s been rejected or seized or overthrown or whatever.

and like, that’s my provisionally optimistic view in the moment.

Ravi Agrawal: I kind of agree with you on this in that I think things could have been much worse, on all of the elections that we’re discussing and including the ones that we haven’t discussed. I think when you think of the challenges that people have faced, and one of the big ones is the media, so I think in the last few years, Alongside countries that have seen a cult of personality, there has been an element of media capture where you mentioned Putin, he controls TV in Russia.

Modi largely, I won’t say controls the media in India, but he is connected to the people, who really have control over India’s mass media. Most countries around the world that have leaders who have an authoritarian bent. They’re accompanied with situations where media as a pillar of democracy has been weakened.

And I think the heartening thing here is that despite that, regular people have found ways of cutting through and using YouTube and being influencers who tackle this kind of media capture with humor. And with jokes and with memes and with very powerful narratives of, you know, speaking truth to power.

That’s what we saw in India, by the way. There were all of these YouTubers with tens of millions of followers who were able to basically call BS when they needed to, and were immensely popular and led to a sense of a bubble being cracked. Which may have then in part led to people voting the way they did.

And there’s a feedback loop, from country to country, from election to election. And I think we are, going to see more and more. influencers. So not people who are paid to sit behind an anchor desk, but just people, regular people who rise up, who are able to speak truth to power and who are able to do so with humor, by using means, by connecting with people, where they are in an authentic way that I

Elections, choices in ways that I think most people haven’t cottoned on to. And I include myself in that as an old school media guy who is just beginning to grapple with how fragmented and fractured the media is. And I used to lament that, but I’m coming around to the, notion that there are real upsides to that.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, what you’re saying was certainly the case in the European Parliament elections in Cyprus, you know, recently with Fideas Panayiotou, because he’s a YouTuber, 2 million followers, went on TV with three neckties and was like, Hey, I’m running for Parliament, guys, and 40 percent of Gen Z voters voted for him and he did get voted in as an independent, which like, I’ve heard people interpreting again, like we were saying with Modi as like a screw you to the current government of Cyprus, but it’s also just like, wow, really, like anybody can become a politician as they have, you know, influence and reach.

Ravi Agrawal: Yeah, exactly. If you look around the world, historically, politicians were more likely to be like landed gentry, you know, I mean, there’s a term and. Pakistan. the term is electable, you know, someone who, basically has land and has people who work on the land and, you know, is of course going to get elected.

and, I think what you’re describing this example, is something we’ll see more and more of around the world. And it’s a churning of traditional systems of. Achieving power. It breaks through funding models, which are campaign finance is broken the world over. We can agree on that. In as much as young media influencers have a way of getting around all these systems, you know, the party system, the funding system, that’s a good thing.

I think it’s, a new form and phase of democracy that, We’ll shake things up in a way that also, frankly, energizes young people who often don’t feel energized when they have to vote for people who are four times their age.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, I was quite optimistic, Ravi. That wasn’t at all depressing dinner guest takes.

Ravi Agrawal: I tried.

Emma Varvaloucas: We appreciate you. We appreciate the effort.

Zachary Karabell: Ravi, I want to thank you for your thoughts today. I mean, as we mentioned in your intro, India is the largest, most complicated democracy on the planet, full stop, with a population bigger than the next few democracies, including the United States and Brazil.

Combined and the entire EU for that matter. So paying attention to it really does matter. It matters to all of us. It is the ultimate laboratory of democracy. I think again, the fact that it had this result that surprised us, we didn’t even get into the polling questions. I think for Americans, certainly. I think we’re aware viscerally that even our own polling system is largely broken, cell phones, how do you reach people, who picks up the phone, who talks?

It’s one of the more bewildering aspects of our contemporary world that it’s actually hard to figure out what people think and what they’re planning on doing, which I kind of like by the way, in a world where we think everything is predictable,

Ravi Agrawal: right? I celebrate that. I mean, it’s nice to have surprises.

It’s nice also that people have a mind of their own. Like we, tend to think sometimes partly because of polls that we’ve got it. We understand them. and I like that people, you know, throw up surprises. That’s exactly what democracy was meant to be.

Zachary Karabell: And I would say to all of you who don’t go read foreign policy, it’s, certainly, you know, provides coverage of the world that you cannot find, almost anywhere else.

I mean, maybe in the economist sometimes, but an awareness and a rigorous look every day as to what’s going on in places that are vital and important, but at least for Western audiences often get ignored. I mean, everybody ignores everything except what’s provincial. That’s another human tendency, but. Go read Foreign Policy.

Robbie’s done an amazing job. And, I urge all of you to pay attention and thank you for your time today. You are very kind to say that. Thank you very much.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thank you so much, Robbie. So I like the point that you made at the end there, Zachary, about kind of cherry picking things that are going well, as far as democracy and things that are not going well, my sort of like favorite pet example at the moment was, Senegal’s big democratic turnaround.

And then another one that I found out about recently is Mauritania. I mean, that when’s the last time anyone talked about Mauritania. They had their first peaceful transition of power in 2019, and they’re about to probably hopefully head into their second. So obviously it’s not like Senegal and Mauritania are world players the way that Mexico and India and China and Russia are and so far and so forth.

But still there are kernels of hope in places that people just don’t really care about looking at.

Zachary Karabell: Right. And I think, again, let’s take it as a given that most people are paying attention to the nascent and not so nascent problems in the world. And so some of this commentary is. in relation to that. Like if everybody were just, Oh, Hosanna, everything’s great.

Look at how flourishing democracy is. I might be the first person to say, Hey, wait a minute, there’s some problems here and let’s look at them. It’s, a, kind of trying to create a more balanced view of what’s going on, particularly in a time where as we know, and the whole conceit of this podcast and what we’re doing is there isn’t a balanced view of what’s going on and it skews largely negative, not positive.

And I, you know, I think Ravi described it quite well at the end. Like, yeah, yes. It’s great that a first woman was elected. in Mexico. And she’s certainly different from her predecessor, but there were a lot of problems in that election. And we don’t know whether or not this is just going to go badly. We just know what happened on the day of the election.

And that’s kind of true everywhere. And look, the elephant in the room for American viewers is trying to figure out what the hell is going to happen and whether or not that democratic result will be accepted, whether it will be accepted by Democrats if Trump wins. And I think more crucially, whether it will be accepted by Trump if Biden wins or.

Whoever’s running for president at that time. And what, that will say about the health of American democracy, it’s almost certainly the case that whoever wins in the United States on November 5th will win because they won within that system. I mean, we have a screwy system because of the electoral college and kind of means you can win without winning the majority of the actual vote.

That’s a structural problem, but that doesn’t make it illegitimate. I mean, it could make it illegitimate if people start feeling like that’s illegitimate, but that’s a whole separate issue. And, you know, there we are in a messy world that to me feels so much more functional than people think. Full stop, you know, and, I think the India result obviously demonstrated that unbelievably.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. And also more surprising, right? Ties back to the U S discussion as well, where. The polls in India were wrong. You know, the polls in the U S right now are very Biden’s going to lose by a large margin. I’m not saying that they’re wrong, but they’ve certainly been wrong in the past. And India is an especially interesting example because I’ve read analyses that were like, well, the polling was wrong because they haven’t done a population census in India in a while.

So they weren’t weighing things correctly. And I’ve also read, you know, like Fareed Zakaria wrote, for instance, that there is some evidence that Indians were just flat out lying about who they voted for. So there’s just so many. Factors that, we can consider a lot better after the fact than before the fact.

And, whoa. We’ll see what happens in November.

Zachary Karabell: We will definitely see what happens and it will not be for lots of commentary from lots of people who claim that they know what’s gonna happen. Thank you all for listening to this week. as, you know, or may not know, we’re also doing shorter news episodes weekly, so please tune into those as well.

And send us your thoughts, sign up for our newsletter, What Could Go Right?, at theprogressnetwork. org. It’s free. It’s weekly. It gives you some news to think about that you might not otherwise have noticed. And please do enter into a conversation with us. Tell us what you think. Tell us what you’d like us to look at.

Tell us what you think we’re not looking at the way we should be, but we will listen. We will take note whether or not we agree. We very much appreciate the time. What Could Go Right? is produced by the Podglomerate.

Executive produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about what could go right, the Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.



Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


The Progress Report: Calm Amidst Chaos

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

In this week's Progress Report, Zachary and Emma discuss the recent assassination attempt on Donald Trump and its implications for society. They highlight the response from both leaders and ordinary Americans, noting the overall unity and calmness in the aftermath of the event. They also discuss other news stories, including Gambia upholding the ban on female genital cutting and the decreasing global poverty rates. The conversation ends with a positive note about the decrease in gun violence during the Independence Day weekend.

The Impact of Therapy Culture

Featuring Abigail K. Shrier

Does there need to be a change in the way we approach mental health and therapy? Zachary and Emma speak with Abigail Shrier about the evolving landscape of mental health narratives among younger generations. Abigail's new book 'Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren't Growing Up' challenges the orthodoxy that more therapy is the solution to our rising mental health problems. From the use of trauma as metaphor to the impact of therapeutic trends on adolescents, we explore how societal perceptions and parenting styles shape attitudes towards resilience, responsibility, and the pursuit of personal growth. The conversation explores the overdiagnosis and overmedication of children and adolescents, the impact of therapy culture on young people, and the need for a more balanced approach to mental health.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of New Media

Featuring Ben Smith

Has social media peaked? How is media different now compared to the early days of Twitter and Facebook? Are there too many social media options? Zachary and Emma speak with Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Semafor, founding editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, and author of "Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral." Journalism's recent online progression, social media fragmentation, and the Facebook news evolution are discussed here today.