Magical Monsoons and Local Democracy

Trying to control a rambunctious India from 28 bureaucratic capitals is just as silly as trying to control the wind and the rain in this monsoon-fed country.

July 27, 2023 02:09 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

Greetings from Washington!

I have just come back from a grueling six-week trip to India. I am about to go to New York for our FO° Meetup tomorrow. If you are in the Big Apple, swing by to see me and other members of our community. Please find the details below.

Time: 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Location: Starbucks Reserve, Ste 105, Empire State Building, 350 5th Ave, New York, NY 10118

Magical Monsoons

Although I had not intended to travel too much and instead spend time with my parents, I still ended up visiting many parts of the country. One phenomenon that struck me was how the first monsoons hit some cities the day I showed up. It was an eerie coincidence because I am no wandering sage as some would like to believe.

In Mumbai, when the monsoons erupted, I was on Marine Drive, a ‘C’-shaped three-kilometer long promenade by the Arabian Sea. Two donors to Fair Observer were driving me to meet one of our readers who is recovering from a heart attack. 

Image Credit – BoeingMan777 /

When the heavens opened up with accompanying thunder, lightning and rain, I realized instantly and instinctively why the monsoons are the defining feature of India’s climatic and cultural experience. Visibility dropped to a few meters, we could barely even see the Arabian Sea and people on Marine Drive were soaked in seconds.

An abiding memory from the moving car window is a young man with his arms stretched out to the wind and the rain coming in from the sea. That silhouette of a frail human figure against the horizon and at one with nature is stamped indelibly in my mind.

A couple of days later, I traveled to Pune where the scenery of the Western Ghats was simply magical. The hills were lush green, clouds wafted in the valleys below and the rain even got through the not-so-fancy windows of the fancy Vande Bharat train that my old classmate from Wharton has been crowing about nonstop. 

This classmate Ashwini Vaishnaw is in charge of three ministries (two too many in my view) and is a hardworking chap but has been a bit too hyperbolic about the indubitably decent new trains. Yet they have been rushed into service and suffer from a typical Indian lack of attention to detail. The rubber linings of Vande Bharat windows are clearly subpar, which is why water was seeping through. Clearly, the manufacturers forgot that the monsoons are mighty and rains tend to seep through the cracks.

The Present and the Past

More to the point, I met some extraordinary people in Pune. Chief among them was my host Anand Deshpande, the founder of Persistent Systems. I met other people from politics, administration, military, academia and business.

Mumbai and Pune are similar, yet different. The English got Mumbai in dowry from the Portuguese. This remains the city of finance, trade, real estate, modeling and Bollywood. India’s great corporate houses and big business families have made their home there. Pune was once the capital of the Maratha Empire, the last great indigenous empire that challenged the British. Pune is home to manufacturing, software, education and healthcare.

The First Anglo-Maratha War from 1775 to 1782 (coinciding with the American War of Independence) destroyed this indigenous empire. To be fair, the Peshwas, the leaders of the Maratha Confederacy, had been weakened by the disastrous Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 where the Pashtun King Ahmad Shāh Durrānī smashed the Maratha army. The British East India Company picked off the weakened Marathas and the fate of India was sealed.

When India became a colony, Pune played a great role in the freedom struggle. The memory of upending the Mughal Empire and then taking on the British Empire remained. Both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale forged the spirit of Pune. That spirit still remains. Pune has a cultural confidence and bravery that many other parts of the country lack.

At the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), I was struck by the legacy of the independence movement. The MCCIA was forged in the heat of that movement to liberate India from the British and I found a civic sense that is far too often missing in my native state of Uttar Pradesh. During COVID-19, the MCCIA was largely responsible for a 735% and 451% increase in bed and ventilator capacity.

Foreign travelers to ancient India often remarked on how Indian cities were well run. The nagar seths (local merchants) played a big role in planting trees, building roads, maintaining sanitation, managing inns and running the city. They did so not entirely out of altruism but also because of “self-interest, well understood” what Alexis de Tocqueville talked about when he traveled through the US in 1831. The great French thinker observed that local democracy and civic engagement was the lifeblood of the US.

Local Democracy Matters

When I observed Pune, Mumbai, Noida and the other cities I visited, I found that the very lifeblood Americans enjoyed was denied to Indians. In Pune, business leaders, entrepreneurs, middle-class professionals, doctors, teachers and almost everyone complained about how Pune is run from Mumbai and has been left to the dogs.

Pune, as all Indian cities, is  run by officers of the rent-seeking colonial Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Elected mayors have no power whatsoever. The unit of power is the state and India has 28 states. The elected chief minister runs a state with IAS officers acting as lackeys. Some of them are competent. Most tend to be insufferably arrogant, ridiculously incompetent and rapaciously corrupt.

People in Pune told me that they pay a lot in tax but it is all redistributed elsewhere. They have no say in running their city. The IAS officers who come to speak at MCCIA expect to be addressed as sir and are utterly unaccountable to local citizens.

My trip and conversations with my old friend Manu Sharma inspired us to pen a piece on how India’s urban middle class is craving a better quality of life. It has upset many IAS officers, including some of our friends. We still love them but cannot but fail to point out that while Manu and I hark draw our inspiration from Tilak and Gokhale, IAS officers are illegitimate children of the British Empire. Obviously, we want reform that trims their wings while they would like the status quo to remain forever. Turkeys never vote for Thanksgiving.

I have gone on now for far too long but the reason I began Fair Observer was to examine the world through new prisms. Far too often, we read in the Western press simplistic accounts of Indian democracy backsliding. For those of us who have grown up there and studied it closely, the reality is more nuanced. When it comes to cities, local democracy is not backsliding because it never existed.

The unit of democracy cannot just be India’s 28 states. Note that my state of Uttar Pradesh has 240 million people ruled by IAS officers in Lucknow. They run the cities, the local schools, the local fire departments, the local police and everything else. The unit of democracy has to be the city. The heart of power in that democracy has to be elected mayor, not an IAS officer sent by Lucknow to rule like a lord.

If you have stories to share or issues to highlight, we invite you to publish with us. We are always looking for new authors, new ideas and want to hear what you think. Believe me, so does our global audience.

If you are in New York, I will see you tomorrow. If you are elsewhere, I hope to see you another time. Perhaps you will sign up for our  FO° Exclusive and I will see you later today.

Atul Singh
Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief

P.S. Retired CIA officer Glenn Carle and I make sense of the three most important issues of the month on the last Wednesday of every month in our FO° Exclusive at 12:00 pm (noon) Eastern Time (5:00 pm London, 6:00 pm Paris, 9:30 pm Mumbai)

P.P.S. Today, we cover riots in France, tumult in Israel and the strange sacking of the Chinese foreign minister.

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