Salman Rushdie | Bimal Patel | Nandan Nilekani | Shashi Tharoor | Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Swapan Dasgupta | Ram Madhav | Gita Gopinath | Venki Ramakrishnan | J Sai Deepak | Arvind Panagariya | S Somanath | Deepak Shenoy | Vikram Sampath | Nithin Kamath | Shrinivas Kulkarni | Mukesh Ambani | Rahul Bhatia | N Chandrasekaran | Manjul Bhargava | Rohini Pande | Madhabi Puri Buch | Raj Chetty
The public square is both real and an imagination. In an ancient Greek city with a small citizenry, everyone could come together, debate and decide how they should govern themselves. Or in ancient India of the 6th century BCE, imagine wandering ascetics going to market centres in the capitals of the janapadas and engaging in debate and sowing the genesis of religions like Buddhism and Jainsim and even in the shaping of what would become Hinduism. But countries now have populations that run into millions and billions. Even an Assembly constituency is so dense that it is impossible for constituents to congregate at one place. The voting booth exists but it is a narrow echo of the dynamism that comes from lively participation. As a common physical space, the public square became history long ago.
And yet it exists and not merely as imagination. Through an alchemy of networks and communication, citizens come face to face with the pressing issues that affect them and what they feel, if enough people feel it, becomes loud and is heard. If someone is politically disinterested, he ignores the square but sooner or later everyone is engaged one way or another because self-interest demands it. In democracies, such a public square is amplified because a necessary condition for its efficacy is freedom. Unless one can speak and hear in the open, what is there to question or demand? The more open a society, the greater its ability to make corrections because of feedback and criticism. Dictators and authoritarian regimes can keep it closed but the stifling translates into a build-up of tension that eventually destroys the system.
Technology is modifying this space in ways no one has been able to predict. A social media platform like Twitter tried to pass off as the public square of the world but lost its sheen as soon as it began to play referee and stifle voices. It also became a lesson as to why without all voices, even distasteful ones, there is no public square. And it is not a bad thing that the square remains amorphous and undefined. It means no one can control it. Everyone wants to—from governments to activists to businessmen to politicians— but it is in its very chaos that its freedom thrives.
In a public square, everyone has an equal right to opinion, but in a healthy one voices of reason, wisdom, science, insight and sound arguments must be fostered. It is incumbent on a society to do this so that it can distinguish between the virtuous and the venal; to decipher good voices from the bad—it is like a muscle that grows by training it. This can only be done through listening closely and evaluating the discourse that floats in the square. Are the men and women who have been entrusted with governing doing it in a salutary manner? Are the institutions and people who lead it in line with the common good? Is a society encouraging science, giving it leeway to explore and expand? Are children being taught to think? What is good aesthetics and is it being promoted around you? What is the idea of the nation and is it being achieved? Answers to these questions might not exist in clear-cut ways and certainly won’t come from one single Indian. There are still many out there who make significant contributions in exploring these questions. These are men and women who shape the square. To recognise their contribution is to make the ground fertile for more of them.
Salman Rushdie, 76, Author: Living to Tell the Tale
Not long before his new novel, Victory City, was published, Salman Rushdie was nearly killed in a knife attack on a stage in Chautauqua, New York. He didn’t expect, neither did we, that, out there, someone, some mad man living in the theology of vengeance globalised by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran three decades ago, was waiting for the moment. Rushdie survived. And we read his new novel while its author was discovering, in the most painful way, the price of imagination. Hasn’t he paid already, more than any other living writer? Victory City, his full-fledged Indian novel after Midnight’s Children, tells us, through a story built on the mythology of the Vijayanagaram empire, how imagination feeds on its own ambition (‘Salman Rushdie Comes Home’, Open, February 20, 2023 ). He has created one of fiction’s most engrossing female characters— storyteller as creator—to remind the world that the magic of words creates a reality more enduring than empires built on stones.
“We live in a time of competing narratives, political, scientific, religious, and some of these powerfully promote what is not true and dangerous. In such a time, literature has the power to remind us of what we are really like, to open up better vistas of possibility, to call out untruths, and to allow us to imagine ourselves in new and richer ways”
Bimal Patel, 61, Architect: India’s Architect
As against the round old Parliament, the new one, inaugurated this year, is triangular. Bimal Patel, architect and founder of HCP Design Planning and Management Private Limited, is credited with this metamorphosis when he was commissioned to envision the new House of the People. He delved into the design ethos that new India wanted to present to itself. The triangle, he felt, represented sacred geometry across religions and cultures. The building would be a bridge between the traditional and the modern, of what was and would be. Patel, recognised as one of the leading urban planning and designing architects in the country, began this journey with the Sabarmati riverfront project 20 years ago and was also part of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor construction. He also straddles the world of academia as president of CEPT University and is the go-to person for the government when it comes to ambitious mega architectural projects.
“Architecture, especially in the public realm, can powerfully express a people’s values, aspirations and capacities. It can bring them together by giving them something to be collectively proud of”
Nandan Nilekani, 68, Entrepreneur and Public Technology Evangelist: The Vision Thing
He is the reason India is on the cusp of another UPI moment—this time in lending. The Reserve Bank of India’s Account Aggregator framework is expected to revolutionise the credit landscape in the next few years, but the ball was set rolling over a decade ago by a man who brought a top-notch team together to build an essential public good we did not even know we needed. Nilekani’s exceptional vision—using tech to fuel economic activity—resulted in India building a foundational biometric identity framework which has since enabled both the government and the private sector to deliver services and products with ease and efficiency. The non-executive chairman of Infosys, who made Aadhaar, UPI and FASTag possible, also helped build the Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), which is expected to create a new class of ecommerce buyers, and draft the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, which is set to be tabled in Parliament’s Monsoon Session. Alongside his tech evangelism, Nilekani continues to raise the bar with his philanthropy. He recently donated ₹315 crore to his alma mater IIT-Bombay, in one of the largest endowments made by an alumnus in India.
Shashi Tharoor, 67, Author and MP: Unravelling Ambedkar
He began writing at a young age and got his first article published when he was just 10. Today, Shashi Tharoor has many bestsellers to his credit. But his biography of BR Ambedkar stands out because he did so after an exercise in unlearning— from which he emerged cleansed and more conscious. From being the proud son of a father who had dropped his caste name and being oblivious to caste, because that was what was considered the best thing to do while he was growing up, Tharoor learnt to be more conscious in the years preceding his writing about the key architect of the Indian Constitution who is also a Dalit icon. In his own words, he became conscious that his own obliviousness of caste does not exempt him from being aware of the caste-consciousness of others. He did so on realising that Dalits do not have the luxury of being oblivious to caste. The book, Ambedkar: A Life, is a testament to that change.
“It’s said that small minds write about people; average minds write about events; great minds write about ideas. Writers actually cover all three, and I often write about the first two [people and events] in order to promote the third [my ideas]. For me, ideas are what matter. I write in order to provoke thought, and you can’t get your readers to think without the stimulus of ideas”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 56, Public Intellectual: Dignity Of Dissent
The very mention of his name evokes the idea of a public intellectual. He continues to voice, without fear or favour, his concerns about constitutional incongruities. His contrarian views are widely debated long after he has penned them. He spares no political establishment. This alumnus of Oxford University, who was earlier vice chancellor of Ashoka University, has resigned from crucial positions in successive governments, starting with the National Knowledge Commission in 2006. One of our former presidents whose party Pratap Bhanu Mehta had consistently critiqued had told him at an official dinner that on every major policy matter or political event, he often waited for Mehta’s insightful commentaries. Nothing stops Mehta from being vigorous in his criticism of governments and their agendas. No other columnist in India highlights issues of social justice and institutional roles with as much coherence and intellectual honesty as Mehta does. For a man who rails against the collective narcissism of India’s rulers, he is hated and loved, but never ignored.
“The demands of our time require an intellectual commitment to the values of freedom, equality, dignity and reciprocity. And most of all they require civic courage. Yet, they also require an acute awareness that we live in a moment that requires intellectual humility, openness, subtlety and nuance. Our understanding of the causal processes shaping our society and the world has seldom been more uncertain”
Swapan Dasgupta, 67, Commentator: Conservative Elegance
If rightwing ideology in India, though victorious politically, suffers for historical reasons from a paucity of intellectual depth, it has to make up for it by the few who do have the heft. Swapan Dasgupta has for a long time been in this rarefied group. He argues for and defends positions from this side of the ideological spectrum to the English-speaking world. Dasgupta’s arguments, both in print and frequent appearances on television news, are reasoned and nuanced, in contrast to the raucous nature of political discourse today. After a lifetime in journalism, he also evolved into becoming a political leader with the last West Bengal election. Despite the defeat, he continues to focus on the state even while being a commentator in mass media on issues that affect the nation.
“The excitement of politics is in trying to influence and mould the future. Without ideas, public life becomes base and purely transactional”
Ram Madhav, 58, Author and RSS Leader: The Ideologue
In the universe of Hindutva, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the pole star, giving it direction. Within the organisation, Ram Madhav, a member of the National Executive, continues to be one of its leading ideologues. Earlier, he had a long innings in active politics where his focus ranged from foreign policy to Kashmir and the Northeast. Returning to RSS, his breadth of knowledge and experience led in 2021 to the book The Hindutva Paradigm: Integral Humanism and Quest for a Non-Western World. Last year, he turned his lens to a period in history that still scars the nation. In Partitioned Freedom, he went into the causes and events leading up to Partition to find out whether it was an inevitability. A familiar byline in the pages of newspapers and magazines, Madhav’s opinions and arguments have a wide audience in the public and government.
“Hindutva has an emotional appeal. It won over the hearts of millions. Hindu nationalism needs to conquer mind spaces through ideational engagement. I always loved that challenge since mind spaces are rational, not emotional; sceptical, not submissive”
Gita Gopinath, 51, First Deputy Managing Director, IMF: Ultimate Adviser
The global stature of Kolkata-born Gita Gopinath, who is the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) first deputy managing director, is still on the rise. Her recent speech at the ECB Forum in Sintra, Portugal, is proof of that and her words are often treated like gold dust by policymakers the world over. For an economist who has many firsts to her credit—she was the first Indian-origin woman to be named IMF’s chief economist and the first Indian-origin woman to be appointed full professor at Harvard’s Economics Department—she told the Forum a few uncomfortable truths about monetary policy, her forte. “This [current situation] reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. In the play, both the cast and audience await a mysterious character named Godot who never appears. Similarly, we are still waiting for low inflation to reappear.” She went on to highlight that inflation was taking too long to get back on target; financial stresses could generate tensions between central banks’ price and financial stability objectives; and that central banks could experience more upside inflation risks than before the pandemic. Born to a Malayali couple and raised in Mysore and Delhi before she relocated to the US for higher studies, this JK Rowling fan is an alumnus of the Delhi School of Economics.
Venki Ramakrishnan, 71, Structural Biologist: Decoder of Proteins
When Charles III appointed Venki Ramakrishnan to the Order of Merit last November, he became part of an exclusive group restricted to just 24 members. The distinction conferred by the UK monarch was because of Ramakrishnan’s contributions to science. He is the last person of Indian origin to have won a Nobel Prize. That was in 2009 for mapping the structure of ribosomes inside cells that are key to the production of proteins. The application of his research, among other things, is in the making of antibiotics. Ramakrishnan, born to a family of scientists in Tamil Nadu, moved to the US for his PhD and eventually relocated to the UK, where at the University of Cambridge he settled in, doing research that would culminate in the Nobel and the Fellowship of the Royal Society, among many other scientific milestones.
J Sai Deepak, 38, Lawyer and Author: Bharat’s Advocate
He first came into the eye of the Indian political firmament when he appeared in the Supreme Court to present the case of the deity during the hearings on the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. Since then, J Sai Deepak has built a massive following as an advocate for Hindu political and cultural revival, both online and offline. He bolstered this position by embarking on a trilogy analysing the factors responsible for the decline of Indic civilisation and the path for its resurgence. The first two books, India That is Bharat and India, Bharat and Pakistan, came out in 2021 and 2022 respectively, and established him as an intellectual of the right. Deepak is a powerful orator, never shying away from a debate in which he brings his deep understanding of history and law. He is also active within the legal system on issues he considers important for India’s social trajectory.
“Since 2013, there has been a marked shift in the Overton window, civilisationally speaking, and we are witnessing a gradual Indic reawakening at the societal level, which is reflected in other spheres. Contrary to popular perception, this reawakening is ground-up and not top-down. While there are serious challenges ahead, I truly believe that this time round, the voice of this civilisation cannot be stifled or silenced. Bharat is here to stay”
Arvind Panagariya, 70, Economist: The Tutor
The first vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, which replaced the Planning Commission, is now the chancellor of Nalanda University (NU), a position that Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had held until his exit in 2016. Similar to his role in steering the newly created NITI Aayog, Rajasthan-born Arvind Panagariya will now be able to revive an ancient university that had thrived for 750 years from the 5th century to the 13th century, attracting students and scholars from across the world. An alumnus of Princeton where he did his PhD, Panagariya is also Jagdish N Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University and has a global appeal as an authority on the Indian economy. Panagariya is looked up to by young academics. Pravin Krishna, the Chung Ju Yung Distinguished Professor of International Economics and Business at Johns Hopkins University, remembers the new NU chancellor to be extremely encouraging towards the younger group of economists. From the ruins of Nalanda, a treasured international heritage, Panagariya now has an opportunity to groom outstanding scholars of the next generation.
S Somanath, 59, Chairman, ISRO: Time Traveller
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has, with a fraction of the resources of space agencies of developed nations, managed to come into its own and S Somanath, who took over as chairman early last year, is the man steering it into the future. A veteran of ISRO, his tenure saw the agency entrenching itself as a competitor in the commercial potential of the space market when last October and this March, it launched its biggest rockets that carried satellites for a UK telecom firm. But there are other big missions on the horizon for Somanath. Chandrayaan-3, a follow up to Chandrayaan-2, which will further explore the moon, is about to happen. Later, probably by the beginning of 2024, Nisar, a joint NASA-ISRO low-Earth orbit observatory is planned that will study the planet and the changes in its ecosystems. Somanath is the driver of ISRO at a moment of history that could propel India into a leader in space.
Deepak Shenoy, 48, Financial Analyst: Money Mantra
From being a software engineer who learnt about stock markets entirely on his own, Deepak Shenoy is now one of the most followed financial analysts in the country. His journey began with a blog that became very popular because it simplified complex financial instruments and markets in a language that anyone could understand. He has taken on just about everything related to wealth, from performance of stocks to making savings work, from tips on trading in bonds to abstruse but important clauses in the Budget that few others noticed. Online, he has over two lakh followers on Twitter but is far from being just a financial influencer. Shenoy has a successful portfolio management service managing over ₹1,000 crore. He is also the author of a book, Money Wise: Timeless Lessons On Building Wealth, a manual of sorts for making money intelligently for the layman.
Vikram Sampath, 43, Historian: Hero Worshipper
For the longest time, there’s been a singular, monochromatic and ideologically driven version of what Indian history needs to be. Today, with information being so readily accessible to everyone and with social media being all-pervasive, people, especially the youth, have realised that not all that has been thrust upon us is entirely true. Vikram Sampath is a determined torchbearer of the movement to tell the alternative version of the past that has always been suppressed, whether it is his work on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar or the recent Bravehearts of Bharat. It is finding increasing resonance with readers, especially young people. “I remember an occasion in Delhi where I was signing books in a bookstore and a young teenager telling me that he had become so self-loathing of his country, his faith and it was after reading my works that he had a renewed sense of nationalism and love for everything that we can call Bharatiya. That he travelled all the way from Rajasthan just for those few minutes of meeting and speaking to me moved me deeply,” he says.
“An open mind is one that is not fossilised in its own belief systems and constantly seeks upgrade on the basis of new data and new findings. It does not assume that everything it knows or thinks is the ultimate truth; that there can be other versions of that truth as others see it”
Nithin Kamath, 43, Entrepreneur: Stock Answer
He revolutionised stock market trading when Zerodha charged no brokerage at all for buying and selling of shares, and a very small fee for trading intra-day and of derivatives. But the question whether it could be a sustainable business model has been answered when it revealed this January that net profits for financial year 2022 had been over ₹2,000 crore. Startup founders usually paint an overoptimistic future but Nithin Kamath has always believed in straight talk. He struck a note of caution saying that such performance on the back of a raging bull market need not be a constant even though the market thinks otherwise. Kamath is unusual in other ways too. Unlike startups that can’t wait to do an IPO to tap funds and for founders and investors to increase their net worth, he has believed that the company must first be profitable and run on its own steam and not investor money. And having built a phenomenal customer base close to a crore, he has abundant revenue streams left to tap.
Shrinivas Kulkarni, 66, Astronomer: Star-Struck
Last year, when details of a mission by NASA to survey the entire sky using ultraviolet light was announced, Shrinivas Kulkarni was mentioned as part of the team. To the community of astronomers, this would come as no surprise given Kulkarni’s enormous contributions to the field. The Royal Society lists his discoveries as including “the fastest radio pulsar known with a spin period of 1.5 milliseconds, the first example of a brown dwarf star, white dwarf companions to binary pulsars, radio counterparts to soft gamma ray repeating sources, and cosmological gamma ray bursts.” The UVEX mission that he is part of is slated for a 2028 launch and will lead to answering many questions on the formation of galaxies and stars. Kulkarni grew up in small-town Hubli and then went on to study in IIT, followed by a PhD in the US where he devoted his life to astronomical research.
Wealth of Ideas: Powering India Inc
Mukesh Ambani, 66, Chairman, Reliance Industries: Owning the Future
Reliance Industries is the biggest company of India but its chairman, Mukesh Ambani, is far from being complacent. The vast profits Reliance generates is furiously being ploughed back into becoming future-ready. The launch of Jio, its telecommunications venture, was just the first step to what would be an entire bouquet of ventures, ranging from green energy and media to toys and retail. It introduced 5G services, outspending competitors to get the best spectrum, and that goes in tandem with the group’s other offerings that would be integrated eventually through technology. Jio also announced its foray into the financial services sector, opening an entirely new universe. The family, too, is being made future-ready as Ambani gives his children charge over different parts of the empire. In his letter to shareholders last August, Ambani said that Reliance had become the first Indian corporate to cross $100 billion in annual revenues. As his strategic vision gets executed, it will be just an initial milestone.
Rahul Bhatia, 67, Managing Director, Indigo: The Sky Is Not the Limit
The dominance of IndiGo airlines over Indian skies could be seen recently when it placed an order for 500 A320 aircraft, the largest by any airline ever with Airbus. This comes in the wake of its founder and promoter Rahul Bhatia becoming managing director last year. Bhatia has been instrumental in making IndiGo the largest airlines in India, building it from scratch in a sector where most players eventually end up bankrupt. But despite a pandemic when business had stalled completely, IndiGo is now back in expansion mode under his leadership. Bhatia has maintained that the secret to IndiGo’s success is just doing the basics right—total emphasis on flights being on time, and for that, systems and processes followed to the letter by a staff that has efficiency drilled into it. With this order, it has already started making plans for a decade down the line. IndiGo now flies to 27 international destinations and, under Bhatia, will soon be a leading global carrier too.
N Chandrasekaran, 60, Chairman, Tata Group: Lesson in Leadership
He took over as chairman of the Tata Group under trying circumstances but six years later, despite a pandemic, the companies N Chandrasekaran helms are infused with energy and vigour.Tata Motors, which looked like out of the running once in the auto sector, is now its pioneer with electric vehicles. Air India was bought and is now going to be merged with Vistara. In February, they also placed an order for 470 aircraft. Effectively, the Tatas have become one of the two major players ruling Indian aviation. Chandrasekaran had earlier, as CEO of Tata Consultancy Services, proved his mettle and TCS continues to be the cash cow of the group. His familiarity with technology has also veered the group to the forefront of the digital revolution. He oversaw Tata Neu, the all-in-one app bringing Tata offerings under one platform. Chandrasekaran also remains an avid marathoner, a secret perhaps of his unflagging drive as he makes a vast conglomerate into a lean machine.
Manjul Bhargava, 48, Mathematician: Never Formulaic
In the world of mathematics, Manjul Bhargava is something of a celebrity having won the Fields Medal, the Nobel equivalent of the subject, in 2014 for his work on number theory. In India, he is now also playing an important role related to the education of children. He is part of a committee set up by the education ministry to develop a National Curriculum Framework. He argues for education policy being rational and sensitive to the needs of children, as when he attended the G20 4th Working Group Meeting on education and emphasised the importance of foundational literacy and numeracy—basic reading, writing and counting—for all children entering Class 3 by 2033. He exhorted the G20 nations to commit the resources and legislation necessary for this. Bhargava, a professor at Princeton University, is a multifaceted personality. Born in Canada and working in the US, his other interests, like Sanskrit and playing the tabla, highlight the connection to his roots.
Rohini Pande, 51, Economist: For the Greater Good
With India set to be among the fastest growing economies in the coming years, the role of public policy in ensuring that the fruits of growth are equitably shared cannot be overstated. Rohini Pande is an applied economist whose work, motivated by the issues faced by developing economies, especially India, won her the 2022 Infosys Science Prize in Social Sciences. The Henry J Heinz II Professor of Economics and director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, Pande studies the role of the state and its policies in delivering economic and social justice and has published much-cited papers on the costs and benefits of building dams, the impact of bank expansion in rural India, representation of women in local government, and other aspects of political economy.
Madhabi Puri Buch, 57, Chairperson, SEBI: Market Monitor
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) is the key agency that keeps the functioning of the financial markets smooth and above board. When Madhabi Puri Buch stepped in as its chairperson last year, it was for the first time that there was a non-bureaucrat at the post in two decades. She was also the first female to head it. As a former head of the securities division of a leading bank, Buch, an MBA graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, had firsthand insight into the other side, making it possible for her to improve systems. As a regulator, she has brought her own stamp to SEBI, with emphasis on data for decisions. She is also making SEBI a facilitator for the growth of markets while not compromising on its traditional role. For instance, protecting consumers by making online financial influencers accountable or asking mutual funds to bring in ethical frameworks and transparency.
Raj Chetty, 43, Economist: Data Is Destiny
Delhi-born Raj Chetty, the William A Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard University, had often argued using data that there was a strong correlation between elementary education and the earning power of citizens. He had, as early as 2013, appealed to India to enhance the quality of primary-school education. Chetty, who won the John Bates Clark medal, often called the “baby Nobel Prize”, 10 years ago, was professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, when he was just 29. Chetty has led several teams to study inequalities. In a recent Big Data study, he and his team found that whom you interact with on social media while you are growing up determines your economic outcomes. His zealous use of data has earned him a place among highly rated economists. One of his studies states that students born to the wealthiest families have a nearly 100 per cent likelihood of going to college, and that those born to the poorest families have about a 30 per cent chance. His findings are extremely—and invariably—useful for policymakers the world over.