Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to India with a delegation of emerging political leaders through a fantastic organization called American Council of Young Political Leaders. Here, I reflect on some of the things I learned, which have forever changed my worldview.
"We've been hearing a lot about Diaspora this week. So many well educated Indians have left the country. Do you think the Indian Diaspora is a bad thing?" I posed this question to the translator who accompanied our group to the Shivkar village in Panvel, India, near Mumbai.
He quickly responded: "That's a very western way to look at the issue."
The translator's response is something that stuck with me throughout the remainder of the trip and still causes me to ponder my approach to contemplating things I don’t entirely understand.
When I found out that I would be part of the ACYPL India delegation, I was certain that throughout the trip we would find that the similarities between our two countries - the oldest and the largest democracies in the world - would be innumerable. While there are many accurate parallels and fair comparisons to be made, there are far more cultural and institutional differences that must be considered if one is to really see India objectively and not just through an American lens.
Take the Diaspora - the migration of Indians from their homeland to other parts of the world. Most of the citizenry is immensely proud that nearly 25 million native Indians are currently making their homes in other parts of the world with no intention of returning. Applying an American perspective to this phenomenon would undoubtedly result in the handwringing of policymakers, giving rise to campaigns to stop the brain drain and keep American talent in America. Conversely, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has endorsed the Diaspora as a part of the country's foreign policy strategy, recently telling a group of Indian expatriates in New York, "You play a key role in shaping a positive image of India not just in America but also around the world…"
Discussing the challenge of working to bring reliable electricity to more than 300,000 million Indians who currently live without it, or developing infrastructure to provide clean water and sewage to nearly 1.3 billion people illustrated a very basic difference between our nations: sheer size. My natural inclination to cling to an over-simplified solution to these issues was challenged, and I was forced to contemplate the difficulty in providing these basic services to a population 4 times that of my country.
Of course, for all the apparent differences that exist, the most significant similarity that the U.S. and India share is the freedom that our democratically elected governments protect and defend.
In New Delhi, a member of the Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament's lower house, hosted the ACYPL delegation at an event attended by his staff and campaign volunteers, where I began a conversation with one of the attendees. We talked about the upcoming U.S. presidential election, foreign policy, and pop culture, our conversation rife with personal opinions, both positive and negative. I asked her for her thoughts on India's anti-defection law, a 30-year-old regulation that codifies the penalization of members of Parliament who vote contrary to their party's position.
"It's terrible," she said. "I'm actually writing a position paper on it, would you like to read it when I'm finished?"
I remarked that I would and stopped to note how special our conversation was, that we could both freely discuss the shortcomings of our governments without fear of retribution. Despite their clear differences, our nations' shared commitment to maintaining a pluralistic democratic society will always bind the U.S. and India, making this geopolitical relationship one of the most important worldwide.
Back on the bus with my compatriots - 6 immensely talented, open-minded emerging leaders from across the United States - I couldn't help but marvel at the fact that we were given this opportunity, for which I will be forever grateful.
This blog post originally appeared on the American Council of Young Political Leaders website.