Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.

This week, we want to make sure Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution’s new India Project, is on your radar. Madan’s work explores Indian foreign policy, focusing in particular on India’s relations with China and the United States. 

With Narendra Modi’s landslide election win last week, we caught up with Madan to get smart on why it matters.

Oh, and fun-fact: She’s all about chocolate, HGTV, and British mysteries/crimes shows.  

Our brain-picking session begins:

FPI: Explain your expertise to a third-grader.

I was going to use Despicable Me 2 to explain my expertise, but decided that explanation would get overly elaborate and might lead any third-graders reading this to believe that I was a reformed super-villain providing advice and assistance on India to those who need it.

So, keeping it simple, I’d say my job involves being a student and a teacher at the same time. The subject that I learn about on a daily basis and that I try to make easier for others to understand is India – and particularly Indian foreign policy. I consider why India matters and why the world matters to India; who the actors are who shape Indian foreign policy and how they play a role; how India sees and interacts with different countries; and how what happens inside India affects how it behaves outside.

FPI: When it comes to India, where does the US – both the foreign policy community and press – get it wrong? Where does it get it right?

It’s probably par for the course for a country expert to say this, but the subject of India often suffers from inattention. Or perhaps it’s better to say intermittent attention, falling on and off the agenda. I once described this as bringing to mind Heidi Klum’s weekly quip on Project Runway, “in fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.”

On the U.S.-India relationship – and this is true of analyses in both the U.S. and India – there’s also a tendency for the narrative to yo-yo between highs and lows, over-the-top optimism and down-in-the-dumps pessimism, and exuberant expectation to deep disappointment. Either everything seems wrong in the relationship or everything seems right.

What are people getting right? India is getting a lot more attention than it did a decade and a half ago. People know and are learning a lot more about it. Overall, the discussion about India has improved significantly in both quantity and quality over the last decade; it’s more sophisticated and covering a wider range of subjects than ever before.

FPI: What does Narendra Modi’s landslide victory tell us about India? And what are the implications on foreign policy?

It tells us that Indian voters continue to surprise analysts. It tells us that many Indian voters wanted both change and stability. They felt that the previous government was not “delivering the goods” – a phrase India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru often used. And they wanted what Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party promised during the campaign – growth, good governance, to get things done. It also tells us that then-candidate Modi and his team ran a very effective campaign.

We have already seen a few elements: the outreach to India’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and the foreign minister’s statement that India’s neighborhood would be its first priority – arguably this outreach was made possible or at least easier because of the kind of mandate the government received. We have seen Prime Minister Modi use social media as a direct tool of diplomacy. We have seen signals that his government intends to take a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis relations with the U.S. We are still waiting to see his full foreign and security policy.

We are going to see the foreign policy implications play out over the next few months and years. There might be greater emphasis on foreign economic policy within the broader areas of foreign policy. There’s the possibility of reform of India’s foreign, energy and trade policymaking apparatus. A Modi team might also try to find a way to bring states and India’s diaspora into a foreign policy approach. We might also see more focus on India’s relations with countries in East and Southeast Asia, as well as changes in some specific partnerships (eg. bringing the relationship with Israel out of the shadows). But we’re also likely to see continuity on a number of fronts, including Indian governments’ consistent strategy of seeking and maintaining a diversified portfolio of partners.

Much will depend on other countries’ behavior toward India, the kind of crises the Modi government will face, the team the prime minister puts together, as well as what happens within India.

FPI: Your work also explores India’s relations with China. How does China figure into the equation?

India has a complicated relationship with China, its largest neighbor and a country that looms large for India – both in mind and matter. I describe the relationship as having the good (areas of cooperation), the bad (areas of competition) and the potentially ugly (areas of possible conflict).

There are two Modis on China:  the economic-minded leader who wants to do business with and in that country and the security-minded leader who has publicly expressed concern about its “expansionist mindset.” What we’re likely to see – absent a border crisis – is a Modi government that will try to balance economic engagement with preparation for a more assertive China. That preparation will include maintaining and perhaps strengthening the U.S.-India partnership.

Beijing might not like a few of the elements that a Modi foreign and security policy might involve, including military modernization, border infrastructure upgradation, closer Indian political and economic relations with a number of China’s neighbors (especially Japan), and there are others we’re waiting to see play out (how the prime minister, for example, interacts with the Tibetan leadership). However, the Chinese government has made clear that they want to start off on the right foot – indeed perhaps they have done so because of these potential concerns. The Chinese premier will be traveling to India on June 8 and President Xi Jinping might meet Prime Minister Modi in Brazil if the latter travels there for the BRICS summit in July. Watch this space.

FPI: What’s the biggest misconception about India?

That it is a monolith. Often it is treated as such in analyses, even as analysts mention that India is a diverse country. It’s understandable that one has to make generalizations – it’s almost a requirement in our business, so to speak – but when those generalizations confuse rather than clarify, they’re unhelpful and sometimes even harmful.

Sometimes you’ll get analyses that highlight India’s dichotomies instead. When doing so, observers often quote Joan Robinson, the Cambridge economist, as saying “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” That’s true, but there’s also a lot between those two book-ends that’s worth exploring and knowing.

FPI: What’s your favorite thing about India?

I’ll be greedy and list four: family, friends, food, and the diversity.

FPI: Any books or film recs for people who want to learn more about India?

On books, there’s some great Indian fiction, but here I’ll stick to suggesting non-fiction:

I’m also going to suggest that you follow/read the work of two fellow female DC think tankers who work on India: Alyssa Ayres and Lisa Curtis.

On films, there are the films of directors such as Satyajit Ray and Deepa Mehta.

I’d also add the Gangs of Wasseypur (or, if watching a two-part film about small town criminal politics might be too much, then Omkara), Garam Hawa, Delhi Belly or Three Idiots (pick one), Guru, Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding.

Bonus suggestion: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (unless you can get a hold of the Indian version Ji Mantriji).

FPI: Any advice for upcoming and fellow female interruptors?

I’d offer three pieces of advice:

Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Don’t kiss up and kick down. And don’t pull up the ladder once you’ve made it to the next level. Think of mentoring as a duty and a privilege.

Do your homework. And then speak up. Ask questions. State your views. There will be enough people second guessing you. Do yourself a favor: stop second guessing yourself….or at least minimize it.

Keep a binder full of women. When people tell you they’re not including female experts because they can’t find any, open up that binder and point them to one or more female experts.