India's Top 100 Digital Stars 2023

Minds that (should) matter

Thinkers who best explain a rapidly-changing India to the world (and the world to India)

Published: Jan 2, 2015 08:00:24 AM IST
Updated: Jan 5, 2015 02:31:04 PM IST
Minds that (should) matter
Image: Sameer Pawar
The author is senior vice president, strategy, at News Corp in New York. He was previously Managing Editor at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and is founder of the Mint newspaper in India. While he doesn’t consider himself a journalist anymore, he is often tweeting @raju.

Forbes India wanted me to list India-based intellectuals who are well regarded outside India. This isn’t that. Instead, this is a list of smart thinkers and doers who I—and a few others whose judgement I trust—think ought to be closely followed and read to get a smarter understanding of today’s India and its place in the world.

All lists have biases. Let me spell out mine upfront.

In a country where the largest news organisation has led a general dumbing down of public discourse over the years, a key to getting a more nuanced understanding of India is to try and mostly avoid India’s many oft-trotted out columnists and TV pundits, with very few exceptions. The depth and quality of established public discourse from India is more opinions and anecdotes than a quality discussion.

The best thoughtfulness often stems from experience. But in the highly personalised, politicised ‘he said/he said’ abusive debate that passes off as spirited discourse, lack of accepted individual rights and a scarily slow legal system have led to self-censorship among many who have good ideas.

Since I was asked to focus on those living in India, it excludes some very smart thinkers such as economist Gita Gopinath at Harvard and Carnegie Endowment’s Milan Vaishnav, one of the best young political scientists of Indian origin whose writing is usually based on previous empirical work.

So here is a list of 24, in no particular order.  

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
For a consummate New Delhi insider, he has emerged as the most respected political commentator in India with his habitually centrist perceptive views from his perch as president of Centre for Policy Research.

Ajay Shah
One of the most influential policy economists of a new generation in India. A sharp mind, but one that comes with a combative style that gets him about as many enemies as fans.

Jay Panda
Representing a regional party, Jay is the new face of Indian politics: Young, articulate, liberal and quite vocal about policy issues, ranging from parliamentary reform to campaign finance, and a clear voice of the youth in India.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha
Lucid, analytical, sparse writing on economics and policy that challenges you to engage with facts and empirical assertions than ideology and conventional wisdom. A must-read.

Meena Kandasamy
A radical, feminist poetess who speaks for Dalits, her writings are more introspective, yet give a good sense of the new thinking in India’s oppressed castes.

Nachiket Mor
Gave up one of the best banking jobs to pursue his passion for rural development. Knows more about the changing face of rural India and financial inclusion than most contemporaries.

Ram Madhav
An RSS intellectual who has become very influential in the new BJP regime, he represents the more thoughtful wing of the Hindutva movement. He is ready and willing to engage with ideological opponents.

Jayprakash Narayan
A failed politician, yet perhaps the most thoughtful one in contemporary India. Ignore his electoral debacles, but pay attention to some of the best thinking and speaking on political reform.

Nitin Pai
Runs The Takshashila Institution, a new think tank. One of the new generation’s must-read foreign policy thinkers in India, whether you agree with his right-of-centre views or not.

Minds that (should) matter
Image: Getty Images

Sunil Abraham
Executive director of The Centre for Internet and Society. Has deep insights into India’s rapidly growing digital culture as well as the threats to it from misguided government regulation.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta
Runs Raqs Media Collective and is a founder of the Sarai Collective which does the rare examination of the interplay of urban India/technology/culture.

Anusha Rizvi
The former journalist who directed Peepli Live is now a filmmaker. Peepli was the first ever Indian film to be screened at Sundance. Her response to broadcast media and society issues always make you think.

Mohandas Pai
Ex-Infosys and now with the Manipal Group, he is active in public policy and corporate governance issues, and is not afraid to speak his mind. He was behind the Bangalore Political Action Committee—first-of-its-kind in India—and is also an activist shareholder who has minority shareholders’ interests in mind.

Ramesh Ramanathan
Ex-Citibanker, who heads Janalakshmi, a micro/alternative finance organisation, that has attracted Wall Street money. Offers honest and workable solutions through Janagraha, a hybrid public-private partnership initiative.
Satish Acharya
A brilliant cartoonist from Mangalore. A small-town guy whose views on Indian politics and Indian sport are spot on as he traverses the fine line of cartoons in India: Not too cerebral, but never clichéd and banal either.

Chhavi  Rajawat
A young MBA who chose to go back to her ancestral village, Soda in Rajasthan, to help bring management skills to grassroots governance. Won elections to be its sarpanch. A high-profile doer, she will be worth listening to about hands-on governance.

Payal Chawla
While her past claim to fame is taking on Coca-Cola over workplace harassment, as a lawyer and founder of her own law firm, Juscontractus, this University of Chicago alumni would be a good way to track India’s troubled legal system.
A professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at BITS Pilani’s Goa Campus,  he is particularly good on a major challenge for India: Reforming its education system.

Karuna Nundy
A Supreme Court lawyer involved in major commercial and human rights litigation and legal policy, she has contributed in a major way on gender justice in India, recently helping with the new anti-rape laws.

Binalakshmi Nepram
She fights racism against people from the North East and says it like it needs to be said in a country with deep geographical and regional prejudices.

Ireena Vittal
This former McKinsey consultant has a lot of good things to say about smart cities.

Economic and Political Weekly

Ignore its left-leaning interpretations and conclusions. Focus on its outstanding data.

GVL Narasimha Rao
GVL knows his psephology like few others do. His current turn as a spokesman for the BJP yields unrelenting evidence that is often hard to refute. And he takes sides when taking sides can be personally risky.


(This story appears in the 09 January, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Kushal

    I\'m 100% with Satish\'s inclusion as an cartoonist.

    on Jan 18, 2015
  • Om Prakash

    In my opinion ;Nobel peace laureate Kailash satyarthi must be included in the list.We have concern on moral-deficit in almost all fields in India; & He is one who gives a HOPE.His concept for Globalisation of compassion is very revolutionary.His nobel speech on Dec 10 ;2014 at Oslo shakes mind & is blueprint for National Govts/Intellectuals to act upon.

    on Jan 6, 2015
  • Sripal

    Thanks for the list. Will follow some of these people\'s speeches, news etc.

    on Jan 4, 2015
  • Vamshidhar Vutukuru

    Jaya Prakash Narayan is not a failed politician.His ideology will be followed by future generations which will think beyond caste, money and selfishness. Though not in power Loksatta brought more constitutional amendments than any other party and JP was one of the very few MLAs who brought up logical discussions in the house and exposed scams of the then ruling party.Anyways, good that Forbes listed him in the minds that should matter.

    on Jan 4, 2015
  • Ashok Choudhury

    not a bad list. many people are still out. what\'s the measure anyway? some of the best 21st century thinkers with practical mind to guide India to high stage of all round progress in the contemporary world should be included. the progress that must elevate the status of the citizens and the nation in quality parameters. people with 21st century traits of dream, drive and deeds that unfold with flexibility and speed. those whose school of thought are India for humanity and are leading it upfront , trying to make it necessarily equipped contributing to various fields that matter to serve the high cause.

    on Jan 4, 2015
  • Oddula Rvisekhar

    Now India needs intellectuals,thinkers who transformed into developed country.good list

    on Jan 3, 2015
  • Raghuram J R

    The list worked perfectly with the notable exception of Meena Kandaswamy, who is more in the territory of Ms Setalwad, not even Mayawati if you so please! She has zero impact except at one university that excels in promoting and reporting the great Dalit divide of India (even when a Chief Minister of the most populous state was Dalit, and an empowered one at that!). The religiosity of these petty positions alone should exclude her from this august list and mandate her inclusion in the wingnut lists.

    on Jan 3, 2015
  • Niyati Ranjan Samal

    I am extremely sorry that this Magazine has published the name of stalwart and most intellectual politician as failed politician.No doubt Jay prakash Narayan was not hungry for power politics.The word FAILED should be withdrawn and should be apologized by the author.

    on Jan 3, 2015
    • Ashok Choudhury

      agreed. JPis a great service politician. not a power politician. so failed is certainly not the word for him.

      on Jan 4, 2015
  • Raju

    If I have to choose one among these luminaries, it would definitely be Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan. Sad part is India does not know it\'s heroes. What the article betrays as political failure currently will be regarded as the greatest initiative in decades to come. Only question is will Dr JP be living to see the India of his dreams. Gandhiji was able to see his dream of India come true in letter atleast, will Dr JP see through the same in spirit?

    on Jan 3, 2015
  • Raju

    Jayaprakashnarayan is successful as reformer in the country. Electoral success is India is much complex to win with clean politics. Without clean politics its easy to win which is seen as success

    on Jan 3, 2015
  • Madhu

    Jayprakash Narayan \"A failed politician\", it\'s not he who is failed, it\'s the people who failed to elect him.

    on Jan 3, 2015
  • Sunil Choudhury

    Nice list, but quite apalled to see Arun Shourie being out of the list.

    on Jan 3, 2015
    • Ashok Choudhury


      on Jan 4, 2015
  • Shuddhabrata Sengupta

    Interesting list, and good to see some friends on it. One clarification. A collective, is in principle, not run by any one person. I, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, am a member of the Raqs Media Collective, along with Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula. Neither I, nor any of the other two, \'run\' the collective. A little research, while making lists, can go a long way. The collective \'runs\' at the intersection of our three wills, desires and curiosities. Hope this can be carried. best, Shuddha.

    on Jan 2, 2015
    • Peter Griffin

      Dear Shuddha, We do not edit our guest contributors aside from minor changes to fit the magazine\'s style guide. But I was the editor who cleared the page, and I\'m aware of what the Raqs Media Collective is, so I should have pointed this out to Mr Narisetti. My apologies. ~peter

      on Jan 2, 2015
  • Mithun

    Dr. Jayprakash Narayan deserves to be the PM of India!

    on Jan 2, 2015