BJP supporters attend an election campaign rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the State Assembly polls at Dwarka in New Delhi, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Photo Credit: PTI Photo.
Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India
by K.S. Komireddi
Hurst & Company, 259 pp., $27.72
K.S. Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, ablistering invective against India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),was first published in 2019 and written before India and the rest of the world succumbed to Covid-19. As the US appears to be rounding a corner on the virus (no, really this time), India registered nearly 380,000 new cases on April 28 alone, a two-week increase of 113 percent.[i] Already a searing polemic against not just the current leader of India, but the decades of misrule by the Indian National Congress (Congress) that preceded Modi, it is hard to imagine Komireddi limiting his wrath to one volume if it were written today.
Putting his initial draconian 21-day national shutdown behind him—which stranded millions of migrant workers hundreds of miles from their homes—and congratulating himself on a job well done, Modi shifted into campaign mode. Claiming that India had crushed the virus, Modi attended mask-less rallies with nary a prospect of social distancing and allowed a gargantuan Hindu religious festival to be held on the Ganges. For a prime minister as committed to Hindu nationalism as he is to his image, Sumit Ganguly points out, not holding the religious festival was out of the question.[ii] The result of Modi’s self-aggrandizement has been the death of over 200,000 Indians with many more to surely follow.
Its asynchrony with India’s Covid catastrophe aside, Malevolent Republic should be read by all seeking to understand how exactly India arrived at this moment: helmed by a Hindu supremacist backed by a parliamentary super majority of BJP’s saffron-clad religious bigots presiding over what looks to be the death of Indian secularism. Over the course of just 210 pages, dripping with what can only be identified as righteous anger (and a truly extraordinary amount of alliteration), Komireddi not only eviscerates Modi and his symphony of sycophants in the BJP, but convincingly locates the origins of Modi’s electoral success in the decades of increasingly poor governance under Congress.
Votes are not bestowed upon reactionary populists—it makes no difference if they’re sporting a saffron kurta or a saffron spray tan—by agents of foreign malfeasance as incredulous liberals would like to imagine. Rather, voters are driven into the arms of such leaders by failures indigenous to the system, piling up over decades of mismanagement often presided over by the liberals themselves. This is the crucial insight Komireddi makes in “Antecedents,” the first of two parts of his book. Modi, his BJP, and their overwhelming electoral success did not materialize out of nowhere. They are the logical results of 40 years of misrule by the Congress party.
After the death of her father—India’s father and the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—Indira Gandhi took power and began the assault on the world’s largest democracy, Komireddi observes. Revered as faultless after her rout of Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war that created Bangladesh, Gandhi masqueraded as a voice for the poor while courting India’s richest industrialists, traders, and smugglers as Congress’ in-house financiers. It is during The Emergency, though, that Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, nearly destroyed the young republic. Fearing an unsuccessful reelection as prime minister after a lower court convicted Gandhi of violating election codes, the mother and son colluded to declare a state of internal emergency, elevating Gandhi to dictator. On 25 June 1975, Komireddi writes, electricity to newspapers was cut off and police were ordered to arrest Gandhi’s critics. While The Emergency is well-known as some of the republic’s darkest days, Komireddi shines a light on a lesser known, but surely the most heinous, crime committed by Sanjay and his mother during the period: mass forced vasectomies. Spurred on by the IMF, the World Bank, and the United States (in 1976, Robert McNamara was World Bank’s president), who shared New Delhi’s Malthusian fears, Sanjay Gandhi oversaw the forced sterilization of 6.2 million people– fifteen times the amount sterilized by the Nazis. Komireddi writes of the Indira Gandhi period: “Self-restraint, constitutionalism, institutional autonomy, deliberative governance: everything that made Indian democracy more than just an exercise in balloting was left severely bruised.”[iii]
To Komireddi, the success of Modi cannot be explained without first reckoning with Congress’ shameful capitulation to both Muslim and Hindu chauvinism. However, such Faustian pacts are not limited to Indian politics, as recent American history has made all too clear. In his book All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics As We Know It, Daniel Denvir offers an explanation for the success of far-right, xenophobic candidates in the United States: on the retreat since the Reagan Revolution, Democrats have consistently leveraged liberal priorities by mollifying nativist conservatives in an effort to win as many votes as possible. President Obama’s record number of deportations offers a case in point. But the thing about reactionaries is that they will always prevail in a contest of reaction. Try as they might, moderate, vote-seeking elements (the Democratic party or Congress in India) cannot outflank the politicians born in diametric opposition to them. If you are a Hindu nationalist, a white supremacist, or harbor such sympathies, why would you not vote for the BJP or the Republican Party?
Rajiv Gandhi, thrust into national leadership after his mother’s assassination and his brother’s death, worried constantly about his place as prime minister. After a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the right of Shah Bano Begum, a Muslim divorcee, to spousal maintenance from her ex-husband, Rajiv feared losing the support of Muslim leaders who questioned the prime minister’s commitment to the Muslim minority. To mollify the mullahs, Rajiv pushed through a bill “liberating Muslim husbands,” granting them the ability to take up to four wives and divorce them on a whim. As Komireddi points out, “The only Indians that rejoiced were hidebound Muslim men and Hindu nationalists.”[iv] To the nascent BJP, the bill fueled their belief that Indian secularism was merely an appeasement of Muslims. Now, fearing a Hindu revolt in the 1989 elections, Rajiv “desperately attempted to out-Hindu the Hindu nationalists.” In what was to set off a thirty-year saga of communal tensions, Ravij Gandhi, in order to outflank Hindu nationalist politicians, promised to build a Hindu temple to Lord Rama on the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. With more authentic believers in Hindutva on the ballot, though, Congress endured its second defeat, and Hindu nationalists secured 85 seats, up from two the previous election. The march of the BJP thus began.
In addition to the capitulations made to religious nationalists, Komireddi situates the allure of the modern BJP and Modi in the shortcomings of various economic programs first executed under P. V. Narasimha Rao in the 1990’s then Manmohan Singh in the 2000’s immediately preceding Modi’s election. After the destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu mobs under his (and Congress’) watch in 1992, Rao, instead of rebuilding the mosque to demonstrate India’s dedication to secularism, sought to pay for Babri with economic liberalization. Sacrificing the founding principles of the Indian republic on the altar of the free market, India became a different country under Rao: middle class consumption skyrocketed, the credit card industry proliferated, and foreign investment poured into the country. However, India’s poorest, as is often the result of trickle-down economics and austerity, stayed poor. Continued under Singh, the skewed growth created an underclass of Indians vulnerable to the temptations of religious nationalism offered by Modi and the BJP. It is worth quoting Komireddi at length on this point:
“Modi was the hand grenade hurled by all those who had been sneered at, stamped upon, marginalized subjected to cultural condescension and objectified for anthropological amusement by the preening cast of English-speaking elites fostered by India’s venal secular establishment… People victimized by Old India saw him as one of their own: for some, an agent of their hopes; for others, an embodiment of their rage.”[v]
After four years of Donald Trump in the United States and nearly seven years of Nerendra Modi in India, our ability to meaningfully process, contextualize, and simply recall the countless scandals, atrocities, and cruelties of the two administrations has been seriously inhibited. It is for this reason that large swaths of the second part of Malevolent Republic seem to pass in a blur. By cataloging the litany of offenses committed by Modi, though, Komireddi admirably creates an archive of abuses that would otherwise be forgotten, forgiven, or taken out of context by a news media with an attention deficit and a harried public consciousness. From his presiding over the butchering of Muslims in Gujarat, to his catastrophic demonetization decision, to his vanity-driven foreign policy, Malevolent Republic archives the ravings and actions of the committed Hindu supremacist prime minster for future reference.
Somehow, Komireddi valiantly resists the temptation to hold Modi against Donald Trump as a comparative case study. But it should be noted that Komireddi’s investigation of Modiism in India bares striking, psychic resemblance to Trumpism in the United States. At once both the champions of majoritarian bigots and big-business, the two leaders have deodorized their proto-fascisms with economic liberalism. Under Trump, conventional Republicans could hold their nose to the ethnonationalism as long as the President passed their tax cuts. In India, Modi has ushered in an unholy alliance between religious fanaticism and “India Inc.” Komireddi presents a blood-curdling example: after the extra-judicial killing of a Muslim man in Gujarat, Modi, in front of the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, asked his audience if he should not kill Muslims who own rifles. His wealthy hosts responded: “Kill them! Kill them!” Komireddi writes, “This was the New India, where possession of big cars, higher incomes, modern gadgets did not bury latent murderous impulses; it disinterred them.”[vi]
For Komireddi, India’s lurch towards majoritarianism is personal. Malevolent Republic begins with a heart-wrenching personal prelude that imports the rest of the book its righteous anger. Enrolled in a madrassa by his fiercely secular father, a young Komireddi befriended a poor Muslim boy Murad in their hometown of Hyderabad. The two became separated as they grew older—Komireddi shipped off to study in England and Murad rooted in place to care for his family. Sparked by the destruction of the Babri mosque, communal violence engulfed Hyderabad. Reconnecting with Murad years later, Komireddi learns that Murad, surrounded by the BJP’s new Hindu nationalism and its concomitant violence against Muslims, seriously considered becoming a terrorist to avenge the death of his coreligionists and to protect his family. Only one thing stopped him: the memory of his friendship with Komireddi, a Hindu sent to a madrassa to study with Muslims. Murad, rejecting the communal violence that encircled him, believed that there must be other Hindus like Komireddi. Despite the abject carnage, Murad’s faith in the secular character of India kept him from falling to temptation of religious extremism.
To Komireddi, if Modi and his BJP succeed in writing Hindutva into the Constitution, India—a true non-nation state that rejects political inclusion based on religion—will cease to exist. “Hindu nationalism will become the official animating ideology of the Republic… India will become Pakistan by another name.”[vii] Malevolent Republic isn’t just a troubling history, it’s a dire warning.
[i] The New York Times, “India Coronavirus Map and Case Count,” The New York Times, April 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/asia/india-coronavirus-cases.html.
[ii] Sumit Ganguly, “Perspective | Modi’s Pandemic Choice: Protect His Image or Protect India. He Chose Himself.” The Washington Post, April 28, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/modis-pandemic-choice-protect-his-image-or-protect-india-he-chose-himself/2021/04/28/44cc0d22-a79e-11eb-bca5-048b2759a489_story.html.
[iii] K. S. Komireddi, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. (London: Hurst & Company, 2019), 44.
[iv] Ibid, 56.
[v] Ibid, 98.
[vi] Ibid, 102.
[vii] Ibid, 208.