Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India..

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Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India by KS Komireddi – review

A blistering polemic exposes the country’s malaise under Narendra Modi

Almost a decade ago, I travelled to a small town in Gujarat, a state in the west of India, to hear Narendra Modi speak to a rally. It started late in the evening and a crowd had already spread across the vacant lot of land that was the venue. Modi, then the chief minister of the state but with national ambitions, turned up on time, in stark contrast to the vast proportion of south Asian politicians, and proceeded to mesmerise his audience.

Almost all those present were men – small-town travel agents, shopkeepers, minor bureaucrats. There was nothing very grand about them. All dreamed of a different India, one that enjoyed the levels of development of the west and the authoritarian order of China, without sacrificing any of what they saw as its true identity. “We are middle-class people,” one told me, before pointing to a labourer among his friends and saying: “Except him.” Everyone laughed. In his speech to these men – the first of many such addresses I was to hear – Modi reflected all their dreams with the appalling talent of a born populist politician. “I know you, I am in your heads,” he told them.

In May, Modi led his ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) to a second landslide victory in national elections. The BJP had been expected to remain in power, but only in coalition with smaller allies. In the end, it won 303 seats, not only sufficient for a majority in the lower house of parliament, but an increase on its score in the polls in 2014.

“Together we grow,” Modi, a Hindu nationalist, said on Twitter as the scale of the victory became clear. “Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again!”The New India is culturally arid, intellectually vacant, emotionally bruised, vain, bitterKS Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic is a timely intervention at a dangerous moment. The recent victory of Modi, whose formative years were spent within the austere ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a vast voluntary organisation dedicated to advancing a rigorous and revivalist version of Hinduism, and the BJP came despite soaring unemployment and massive distress in rural areas, savage inequality. A growth rate of 7% sounds spectacular until one factors in population growth and the massive investment needed to repair, let alone build, a serviceable infrastructure, give hundreds of millions of school leavers skills and tackle an unfolding environmental catastrophe. But in a televised address after his victory, Modi, 68, was blunt: “The political pundits of India have to leave behind their ideas of the past,” he said.

Komireddi makes much the same point. The book was written before the poll, but the author, an Indian journalist, has no doubts about the rupture that Modi represents with all that has gone before. “India under Modi has undergone the most total transformation since 1991 [when the economy was opened up to the free market and an astonishing boom unleashed]… the New India he has spawned… is a reflection of its progenitor: culturally arid, intellectually vacant, emotionally bruised, vain, bitter, boastful, permanently aggrieved and implacably malevolent: a make-believe land full of fudge and fakery, where savagery against religious minorities is among the therapeutic options available to a self-pitying majority frustrated by Modi’s failure to upgrade its standard of living,” he writes, in a typically angry stream of fluid if breathless prose.

Nothing escapes Komireddi’s wrath, certainly not the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which led India through most of the first four decades that followed its independence from Britain in 1947 and continues to dominate the now much-diminished Congress party. The “reign” of Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, is memorably described as a period during which Indians became “a shackled audience to a squalid family drama, impuissant lab rats immolated to validate the vanities of what had once been a wandering clan of gifted Kashmiri Brahmins”. The Congress party’s recently resigned president, the amiable but ineffectual Rahul Gandhi, lost Amethi, his storied family’s bastion of a seat in Uttar Pradesh, in May.

India’s business community is another target. The “tycoons being toasted in Delhi and Davos… chanted the virtues of democracy abroad while abetting the subversion of democracy at home” and helped to build a “New India, where possession of big cars, higher incomes, modern gadgets did not bury latent murderous impulses; it disinterred them”. The reference is to massive and very bloody anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 while Modi was in charge there. The complicit media warrant several pages of excoriation, too. Komireddi’s colourful prose and vocabulary – indurate, deterge, instantiation, gasconaded, annealed – may not be to every reader’s taste. The book is more an essayist’s polemic than a journalist’s survey. It is, as it says on the cover, “a blistering critique” – some may prefer something more sober. But both the times and the subject demand anger, argument and urgency. Malevolent Republic supplies all three and is all the better for it.

• Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India by KS Komireddi is published by Hurst

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