The rise of an imperfect country

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on July 28, 2019

Title: Malevolent Republic, A Short History of the New India. Author: KS Komireddi Publisher: Westland Publications Price: ₹599

Notwithstanding lapses of governments past and present, it is important to acknowledge positives


Just as I started on this review of KS Komireddi’s trenchant book, Malevolent Republic – A Short History of the New India, news came in that Chandrayan-2 had successfully lifted off and was heading to the moon.

I could not help but reflect that this proud moment was made possible by so many men and women from across the country, coming from backgrounds so modest that few amongst them could have realised their potential a mere six or seven decades ago.

There is so much good that’s happened to this country since Independence. However, it is equally important for us to get past an airbrushed account of India’s past as a historically communal and religious idyll, and really get to know it, warts and all. Komireddi does that job magnificently in his book.

Komireddi compels the reader to unambiguously confront India’s past with all its bigotry — of caste, religion and ethnicity — just as Daniel Immerwahr does in How To Hide An Empire- A History Of The Greater United States, in which he details the near genocidal violence and racism that accompanied the growth of America and hurts it to this day.

Books deeply critical of India have appeared in the past. Some of them have been proscribed by thin-skinned governments that ran India, amongst the best-known being An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul and Crisis of India by Ronald Segal. Neither, however, has the controlled fury and righteous anger of Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic.

Indira Gandhi’s emergence as a peremptory dictator has been well brought out by Komireddi. The ease with which her son Sanjay Gandhi could hijack the Indian state between 1975-1977, subvert its institutions and terrify its people is grippingly recollected in the book.

In doing so, Komireddi restores to popular memory the arbitrary violence that accompanied Sanjay’s sterilisation and beautification campaigns, and the extraordinary nepotism that drove his small-car project, which never saw the light of day.

One person Komireddi ought to have given his due, but fails to, is Jawaharlal Nehru; and his book suffers on that count. The maker of modern India, the person who almost single-handedly laid the foundations of the Indian secular state, deserves better than a sketchy and flawed recollection. Notwithstanding the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which happened under his watch, the book rehabilitates the late PV Narasimha Rao.

His stellar role in initiating India’s economic liberalisation, long unacknowledged by the Congress, is well covered by Komireddi. However, he is unsparing of Manmohan Singh, dismissing him as an efficient apparatchik under PV Narasimha Rao but a failure as Prime Minister.

The Modi era

This is a 10-year period Komireddi is talking about, during which India witnessed the invasive exercise of authority without formal power by Sonia Gandhi and her coterie, as well as the inexplicable rise of her son-in-law, Robert Vadra, to billionaire status. By all accounts, Manmohan Singh’s two terms as Prime Minister were the most corrupt in India’s post-Independence history, directly contributing to Modi’s rise.

Much of what Komireddi has to say about Modi requires to be said. The last five years have witnessed an unprecedented implosion of a thoughtfully constructed secularism which has held India together.

Never since Independence has India’s second largest religious grouping felt so powerless and so threatened as now. Not since partition has an extremist Hindu fringe been given such freedom to harass and bully Muslims. All this has been highlighted in detail in Malevolent Republic.

Illuminating as Komireddi’s book is, it sadly is much less a balanced account of a ‘New India’ and much more of a polemic, not the least because it devotes too little space for the country’s first 67 years as a free country — giving it a mere 71 from the 186 pages of text. The rest of it is all about Modi and his five years in office as Prime Minister.

Komireddi’s criticism of Modi’s foreign and defence policies cannot be objectively justified. All the countries he claims Modi alienated — Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar — have scurried back to India, scared of a China-man bearing gifts. Regardless of what Komireddi says,, the country has also appreciated Modi for his robust stand on Doklam and the reprisal raid on Balakot. These are in sharp contrast to the pusillanimity displayed by Dr Manmohan Singh, most evident in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack which left over 200 dead.

What Komireddi fails to acknowledge in his book is how increasingly conscious Indians are of the power they hold in their votes. However strong Modi and the BJP may look today, the tide is bound to turn against both sooner than expected, simply because so much that is hurting the people in myriad ways is happening today. Indians have a record of challenging authority when it has gone too far. It happened during the Emergency and it can happen again today. Sadly, Komireddi misses on this central truth.

Resilience of people

In his book Enemy at the Gates, William Craig recounts how in 1944, Charles de Gaulle visited Stalingrad and walked past the still-uncleared wreckage of the battle. Later, at a reception in Moscow, a Russian correspondent asked him his impressions of the scene. “Ah, Stalingrad,” De Gaulle replied, “all the same they are a formidable people, a great people. This correspondent agreed: “Ah yes the Russians.” de Gaulle interrupted him impatiently. “ No I am not talking of the Russians, I am talking of the Germans. That they should have come so far.”

The same can be said about an India, given up for dead at independence. How else could this country,, which was not even a single entity 72 years ago, have come this far as a secular democracy, without being subjected to the kind of purges, mass-murders or ‘Gulags’ that blighted the former USSR and overwhelmed China? That Komireddi chooses to ignore the resilience and courage of India and its people is the most glaring shortcoming of an otherwise exceptional and forthright book.

The reviewer teaches at the Indian Institute of Science-Bengaluru


Kapil Satish Komireddi is a freelance journalist, commentator and critic. His work has appeared in Indian and international publications such as The Hindustan Times, The Independent, The Economist, The New York Times and TIME. This is his first book.

Published on July 28, 2019

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