Any work that starts with the aim of providing “a short history of New India” has a tricky task. It’s difficult to accommodate more than 70 years of a country’s history in about 200 pages. The challenge is even more difficult when the work in question attempts to create of genealogy of how India turned into a “malevolent republic”. The transformation of a country that prided itself as “sare jahaan se achha, Hindustan hamara” to a nation that is rife with the promises and possibilities of “good days” — and, yet, teems with prejudices — isn’t easy to contain in a “short history”. But for anyone trying to understand this momentous transformation, KS Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic: A Short History of New India should be a must read.
But it would be wrong to read the book as a primer — the fate of most short histories. Malevolent Republic is a critique in two parts, aptly titled, ‘Antecedents’ and ‘India under Modi’. It’s a critique long overdue. There is much in this book, especially in its first part, that we already know — the mistakes of Jawaharlal Nehru, the cruelties of the Emergency, Rajiv Gandhi’s concessions to both the Hindu and the Muslim right wing. But Komireddi’s originality lies in weaving them together into a narrative that tells why and how India has become what it is today.
In its first part, Malevolent Republic asks a difficult question? Can dynastism and authoritarianism be traced to the times when the country was at its democratic best? Komireddi does not absolve India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in this respect. “The principled anti-imperialist acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, who never tired of dispensing pre-elections about peace to foreign leaders had few misgivings about utilising disproportionate force against people he claimed as his own. In Kerala…he engineered the overthrow of the democratically-elected Communist government. In Kashmir, he presided over an anti-democratic farce. In Nagaland to the east, he authorised the bombing of Christians who had the temerity to demand from India what India had sought from the British”.
The question, however, is should the republic’s first tyrannies, as well its democratic successes, be reduced to the idiosyncrasies of its first prime minister. Should the country’s polity under the country’s first prime minister be described in much the same manner as that under his daughter, Indira Gandhi? Komireddi’s answer is measured: “The authoritarianism in Nehru existed alongside and was tempered by a genuine aversion to dictatorship and rigid adherence to democratic procedure”. From today’s standpoint — or even from the times of Indira Gandhi — it seems apt to accept his implicit argument that the country’s polity assumes a different character once it is taken over by autocrats who have far less compunctions about upholding democracy compared to Nehru. But this still does not answer whether India under Nehru was a hub of personality politics in much the same manner as it was under his successors.
Malevolent Republic was written before the verdict of the 2019 elections came out. But it asks a question germane to the issue of personality politics — and authoritarianism. “What if Modi loses? The defeat will spur a great deal of commentary on the redemptive qualities of Indian democracy. But a post-Modi government, whether it is a coalition led by the Congress or a Congress-free bricolage of regional forces will be in danger of suffering the same fate as the post-Emergency government in 1976 — an unwieldy alliance lofted into power on account of what it was not — it was not Indira and it was not Congress — before collapsing in short order because it could not agree upon what it was”.
As it turns out, Modi won convincingly. But the argument that the answer to Modi, or Indira Gandhi, implicit in Komireddi’s understanding, and that of several well-meaning analysts, is another forceful personality, albeit not an authoritarian one, is troubling. With all our encomia to the country’s diversity, many of us — and if Malevolent Republic is any indication, Komireddi too — do not seem to be asking if the country’s PM should be a hegemon, a benevolent balancers of groups that constitute the republic, or just a first amongst equals, a magnificent one, perhaps? And hence, the question about the polity during Nehru’s time. Is there a legacy of that period was touched by the complex persona and inclinations of the country’s first prime minister, and yet much more beyond it, that awaits reclaiming?
The beauty of Malevolent Republic is that it stimulates such questions, even when it doesn’t raise them.
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