If the opinion polls are right, India’s Narendra Modi is currently the world’s most popular leader. His approval rating was over 80 per cent at the height of the pandemic in April and May this year, with Johnson, Trudeau and López Obrador in the low 60s, while Trump, Macron and Abe all failed to reach 50 per cent. The 2019 elections gave him a second term with a commanding majority of Lok Sabha seats. At the same time, Modi’s record towards his country’s minorities—imposing martial law on Kashmir, excluding Muslims from the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act, quietly tolerating an epidemic of lynchings, burnings and beatings of Muslims and Dalits—has been qualitatively more brutal than that of Bolsonaro or Trump. How should we account for the Modi phenomenon? The starting point of Kapil Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic is that Modi should not be seen as an aberration: that would be ‘a self-comforting lie’. Instead, Komireddi—a freelance journalist from Hyderabad, now based in the West—offers three reasons for his rise.

First, Malevolent Republic points to decades of Congress Party failings—above all, the corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism and greed of its ruling family. Although Nehru and Gandhi are absolved, from the 1960s the party became ‘a sump for Nehru’s parasitical progeny to luxuriate in’. The first half of the book is a ruthless chronological accounting of Congress misdeeds, as leader after leader is excoriated in the run up to Modi: ‘Erosion’, ‘Surrender’, ‘Decadence’, ‘Dissolution’, run the chapter headings. Nehru’s daughter Indira displayed ‘despotic impulses’, using Congress ‘as a laboratory to test her will’, while her son Sanjay lacked even a ‘residue of democratic inclination’, as exemplified in the slum-clearance and sterilization campaigns he ran during the 1975–77 period of Emergency Rule. Millions of people lost their homes as entire districts were bulldozed in Sanjay’s ‘beautification’ projects, while millions of poor and vulnerable men were dragged under the knife to meet his ‘family-planning’ targets. Dissenters, defenders of democratic rights, trade unionists, socialists, were imprisoned without charge, the press was heavily censored, foreign journalists expelled and Sanjay glorified by the media.

After the blowback from Indira’s military assault on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple—she was assassinated in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards—her other son, Rajiv, initiated his reign with a pogrom orchestrated by local Congress leaders. Three thousand Sikhs were killed in Delhi, police even disarming Sikh areas before the mob marched in—setting a precedent, Komireddi notes, for the slaughter of Muslims that took place in Gujarat under Modi in 2002. It was Rajiv who ordered that the gates of Ayodhya be opened, allowing Hindu nationalists to lay the foundations for a future temple inside the Babri Mosque. When Muslim leaders protested, Rajiv appeased them by banning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, having already sabotaged Muslim women’s rights in the Shah Bano case. After Rajiv’s assassination—blowback again: having sent Indian troops into Sri Lanka, he was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber—the new Congress leader, Narasimha Rao, cultivated ties with the bjp, staying silent as the Babri Mosque was destroyed. The Congress Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, is denounced by Komireddi as a ‘subcontinental Pinochet’ for his counter-insurgency against the Naxalites and his harsh neoliberal measures, cutting subsidies and handing land over to foreign corporations. Rapid economic growth was accompanied by rising inequality. Demoralized by decades of Congress betrayals, unshackled by Rao and Singh’s neoliberal reforms from Nehruvian ideals of self-restraint, the expanding Hindu middle class was ready to see in the violence of Ayodhya and its follow-ups ‘a self-empowering, even redemptive, message’.

Second, Malevolent Republic turns upon India’s ‘secular historians’ and public intellectuals. Romila Thapar, author of the renowned Penguin History of India, Volume One and many other works on early Indian history, is a particular target. According to Komireddi, these scholars’ ‘well-intentioned sanitization of the past’ failed to supply an adequate account of the Persian and Moghul imperial invasions of northern India and the centuries of Muslim rule. In the first decades after Independence, he argues, these intellectuals squandered the chance to provide (Hindu) Indians with a forthright narrative of their ‘ravaged’ heritage—the great mosques built from shattered temple fragments—that could have reconciled them to their ‘harrowing past’ and allowed a mature detachment from it. Instead, Thapar and her colleagues ‘papered over the gruesome deeds of the invaders with nice-nellyisms’, preferring to dwell on their cultural achievements. School textbooks presented an idyllic picture of medieval India in which Muslims and Hindus coexisted in harmony, shattered only by the arrival of the British. But the Muslim encounter left a ‘deep wound’, Komireddi argues. The euphemization of Moghul rule by Thapar and her colleagues had ‘infantilized Indians’, rendering them susceptible to ‘the piffle of Hindu nationalists’ who seized the chance to ‘weaponize history’, portraying Muslims as insensitive to innocent Hindus’ wounded feelings. This, according to Malevolent Republic, provides the second precondition for Modi’s rise: ‘The confusion of a country that deferred the task of dealing sincerely with its wounded past was ripe for exploitation’.

Third, Komireddi argues, big-business backing—from the Tatas to the Ambani brothers—and praise from such eminent scholars as Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati or Gurcharan Das, Harvard-educated author of India Unbound, were crucial to the bjp’s success. ‘Intellectuals and industrialists’ polished Modi’s image as a ‘technocratic modernizer’, celebrated his ‘vision’ and ability to get things done. And India’s ‘shameless elites were easily co-opted to pimp for him, asking only for a commitment to the market in return’. Foreign investors, diplomats and politicians made the pilgrimage to Modi’s capital in Gandhinagar for his trade fairs when he was chief minister of Gujarat, from 2001–14. Although Gujarat’s growth was accompanied by low social mobility, it was widely presented as the development model of India, with perfect roads, electricity and clean water. Support from the West was equally fulsome, and the 2002 Gujarati massacre soon forgotten. Before the 2014 election, Time magazine listed Modi as one of the world’s most influential leaders, Cameron put on an honour guard for him, Hollande organized a boat ride on the Seine, Obama offered flattery. Hence ‘there wasn’t a shadow of resistance as Narendra Modi stormed Delhi in the summer of 2014’.

The second half of Malevolent Republic covers Modi’s record in office. A series of short thematic chapters explore the Modi personality cult (3d holographic projectors beaming his image into villages without electricity); the monstrously bungled ‘de-monetization’ policy; the rise of cow vigilantes and escalation of anti-Muslim violence; and the assertion of bjp influence across India’s institutions, from the Reserve Bank of India to the universities and Supreme Court. The treatment here is more journalistic; much of the material will be familiar to readers of the international press. On Kashmir and on foreign policy, however, Komireddi emerges as a hard-line hawk. He commends Modi for cutting an ‘imposing figure on the world stage’, ‘confidently projecting Delhi as a rival to Beijing’ and ‘translating his muscular attitude into action’ by sending troops into Bhutan in 2017 to block a Chinese road-building project. He then dismisses him for being insufficiently tough when the Bhutan invasion ‘collapsed into a desperate face-saving exercise’ after Washington declined to send reinforcements. Above all, the book is suffused with hostility to Pakistan—a ‘monument to majoritarian bigotry’, gripped by ‘neurotic nationalism’, ruled by ‘vultures’. Alone of the many leaders Komireddi discusses, Bhutto, Pakistan’s prime minister in the 1970s, is disparagingly referred to as ‘Zulfi’ at every point.

What explains Malevolent Republic’s hyper-aggressive regional-policy line, apparently out-Modi-ing Modi? The answer may lie in Komireddi’s cursus as a journalist. He owes a major debt, he explains, to the mentorship of David Frum, the neoconservative Canadian-American publicist best known for coining the ‘axis of evil’ slogan for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. In 2009, Frum recruited Komireddi, fresh out of us law school and without a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and funded him to tour Pakistan to produce a 10-part series for the Frum Forum website, under the title ‘Pakistan: Anatomy of a Failed State’. Frum’s editorializing sets the tone: ‘India’s success at forging a nationality out of its diversity stood as a towering repudiation of the very idea of Pakistan’—‘Pakistan could not succeed unless India failed.’ Or again: ‘The terrorism with which we contend has its origins in Pakistan as much as in the Arab Middle East. Our friend Kapil Komireddi has returned from traveling inside Pakistan . . .’ Also in 2009, Komireddi—presumably with Frum’s help—published a ‘stand up to China’ piece in Foreign Policy (‘Time for India to play hardball with China’) and a Guardian opinion column on Kashmir: ‘Over 60 arduous years, India has integrated radically diverse regions under the banner of a pluralistic nationalism. Its failure to achieve that in Kashmir is largely due to Pakistan.’