Kapil Komireddi’s critical
history of modern IndiaFourth Quarter 2019
India’s growth and development has been diverted by the rise of nationalism, according to a powerful new book. Erica Wagner meets the young historian raising the alarm.
Kapil Komireddi meets me in the gracious lobby of the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham: we are both here for the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Given that he spends much of the year in Hyderabad, the city in which he was born 35 years ago, our meeting is fortuitous; Komireddi’s much-praised first book, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, is a provocative, polemical account of the country’s history since partition. It is also a sustained critique of the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist BJP was re-elected in a landslide in May 2019.
Though no longer the world’s fastest growing large economy, India has often been portrayed as the rising economic powerhouse of the 21st century; but Komireddi suggests that the current downturn is not just the cyclical blip that the government claims. “The economy is in a really bad slump,” he says starkly. He points to the $20 billion tax cut that Modi delivered in September 2019 that “effectively cut the tax rate from 35 per cent to 25 per cent for corporations” a move that Komireddi ascribes to a wish to appease the restless big business lobby.
But now, Komireddi tells me, the “sugar rush” has worn off. India’s growth rate stands at 6.9 per cent, he says, down from the previous average 8 per cent growth. The slowing growth rate means that “there are simply no jobs for the millions entering job market.” In fact, a recent piece in The Economist paints an even bleaker picture, with growth falling to 5 per cent year-on-year in the most recent quarter. In response, Komireddi alleges, Modi has encouraged the scapegoating and disadvantaging of India’s Muslim population – a big theme of his book.
“Modi's ambition is to make India a $5 trillion economy in the next five years.” Komireddi says. “As the fastest-growing trillion-dollar economy in the world, India can legitimately lay claim to the title of a ‘leading global economic powerhouse’.
“The problem, however, is that this title conceals more than it reveals. The proceeds of the wealth generated since 1991, when the country opened up its economy, have so disproportionately benefited a tiny elite that India can be described as a kleptocratic plutocracy. There is some merit in the claims of ‘alleviation of poverty’ made by defenders of the economic consensus that has held sway since the 1990s. But millions of people, he asserts, have merely migrated out of dire poverty and into barely tolerable destitution. India’s challenge is to spur growth – and then to ensure its proceeds are evenly distributed.”
Recent banking scandals and a flight of foreign capital have contributed to a crisis that augurs badly for the internationalisation of India’s goods and services. In September, Ashok Leyland, India’s second biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, temporarily suspended production in the face of a decrease in demand; the real estate industry is in trouble, with developers running out of money before projects can be completed; and even sales of everyday products have slumped. According to Komireddi, India’s internal problems are a roadblock to internationalisation. “Modi promised to create 20 million jobs a year; yet the country has the worst unemployment rate in 20 years,” he says.
As to what will drive the country’s economic future, Komireddi points to the key areas in which India needs to develop. “India desperately needs modern infrastructure,” he says, “so that will be a driver of growth for some time. Technology is another area where there are major avenues for growth. The automotive industry, obviously, as the middle class expands,” he adds, despite the current contraction of production. “Financial services – but it’s an area plagued by corruption and an absence of transparency. That healthcare is often touted as a major area for private investment and returns bespeaks India’s failure, over the past seven decades, to serve its people.”
The problem is, he says, that “India has not got the basics right. It hasn't worked on sanitation, for instance. India’s water is extremely unsafe. The urban infrastructure is so appalling that a city like Mumbai – India’s financial and entertainment capital – grinds to a halt at monsoon every year. In rural India, children are stunted by the contaminants in the water they consume. “Modi, to his lasting credit” – here Komireddi is willing to cut the prime minister some slack – “has made these issues central to his platform.”
Yet, despite all this, Komireddi is hopeful for the future of his native land. There is no immediate solution, he says, but “I think Modi’s excesses are incubating a response”.
What keeps him positive is seeing glimpses of what might happen in years to come. “Economic grievances give rise to two types of reactions: there are those who vent their frustrations against minorities – we know the results of this – and those who, supported by non-governmental organisations and activists, organise and demand their rights.”
Modi’s ideological nationalism affects both his country’s culture and its economy; and as nationalism takes root more widely, Komireddi’s view of a threat to Indian democracy may hold universal lessons.
Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India by K. S. Komireddi is published by Hurst, £20
43667 IND AR 0624
New York-born Erica Wagner is a former literary editor of The Times, and a regular reviewer for The New York Times and a two-time judge of the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Her books include Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters; a novel, Seizure and most recently Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, a biography of Washington Roebling.
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