India Burning

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 17

Along the Ganges River in the central Indian city of Prayagraj, a local man performs last rites for a loved one lost to the scourge of covid. India has seen a spike in cases this spring, with coronavirus infections approaching 30 million and the death toll having surpassed 350,000, by official estimates. One of our guests today calls the pandemic response in India “the greatest moral failure” of a generation. Many blame the country’s autocratic prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, advocates Hindu nationalism in contrast to the secular, pluralistic democracy that India’s founders had envisioned.

Photograph by Prabhat Kumar Verma via

Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, promising economic growth and a respite from the corrupt and calcified Congress Party. But the Hindu nationalism of Modi and his party, the BJP, has hardened along with their will to govern. Modi’s administration has stifled the media, jailed opponents, taken over almost every democratic institution and adopted policies that are openly hostile to Muslims. Modi has also inflamed tensions in the troubled region of Kashmir. And in the past few months, his government’s resistance to scientific evidence has led to a terrible surge in covid infections and deaths. Where did Modi come from? And can he be stopped? This time on the show, a historian and two journalists give Will and Siva some answers.

As Hunter College historian Manu Bhagavan explains, India was founded on a pluralistic vision promoted by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and his pupil, Jawaharlal Nehru — who became the country’s first prime minister. On August 14, 1947, the eve of Indian independence, Nehru addressed the constituent assembly in Delhi and urged its members to draft an institutional framework that would make the new nation a beacon to the world. For the most part, they did.

But the forces of far-right Hindu nationalism have long been lurking in the wings, eager to capitalize on inter-religious strife that had been stoked earlier under British rule. Indeed, a Hindu nationalist assassinated Gandhi not long after Nehru’s historic speech. But perhaps most significant, Bhagavan says, has been the failure of the Congress Party, which ruled through much of the 20th century, to overcome its own weaknesses: cronyism, corruption and blind dedication to Nehru’s descendants.

Picking up where Bhagavan leaves off, columnist Kapil Komireddi and investigative journalist Vidya Krishnan, lament how Modi has consolidated power, but also what he has failed to do — address profound inequities and control the pandemic. Krishnan says the uneven effects of the virus underscore the country’s deep divisions: India is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world as well as some 220 million people living in poverty. And while the virus is not bound by class or caste, the poor lack equal access to medical resources and have been dying in disproportionate numbers. Komireddi, meanwhile, assesses what it will take to oust Modi: a revitalization of the political opposition, for one — but also a reckoning in the BJP rank-and-file with what its governing coalition has wrought.

About our guests

Manu Bhagavan is a professor of history, human rights and public policy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is also a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunch Institute of International Studies. Bhagavan is the author of, among several books, The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World (HarperCollins India, 2012) and is the editor, most recently, of the volume India and the Cold War (UNC Press, 2019). Follow Bhagavan on Twitter @ManuBhagavan.

Kapil Komireddi is a journalist, author and essayist. He contributes to many popular media outlets across the world, including the New York Times, the Economist and the Guardian. His book, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India (Hurst, 2019), was published in the United States this year. Follow Komireddi on Twitter @kapskom.

Investigative reporter Vidya Krishnan is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Besides writing frequently for The Atlantic, her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Caravan. Her first book, The Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, will be published later this year. Follow Krishnan on Twitter @VidyaKrishnan.

This interviews on the episode were recorded in May and released on June 8, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guests

In The Peacemakers, Bhagavan argues that India’s founders were intent not only on bringing sovereignty and democracy to the subcontinent. They also sought to provide a model for human rights and mutual understanding between peoples around the world, he says. Based on research in archives on three continents, Bhagavan traces the role that Indian leaders played in the early days of the United Nations.

He has also written in the popular press about the rise of authoritarianism around the world and Nehru’s failed efforts to reach a compromise with Pakistan over Kashmir.

Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic recounts the rise of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India and identifies the conditions that enabled it. Read an excerpt here, about corruption in the 1970s and 1980s under Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Sanjay Gandhi — who personally oversaw a sterilization campaign that mutilated more than six million citizens.

He wrote about Modi’s cult of personality, but also about how the Congress Party remains beholden to a family dynasty, in two recent Washington Post op-eds; and, last year, about the recent rise in violence against Indian Muslims, in the New Statesman.

Krishnan’s forthcoming book, The Phantom Plague, examines the history of tuberculosis outbreaks across the centuries. It also highlights the new threat of resistant strains of TB — drawing connections with looming global risks to human health.

Her most recent piece in The Atlantic underscores the relationship between wealth inequality and the current crises in India, arguing that no single person is to blame. See more of her coverage and commentary on the pandemic in The Caravan.

From around the web

Learn more about Nehru's speech to the consituent assembly in 1947, from Ian Jack of the Guardian.

The Gandhi family — made up of Nehru’s descendants, but of no relation to Mahatma Gandhi — have dominated the Congress Party for generations. But the party lost parliament in 2014 and was routed again in the 2019 elections. Even Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great-grandson, failed to recapture his seat based in the town of Amethi, perhaps signaling the irreversible decline of a political dynasty.

Last year, columnist Azeem Ibrahim detailed India’s autocratic turn under Modi, in Foreign Policy. And in March, Foreign Affairs reported on two recent studies that downgraded India to “partly free” and an “electoral autocracy.”

In July 2017, the Journal of Democracy dedicated a special issue to India’s political dilemmas.

Thousands of Indian farmers took to the streets in January to protest the BJP’s neoliberal agricultural policies, which they say mainly benefit big corporate interests. Here’s an explainer on the protests from the Associated Press.

As coronavirus deaths mounted this spring, Modi still held huge rallies and allowed millions of Hindu faithful to attend a religious celebration on the Ganges, drawing much ire.

Find out why the pandemic spike in India could be even worse than official statistics suggest, in this New Yorker report on an independent analysis by Chennai-based journalist Rukmini S.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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