4 books to understand modern India

Is the world’s most populous country booming or broken?

Al Majalla

4 books to understand modern India

India is Broken

Ashoka Mody (Stanford University Press, 528 pp., $35, February 2023

Anyone who wants to understand India in 2024 should begin with India Is Broken, Ashoka Mody’s magisterial history of Indian economic policy from 1947 to the present. Mody’s passionately engaged book is not just a much-needed antidote to the enthusiasm for India’s growth rate in the West’s financial newspapers. It also doubles as a political history of independent India, offering a bleak but indispensable introduction to the country today.

Mody, an Indian American economist, explains why successive prime ministers, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, failed their basic economic brief to stimulate India’s sick agricultural sector, generate jobs for a chronically underemployed citizenry, and make the young republic competitive in the global economy.

Mody’s account of the policy shortcomings of Nehru’s long tenure is a tour de force; he reveals how a leader committed to development failed to educate his people into a literate workforce and missed the opportunity to invest in the basic, low-tech industries that could have employed them. Particularly relevant as India heads into a general election that Mody’s near namesake is tipped to win is his assessment of Modi’s economic record.

As Western media largely praises India’s GDP growth, Mody critiques the prime minister’s signature economic initiatives and their impact on everyday citizens. These include demonetisation, intended to flush black money out of India, and the botched rollout of the goods and services tax, implemented to rationalise indirect taxation. The chapter on Modi’s abandonment of the poor during draconian COVID-19 lockdowns also illustrates with grim detail the fragility of India’s social contract.

Price of the Modi Years

Aakar Patel (Westland Non-Fiction, 496 pp., $27.95, September 2022)

For a book-length report card on Modi’s decade in office and how he has transformed India from a creaking democracy into an electoral autocracy, turn to journalist Aakar Patel’s Price of the Modi Years.

The book is the best kind of political reckoning: dense with facts and low on rhetoric. It documents Modi’s record on diplomacy, war, security, and the economy; his assault on press freedom and civil society organisations; his use of opaque electoral bonds to tilt political funding in his party’s favour; and his marginalisation of Indian Muslims.

Patel’s book is invaluable for its systematic listing of the riots, lynchings, and other forms of violence that Muslims have endured through the Modi years.

Patel's book is invaluable for its systematic listing of the riots, lynchings, and other forms of violence that Muslims have endured through the Modi years.

City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh

Zeyad Masroor Khan (HarperCollins India, 312 pp., $32.95, December 2023)

The most striking feature of India today is the majoritarianism that suffuses the public sphere. As the state's determination to target religious minorities reshapes the republic, both Mody and Patel help readers understand the threat that Hindu nationalism poses to India as a pluralist democracy. But to experience something of the existential fear that minority citizens experience in India today, we need to look to a memoir.

Zeyad Masroor Khan's City on Fire is the story of a boy coming of age in a Muslim ghetto in Aligarh, a small university town, who moves to Delhi for a graduate programme in filmmaking. To read the book is to enter a world in which the Partition of India defines everyday life, even though it happened 40 years before Khan, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was born.

In this world, it is prudent to build secret rooftop getaway routes in case ghetto lanes are blocked during a riot. From being stoned by a mob in a school bus as a child to desperately calling an Uber during the 2020 anti-Muslim riots in Delhi, Khan offers a window into what it means to navigate a society where the familiar can turn feral in an instant.

Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India

Suchitra Vijayan (Melville House, 336 pp., $29.99, May 2021)

Nowhere is the excluding cruelty of South Asia's nation-states experienced more bluntly than at their margins. Suchitra Vijayan's Midnight's Borders shows how disputed national border regions became sites of self-definition for South Asian nation-states. As Vijayan—a writer, lawyer, and photographer—travels along India's inherited colonial frontiers, she finds men literally marooned between floodlit fences that demarcate the border between India and Bangladesh.

Others live in bureaucratic limbo, unable to convince the inquisitorial tribunals of the National Register of Citizens of their Indianness. These orphaned citizens are mainly Muslim. Foreign Policy's readers are familiar with the ways in which nation-states defend their borders; Midnight's Borders tells of how a majoritarian nation turns citizens living on its margins into aliens for reasons of state.

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