Modi’s India, by Christophe Jaffrelot, is a big book of some 640 pages (nearly 150 of which are detailed reference notes) that is both extremely comprehensive and deliberately restrictive. It focuses on how the rise of Hindu nationalism, particularly as embodied by Narendra Modi and his policies, is reshaping the character of India’s turbulent democracy. Foreign policy matters do not feature — the references to Pakistan are only to cite how actions on Indian soil by terrorists based across the border have helped to promote Hindutva popularity at home. China gets no mention in the book’s index, despite its mid-2020 territorial incursions. Nor is there any attempt at assessing in any depth the general state of the economy or its neoliberal character. What we get is one chapter (“Welfare or Well-Being?”) dealing with the economic performance (and nonperformance) of Modi’s first term as premier. Statistics about the rising inequality of wealth holdings and the burgeoning of dollar millionaires (rising from 34,000 to 759,000 between 2000 and 2019) are given, but explaining them would mean providing a wider analysis of the iniquities of neoliberalism across Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administrations.1 Jaffrelot prefers to limit himself here to the Modi years, and the main thrust of the chapter is to show how Modi enhances his personal political appeal above and below. He assuages the material interests of the upper classes (through crony capitalism and more) while certain welfare schemes are aimed at appealing to the sense of dignity of the underclass, even if their actual implementation is limited and poor. These are significant absences, and they affect Jaffrelot’s understanding of India and his vision of how Hindutva could be successfully combated.
For what the book does offer, we have much reason to be appreciative. Jaffrelot has long been and still is a tireless, thoughtful, and deeply informed observer and analyst of the Indian political scene. This text is the latest installment following three earlier studies (two authored, one coedited) since 2010 tracing the trajectory of change in the Indian polity caused by Hindu nationalism’s rise. Their very titles reveal the evolution in the overarching theoretical prism of Jaffrelot himself! His 2010 book, Religion, Caste, and Politics in India juxtaposed the two processes he then thought central, namely the “plebianization of the polity,” i.e., lower caste political-electoral assertion, and, as a counter, the rise of Hindu nationalism.2 His 2015 book was Saffron “Modernity” in India: Narendra Modi and His Experiment with Gujarat, followed by the 2019 coedited volume Majoritarian State, which first claimed India was now an “ethnic democracy” or a “de facto Hindu Rashtra.”3 Modi’s India explores this new reality in greater depth and suggests a possible further transition to becoming a “de jure ethnic democracy” with an authoritarian Hindu “deep state.”