Book review: Is this India’s moment?

For the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, I’ve reviewed a big new book on India by the economist Ashoka Mody, India is Broken. Amidst the hype about India’s geopolitical moment in the sun, Mody’s book offers a rather sobering take. Mody’s thesis is straightforward: after 75 years of independence, India’s democracy and economy are fundamentally broken.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

India Is Broken methodically demolishes the bumper-sticker version of India’s story that CEOs and politicians conjure at glitzy international conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. It takes readers on a tour of India’s dark underbelly, where corruption has triumphed over compassion, and democracy exists in theory but rarely in practice. Many recent critiques of India’s trajectory focus on Hindu nationalism and the rise of the BJP. But Mody goes further by connecting the failures of successive Indian governments—alternately led by the Congress, the BJP, and smaller regional parties—since independence, showing the deep roots of India’s troubles.

India is Broken is a provocative book—a useful corrective that perhaps too often over-corrects. Mody’s account is powered by simple binaries that do not always stand up to scrutiny.

Here’s a paywall-free link of the review, which you can also find below as a PDF.


Grand Tamasha’s Best Books of 2022

One of the blessings (though it sometimes feels like a curse) of hosting Grand Tamasha, Carnegie’s weekly podcast on Indian politics and policy, is that I end up reading a ton of books and interviewing many authors. Reflecting on the year gone by, I made a list of my top three India reads of the year, based on some of the books I’ve highlighted on the show’s recently wrapped eighth season. This is no small task, as I devoured several excellent books that I did not feature on the podcast, and there are far too many good reads we did feature that I could not include.

With those caveats in place, we present our Grand Tamasha top three books of 2022.

You can find our list here.

Special issue of India Review on the consequences of the 2019 general election

Bilal Baloch and I have guest-edited a special issue of India Review on the consequences of India’s 2019 general election. The issue is out now and you can find an ungated version of our introduction here. Here’s a snippet:

This special issue of India Review addresses the implications of the 2019 general election for India’s democratic polity. The timing of these essays,therefore, is worth noting. Since the authors put pen to paper in the immediate aftermath of the elections, important shifts have taken place in India’s electoral and policy landscape. This is the inevitable challenge of real-time analysis. It is for this reason that we brought together a diverse set of academics and research-oriented practitioners who help place the election in comparative and historical context for students and scholars of India and South Asia. The result is a unique, balanced, and illuminating collection of articles that stand apart from the plethora of post-election analyses. Though the broad remit of this collection is to assess how the 2019election results will impact four key domestic policy and political arenas–the party system, minority rights, economy, and federalism–the underlying philosophical concern pertains to the trajectory of power within India.

I’ll update this post with links to ungated versions of the remaining essays in the coming days:

Adam Ziegfeld, “A New Dominant Party in India? Putting the 2019 BJP Victory into Comparative and Historical Perspective

Adnan Farooqui, “Political representation of a minority: Muslim representation in contemporary India

Yamini Aiyar and Louise Tillin, “‘One nation,’ BJP, and the future of Indian federalism

Rohit Chandra and Michael Walton, “Big potential, big risks? Indian capitalism, economic reform and populism in the BJP era


Live Grand Tamasha Episode on May 19!


It has been a long, long, long Coronavirus quarantine here in Washington, D.C. As the summer rapidly approaches, we decided it was time for something different–on May 19, we will host our first-ever live edition of “Grand Tamasha.” This episode will feature our news round-up regulars Sadanand Dhume of AEI and the Wall Street Journal and Tanvi Madan of Brookings. We will debate the latest in Indian politics and policy and take viewer questions along the way.

You will be able to submit questions in real-time on YouTube, but you can also send them to me on Twitter using the hashtag #GrandTamashaLive or email them to

The live episode will take place on Tuesday, May 19 at 11:00 a.m. EST (8:30 p.m. IST). Here’s the link to join:

Launching Season Two of “Grand Tamasha”


After a brief summer hiatus, last week we launched Season Two of “Grand Tamasha,” a weekly podcast on Indian politics and policy co-produced by Carnegie and the Hindustan Times.

In our first episode of this season, I round-up the latest news from India with Sadanand Dhume of AEI and the Wall Street Journal and Tanvi Madan of Brookings. Tanvi, Sadanand, and I discuss the latest from Jammu and Kashmir, the slumping Indian economy, and Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day address.

As an added bonus, we are also releasing a conversation I recorded with political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot back in June. Christophe reflects on the major implications of India’s 2019 general election.

You can find both episodes here. And you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts) so it automatically gets updated in your feed.


New essay: “The Battle for India’s Soul”

I have a new essay in Foreign Affairs that distills some of the larger messages from our recent Carnegie report on religion, nationalism, and Indian democracy. Here is the punchline:

Whichever side emerges victorious in May, the consensus in India is that the Nehruvian construct of secularism is dead—killed by its one-time supporters as much as by its dogged opponents. What will replace it is unclear.

The full-text is here and below (ungated):

The Battle for India’s Soul
The Election Will Determine What Comes After Secularism
By Milan Vaishnav
On May 19, voting will end in the last phase of India’s mammoth general election. Over the five and a half weeks of the campaign, some 600 million voters will have trekked to the polls to select the 543 members of India’s next parliament. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term in office. A motley crew of opposition parties—including the Indian National Congress, the once-dominant political force in post-independence India, and a bevy of regional players—hopes to topple it.

The stakes are high. The author-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor called the election “a battle for India’s soul,” and the political scientist and social activist Yogendra Yadav has argued that the “very idea of India is under challenge.” In the minds of many observers, this election will determine whether India has a future as a secular, pluralist republic true to its founders’ belief that its unity is strengthened by its immense diversity.

The campaign has seen its fair share of lows. On multiple occasions, India’s election commission has temporarily banned several top political leaders from campaigning over their incendiary, religiously divisive taunts. In particular, the BJP—an avowedly pro-Hindu nationalist party—has peddled inflammatory rhetoric about India’s Muslims, who make up nearly 15 percent of India’s 1.3 billion residents. On the first day of voting, BJP party president Amit Shah pledged that his party, if reelected, would “remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha [sic], Hindus and Sikhs.”

The BJP chief was referring to the National Register of Citizens, a record recently established in the border state of Assam to distinguish between genuine citizens of India and undocumented Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Inaugurated by the current BJP state government after a decades-long political debate, the NRC excludes more than four million people from its draft list of citizens, suggesting that mass deportation could be in order. Shah promised that a second-term BJP government in New Delhi would implement an NRC-like process for the entire country—doubling down on a pledge in the party’s election manifesto. The proposed national citizen registry complements another core BJP promise: legislation that would relax citizenship criteria for Buddhist, Christian, Jain, and Sikh refugees fleeing religious persecution across South Asia—or, in other words, basically anyone but Muslims seeking refuge in India.

Hindu nationalists allied with the BJP call for a Ram Rajya (a harkening back to a mythical golden age under the Hindu Lord Ram); the traditional proponents of secularism have not offered a compelling alternative. Rather, senior Congress leaders have gone to great pains to embrace their Hindu faith in order to blunt the BJP’s religious appeals. At the very moment when secularism is on the ropes, its defenders appear to have abandoned it.

For seven decades, political and cultural conflict in India has centered on competing visions of nationalism. The drafters of India’s post-independence constitution in the late 1940s debated the values and norms that should underpin the “idea of India.” According to the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, three concepts of India had jostled for dominance since the emergence of the Indian national movement in the nineteenth century. The first was territorial, emphasizing India’s sovereign borders. The second was cultural, defining Indian society by the values of tolerance, pluralism, and syncretism. And the third stressed religion: different religious communities called India home, but to Hindu nationalists, the Indian nation was at its core a Hindu one.

The two nationalisms that dueled for superiority during the constitution-making process stemmed from different combinations of these notions. Although both were committed to India’s “sacred geography,” there the similarities ended. Secular nationalism stressed political pluralism, while Hindu nationalism championed Hindutva—the belief that India is fundamentally a polity by, for, and of the majority Hindu community.

After independence, in 1947, the Congress Party emerged as India’s dominant political force and defined the country’s modern identity through that secular nationalism. Under the tutelage of the country’s inaugural prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s postcolonial leadership refused to privilege any one religion above the others—fearing that doing so would upend a fragile social compact.

India’s homegrown secularism is, however, distinct from the American variant centered on the strict separation of church and state. Instead, the Indian Constitution instituted a doctrine of “principled distance” whereby the state would embrace India’s many religious faiths without unduly favoring any one of them. The Constitution guarantees citizens religious liberty and freedom from discrimination, but it also provides ample grounds for the state to interfere in religious affairs. For instance, under the law, the state can administer schools and universities that impart religious instruction. The state can also legislate against religious practices it deems illiberal—from sati (a Hindu custom in which a widow commits self-immolation upon her husband’s death) to triple talaq (the Islamic practice which allows a husband to instantly divorce his wife by repeating the world “talaq” three times).

In practice, Congress politicians who championed the cause of secularism often manipulated religion when it was politically expedient to do so. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wooed Sikh extremists in an attempt to defeat the Akali Dal, a party popular among moderate Sikhs. When Gandhi lost control of the Sikh extremists she was cultivating, she ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest site, where they resided. Gandhi was eventually assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the Golden Temple debacle. Her murder triggered bloody anti-Sikh pogroms across Delhi aided by several prominent Congress politicians.

Gandhi’s successor, her son Rajiv, also engaged in religious favoritism out of cynical political compulsion. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shah Bano, a Muslim woman contesting her husband’s divorce, declaring that Indian civil law superseded sharia law. Indian Muslims protested the rule and Rajiv Gandhi pushed legislation through parliament that effectively rewrote Indian civil law on Islamic divorce to comply with sharia.

These religious interventions opened up space for the rising BJP. On the back of a sustained campaign of ethnoreligious majoritarianism, the BJP finally took power in New Delhi in the late 1990s. Although the party returned to opposition between 2004 and 2014, its charge that secular parties have engaged in “pseudo-secularism,” or pandering to religious minorities, resonated, discrediting secular appeals and aiding the BJP’s resurgence under Modi.

Over the past five years, Modi and the BJP have struck a delicate balance on projecting Hindu primacy. The Modi government has deferred action on the core social issues that have long dominated the BJP’s cultural agenda, such as the building of a Hindu temple on the contested site of a former mosque in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh or the repeal of a Constitutional provision which grants Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, special autonomous status. Instead, the government has allowed majoritarianism to flourish at a subnational level.

In several BJP-ruled states, governments have rewritten textbooks to downplay Islamic contributions to Indian history. After winning elections in the states of Haryana and Maharashtra, BJP governments moved to strengthen laws banning the slaughter of cows. The cow protection movement—which has an ambiguous relationship to official state governments—has tried to enforce its will extrajudicially, leading to a spike in lynchings and vigilante justice.

As the electoral campaign nears its end, charges of pseudo-secularism have placed Congress and many of its allies on the back foot. Fearful of being labeled minority appeasers, Congress politicians have brandished Hindu credentials to blunt the BJP’s appeal. Some Congress backers contend that the party’s task is to convince the electorate that although Hinduism is fully compatible with liberalism and minority protection, Hindutva is opposed to both.

In trying to reclaim Hinduism from Hindutva, Congress is playing smart politics. In a country whose population is 80 percent Hindu, for a party to be labeled anti-Hindu is fatal. But the danger is that Congress is essentially engaging in a soft form of Hindutva itself, thereby ensuring that it remains subservient to the BJP. Even if abandoning secularism might make for good politics in the short run, it could eventually corrode Congress’ identity.

There are signs that this is already happening. In February, the newly elected Congress government in the state of Madhya Pradesh invoked the National Security Act to detain three Muslim men accused of cow slaughter. The act, originally intended to help prosecutors go after terrorists and other threats to national security, permits preventive detention and restricts defendants’ due process rights. Critics condemned the move as a grotesque application of the law’s powers.

The BJP’s campaign rhetoric suggests that, if reelected, the party will continue to force religious minorities to accept the state’s preferential treatment for Hindus. In 2014, the Modi-led BJP swept to power on promises of rapid economic growth, millions of new jobs, and clean governance. But the Modi administration has not fulfilled those pledges, so the party needs a new playbook. To that end, it has shelved economic appeals and rallied its supporters with nationalist tropes—out of desperation as much as ideological conviction.

How far BJP leaders push this line will depend on the scale of their electoral victory. Should the party win another outright majority, it will have wide latitude to redraw the boundaries between religion and politics, while a hung parliament and a coalition government would constrain its freedom.

If the opposition emerges victorious—which opinion surveys suggest is unlikely—things will be murkier. A tendency known as Hindu traditionalism could enjoy a resurgence. Whereas nationalists hold that Hindus’ demographic majority makes their faith the embodiment of Indian identity, traditionalists emphasize Hinduism’s cultural traits, such as the practice of Ayurvedic medicine and the linguistic preeminence of Hindi. Although Hindu traditionalists advocate for a cultural embrace of Hindu tenets, they do not share the hegemonic or anti-minority views more extreme nationalists harbor.

Whichever side emerges victorious in May, the consensus in India is that the Nehruvian construct of secularism is dead—killed by its one-time supporters as much as by its dogged opponents. What will replace it is unclear. In the battle for India’s soul, only one side has shown up ready to fight.

Introducing…Grand Tamasha


This past week, we launched a new venture: a weekly podcast focused on Indian politics we’re calling “Grand Tamasha.” Each week, we will break down the news in Indian politics, and go behind the headlines for deeper insight into the questions facing Indian voters in the 2019 general elections and beyond. The podcast is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times.

Each week from now through the elections, we’ll release a new episode Wednesday morning IST (Tuesday night EST). In our first episode, Sadanand Dhume (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute and Wall Street Journal columnist) and Sukumar Ranganathan (Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan Times) discussed the aftermath of India’s targeted military strikes against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist camps in Pakistan.

I also sat down with Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic adviser to the Government of India, about the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) for India.

You can listen to our first episode here. For more information, visit:

You can subscribe to Grand Tamasha wherever you get podcasts:

🎧 -iTunes:

🎧 -Spotify:

🎧 -Overcast:

🎧 -Stitcher:



Political Finance in India: Déjà Vu All Over Again


In the January 2019 issue of Seminar, I take a look back at the recent changes made to India’s system of regulating campaign finance in the year 2018. Here’s my bottom-line:

As the global democratic reform movement is agitating for more transparency, disclosure and openness in political funding, India is rapidly hurtling in the opposite direction. India has earned a reputation for often bucking global trends. But here is one domain where India’s innovation is hardly cause for celebration.

This issue is going to get loads more attention as the race for 2019 heats up. You can read the full piece here.

p.s. The entire special issue of Seminar is worth reading. It has smart essays by Yamini Aiyar, Mihir Sharma, and my colleague Srinath Raghavan, among others. You can read them all for free here.

Thoughts on the 2019 Election Campaign

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I recently did an interview with Archana Masih of Rediff on the state of the 2019 campaign. We touched on everything from nationalism in India to the Budget and the health of India’s institutions.

Here’s a glimpse:

Can a united Opposition give a good fight and turn the tables? Or is the BJP now a well oiled election-winning machine, despite the setbacks in the assembly elections?

The united Opposition can definitely give the BJP a good fight. But I start from the premise that this remains the BJP’s election to lose.

It possesses a lot of advantages. Modi remains the most popular politician in India; the BJP’s organisational and fundraising prowess is considerable; and the Opposition, while newly collaborative, has no leader or clear economic messaging as of yet.

There are many people confidently predicting that Modi will be a one-term prime minister; I think that is very premature.

The national campaign has not yet begun in earnest and he has every incentive to presidentialise this election, as he did in 2014. One thing we know is that campaigns do have an independent, causal, impact on people’s voting decisions in India.

You can read the entire interview here.

New column: Priyanka Gandhi as Political Finance

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In a new piece for Foreign Policy, I try and decode the meaning behind Priyanka Gandhi’s surprise entry into electoral politics as part of the Congress Party campaign in 2019.

Here’s the bottom line:

Priyanka Gandhi play is not only about winning allies and lifting spirits; it’s also about cash. The party is short of it, and Gandhi substitutes for the political finance that the Congress desperately needs.

Read more about my take on the “Priyanka-as-political-finance” strategy here.