Simon Denyer, veteran foreign correspondent and author, on why he thinks democracy is India’s salvation
International correspondent Simon Denyer first moved to India in 2004, running the Reuters bureau for five years. After a stint in Washington DC, he returned to Delhi as the Washington Post’s India bureau chief. In his new book, Rogue Elephant, Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy (Bloomsbury), Denyer uses the vantage point of a foreign journalist to analyse India’s failures and successes over the past decade. He reveals why India’s democracy is its salvation, the opportunities Rahul Gandhi has missed out on, and the canker of corruption. Extracts from the interview:
In July 2013, you became the Post’s China bureau chief. How has your China experience changed how you see India?
The truth is, I say the same thing in China about India that I say here — that democracy is India’s strongest point; it has kept India together rather peacefully. Democracy is India’s salvation. In China, I do see economic development and relative prosperity, but I still believe that it is wrong to take that snapshot in isolation.
China has been through absolutely horrific decades. And it is still a country where people are unable to speak their minds for fear of being locked up. China has the march on India economically. But my views on India and the comparison haven’t really changed.
India’s democracy is, in a way, based on Nehru’s vision. In what ways have we failed it?
Nehru was stickler for attending Parliament and parliamentary debate. Look at Parliament now; it is a joke. When I say democracy is India’s biggest strength and then I have to write a chapter on the heart of that democracy which is so dysfunctional, you question yourself at that point.
Your chapter on Parliament is called ‘How can you mend a broken heart’… ?
That is one very clear way (in which India has failed Nehru’s vision). Many things have gone wrong — corruption, criminality; the way secularism is being exploited. All those things that were fundamental to India’s democracy. But I still feel they represent values India aspires to. And those values are in peoples hearts. Maybe, people have to fight a bit harder to reinstate those values.
You first met Rahul Gandhi in 2004 and said it was his time for understanding and not executing. What’s your take now?
That is why the 2004 interview is still relevant. Here, he was saying he needed to understand, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to say in 2004. In 2014, it seemed a huge, missed opportunity. He has had a government that has been pleading for him to take a bigger role. And he has said no to all of them... He may come to regret that.
There are two aspects, which have been a disappointment to many people: 1) failure to build a track record and 2) a dissonance between what Rahul Gandhi says he stands for and what he is.
To remove that dissonance and hypocrisy, he has to actually do something. Take something on. And prove that he can change the way politics functions. And not just talk about it. I am not saying he will never do it. I do say his heart is in the right place.
On the policy level, RTI has been a strong legislation. You write a lot about what RTI has come to mean in the country.
Yes, RTI, for me, is the best one. Even though the prime minister was not a particular fan of it. I give Sonia Gandhi credit for that… I am far from condemning them out of hand.
But I got as frustrated as many Indians did at the failure to stand up against corruption... The writing was on the wall. And 10 years is awfully long to ignore the writing.
You have talked about how your article on Manmohan Singh for the Post in which you called him a ‘silent, tragic figure’ was received. The establishment wasn’t too thrilled. How free, or not, are you as a journalist in China?
Right now, the Chinese government has been putting a lot of pressure on NYT and Bloomberg reporters on stories they wrote which exposed corruption at very high levels. Visas are denied and delayed.
The great thing about being a journalist in India is I always wrote what I considered to be balanced and fair. I wasn’t worried that I would be thrown out of the country. It is quite a privilege to be a foreigner and be free to report on the things that you see are wrong. That is what I loved about being in India.
In China, there is always that feeling at the back in your mind if I say this… We always wrestle with the issue ‘do I censor myself’. I haven’t been there long enough to wrestle with that in a meaningful way. There are some restrictions. But I still write what I believe to be true. I have not censored what I have written.
It is interesting that you choose TV anchor Arnab Goswami as an example of someone who is furthering the cause of democracy in India. Why did you choose him?
I chose him as he is the most out- there example. He, like Arvind Kejriwal, is not afraid of breaking down the cosy consensus of the elite — he plays the outsider. And so does Kejriwal, he is going to have a role to play in Indian politics for a long time.