Reporter in the ring

soutik biswas | Updated on April 17, 2014

Caught napping Is India’s democracy a slumbering elephant rather than a roguepachyderm sr raghunathan

Pehle aap India seems caught between a dithering bureaucrat and a reluctant prince - rajeev bhatt

A sharp and clear-eyed first draft of India’s troubled recent history, with a few missing blanks

Despite India’s seemingly interminable chaos and the failure of its democracy to deliver more, Simon Denyer finds room for optimism. He finds the raucous news networks, the campaign against corruption and a ‘new’ invigorated and noisy middle class driving a clamour for change. The gloom that has descended on the country looks exaggerated, and it’s a question of time, Denyer believes, before India rediscovers the mojo of its go-go years of high growth and unbridled optimism.

Rogue Elephant is the latest in a long list of books by foreign correspondents trying to make sense of the churning in the world’s biggest democracy. Denyer is a peripatetic and observant journalist, and packs in a lot in 16 breathless chapters over 400 pages. Written in lucid and racy prose, Rogue Elephant is a sharp and clear-eyed first draft of India’s troubled recent history.

There are few things that Rogue Elephant misses out on. Denyer outlines the corruption scandals, bemoans the tragedy of Manmohan Singh, details the stormy aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, and worries about the criminalisation of politics. He also writes about the scourge of dynastic politics, the landmark right to information law and attempts to subvert it, the febrile news networks led by the “bossy, bombastic and relentlessly opinionated” Arnab Goswami, the anti-corruption movement and the dysfunctional parliament.

Denyer is at his best when reporting the anecdotal and his vivid profiles of some of the newsmakers who have dominated the headlines stand out. He recounts an angry reaction from the prime minister’s office to his unflattering profile of Manmohan Singh (he described him as a “dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat”). There are also profiles of whistle blowers Ashok Khemka and Sanjiv Chaturvedi, who between them have been transferred out of their jobs more than 50 times in Haryana, “a state where there is no social stigma attached to graft”.

After meeting Narendra Modi, he wonders whether the “white-bearded knight from Gujarat”, who is running as a potential prime minister is well suited to run a coalition government. And whether Modi threatens the very essence of what makes India great through his assault on secularism and the rights of minorities.

Denyer meets Arvind Kejriwal, a man who has “no qualms about presenting himself as the Messiah, about flaunting his own impatience”. “This is a large part of his appeal. It is a quality that he shares with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and in the media world with Arnab Goswami: that messianic drive to present himself to an impatient public as the man on the horse, riding to India’s presence”.

Denyer’s reportage is first-rate. However, much of his analysis is unexceptional. “Those who see Indian democracy as half empty argue that merely keeping India together is not enough,” he writes. Patronage rules, cronyism is rife, the gap between the rich and poor is rising, the middle-class are seceding from the state seeking private education, health, transport, a Maoist insurgency is pulling away tribals from democracy. What he does not explore is why most of India’s institutions are so gravely compromised — do they resist change and reform because of a crippling colonial legacy? He calls the Indian middle-class’s “self-exile unprecedented in global history yet”, yet large sections of the middle-class have come out on the streets and supported Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP.

On the other hand, he writes, those who see the glass half-full see an “unprecedented awakening of India, enabled by an information revolution, young people who care about the future of the country, activists using the tools and institutions of democracy to forge a better nation.” Denyer believes this is an inflexion point in India’s history, “a time of change when the old ways have broken down.” The pace of social change in India is glacial, and the inability to rise above caste and identity in what remains a hierarchical society is an example of that.

Denyer could have also chosen a more precise title. Rogue Elephant conjures up visions of a country — and democracy — which has gone berserk. But India’s recent problems appear to have more to do with a dysfunctional government, a bloated state and lazy politicians out of touch with the rising aspirations of their voters. The elephant has gone into a slumber.

True, India’s democracy is far from fully functioning. “What we have in India is a defective elective democracy,” Shailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner tells him. “Voting by itself does not make a democracy.” It’s a work in progress, and Denyer’s book is a modest contribution in recording it.

(Soutik Biswas is India Editor BBC news site)

Published on March 21, 2014

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