The Rogue Elephant and The Rotten Mahout - The New Indian Express

The Rogue Elephant and The Rotten Mahout

Published: 16th March 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 14th March 2014 05:08 PM

Two types of books tend to get banned in India: those that speak of uncomfortable things; or those that people can be persuaded as likely to disturb the harmony in this harmonious land (even though they may be actually quite harmless). Denyer’s book, thankfully, will not be considered of either of these types.  The Indian political class would ignore it in this election season, and hence you might end up buying the book.  It would not be a bad call.

Simon Denyer, the Bureau Chief of the Washington Post in Beijing, is an accomplished journalist who began his career with Reuters, moving across the Americas, Asia and Africa. He has seen the Indian subcontinent in particular up close, with at least three stints in India itself, and has also been witness to developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. This prolonged exposure to the dynamics of the subcontinent, and India in particular, gives Denyer a kind of insightful gaze that is quite unusual.

Rogue Elephant is an attempt at understanding the progressive slowdown of the Indian economy during the UPA II, looking for answers not so much at this individual mistake or that particular blunder, rather at what appears to be a systemic malaise that the Indian state (not merely the government) suffers from.  The issues that feature prominently in the analysis – the corruption, the policy paralysis, ineffective leadership – are all too familiar, having been discussed threadbare in the Indian media, print and electronic. What is distinctive is that Denyer does not consider these as the malady, rather as its manifestation. Denyer seems to argue, not unlike others before him, that the Indian political class has steadily increased its distance from the Indian people, and has become considerably hidebound. Unlike most Indian and foreign observers before him, though, he actually seems to believe that through movements like Right to Information, India Against Corruption, and localised but effective resistance to governmental policies (viz. land acquisition), the Indian people are successfully reclaiming the political space that is due to them in a democratic order. He gives particular attention to the role played by the 24X7 media and civil society movements (ranging from the Hazare-Kejriwal tango on corruption to the land-related disputes) in expanding the scope of awareness that has served to democratise the Indian people much more than the political class seems to think fit.

Denyer’s treatment of the dramatis personae of Indian politics appears to be remarkably free from political bias.  His indictment of Manmohan Singh’s role at the helm of perhaps the most corrupt government since 1947 is all the more scathing because of the Prime Minister’s being unimpeachable on the issue of corruption. He labels Arnab Goswami as a sensationalist, but does not hesitate to accept that such sensationalism is not without its use. The most difficult balance Denyer strikes is in assessing the dream Narendra Modi is keen on peddling for 2014—he expresses deep misgivings about Modi’s role in 2002, and refuses to buy the dream without a clear verdict being passed on what happened in Gujarat on his watch.

Although Denyer tells his story through the trope of individuals in the India story (from Rahul Gandhi to Erom Sharmila Chanu), the author is clear that they represent larger forces at play. Heroes are not always heroes, and giants do have feet of clay; not all the real heroes wear capes and not all who are not heroes have horns. Thus the dynastic nature of Indian politics is not a function of the machinations of the political class, rather symptomatic of the limitations of electoral politics in the Indian context; Arnab Goswami’s trenchant critique of the government is as much the product of his aggressive quest for TRPs as of his commitment to making government accountable.  The best treatment of the amorphous nature of the India Story, however, happens to be the recounting of the Nirbhaya episode. Denyer locates the brutal gang rape and murder of the girl in the matrix of Indian society after liberalisation—mapping the aspirational aspect of India’s growth story (a small town girl climbing up the social ladder through grit and hard work) as well as its alienating character for those that failed (the migrant whose struggle for eking out a living made him resentful of all those who fared better).

If there remains an element of ambiguity in the book, it is in the name that seems to be deliberately chosen to attract not so much the attention of the informed Indian reader as of someone who wants to know ‘what went wrong with the India story’. Denyer’s India is not so much a rogue elephant, as one that is piloted by a lousy mahout; Indian democracy is unruly not because the people are unruly, but because the rules are so flawed that playing by them is no virtue.  Unfortunately, if India is able to harness the power of democracy and put its house in order (as Denyer hopes) this book may vanish without a trace. That would be a pity.

‘People Want Better Governance’

Washington Post’s former India Bureau Chief Simon Denyer is back with a book on Indian democracy. Currently heading the China Bureau for the Post, Denyer tells Supriya Sharma how democracy is India’s greatest strength.

What inspired this book?

I have always been fascinated with Indian democracy. At one level it can seem so imperfect but on another level I think it is India’s greatest strength. It has always been in my mind that I would like to write someday and explore Indian democracy more deeply.

India and China are often compared by virtue of being emerging superpowers. You have lived and worked in both countries. In your opinion, where does India score over China?

In the past six decades, China has lived through incredible violence, oppression and fear because of the dictatorship of one man. And India has survived the last 70 years without that so when you suddenly say China is better now because of their economics, you’re forgetting China’s history of the last 70 years under Mao.

I think one of the reasons why India has managed to build a nation is because of democracy. To me democracy, freedom of speech and secularism, however imperfectly it may be practised, those things are what I love about India. I think they are its greatest strengths. And now there is a real desire among Indian people to be governed better.

China too has considerable economic challenges to face in the next decade. The middle class in China also wants jobs and security. There is a desire in China too for rights and better governance. Officials there have so much power and there is no redress. There is no RTI in China, you can’t vote anyone out of office. If you complain about somebody you’re more likely to be thrown into prison than you are to actually get that person in trouble. Any system of one-party rule ultimately has to accommodate people’s desire for rights. How China manages that transition is a huge challenge ahead of it.

One of the reasons why Mr Modi is so popular in India is that he is seen as a strong leader who will set right the wrongs besetting the country. Do you think the Chinese political model can work for India?

I can understand people’s desire for a strong, competent leader. I sense there is this deep desire for change which is why Arvind Kejriwal from nowhere became the chief minister of Delhi. As I said I don’t think Chinese system would work in India because China is much more homogenous ethnically (it’s 85% pan Chinese) than India. India has to manage this diversity and democracy allows it to do that. Plus I just think when you’ve had right to freedom of expression and right to question you can’t take that away. There is no going back on that.

So what according to you is the key to harnessing the unruly power of India’s democracy?

You need electoral reforms to clean up campaign finance, reforms to give the opposition a chance to have time to debate in the parliament, reforms to stop everybody disrupting parliament. There are mechanical ways to improve the functioning of democracy. I think that there are powerful things like Right to Information which are already helping at some level. But fundamentally, the thing that needs to change is that politicians need to realise that there are votes in governing better. And that will actually deliver better economic results, more jobs, more opportunities and therefore allow them to be re-elected. I think some politicians have got that message or are beginning to get it and other politicians are still in the old school of exploiting caste/communal  divisions or trying to give freebies away. Populism achieves nothing economically. People don’t want freebies, they want their children to have jobs. They want to have opportunities and not giveaways.

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