The doyen of foreign correspondents in India was, and still is, (Sir) Mark Tully, of the BBC (and, subsequently, author of many independent books on India). Then came Trevor Fishlock of the London Times. More recently, we have been especially enlightened by Edward Luce (In Spite of the Gods (The Strange Rise of Modern India), 2007), William Dalrymple (on many aspects of India and Indian civilisation), and Patrick French (India. A Portrait, 2010).
Now, as a lengthy commentary on his two reporting stints in India during the past 10 years, comes a timely and thorough analysis of contemporary India by Simon Denyer, a Reuters and Washington Post correspondent and Bureau Chief. As well as a general background to contemporary India, Denyer offers very close coverage of the past three controversy-packed years of Indian politics and public debate.
Simon Denyer, Rogue Elephant. Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy. London. Bloomsbury. 2014. ISBN 978 1 4088 5705 2 [440 pp. hardback. Rs 600 in India]
All of these serious India Watchers are of British origin. In their prolonged scrutiny of India and her people, they have dug much deeper than most other foreign writers and journalists in a search for the realities of this ancient and enigmatic country. A further advantage they appear to share is a practical knowledge of Hindi and the ability to engage with Indians in different walks of life (and often in out of the way places) which has given their reports more authenticity and value, especially for non-Indians. This is surely further proof that although English is the lingua franca of India, Hindi remains the language of power and politics.
For those foreigners wishing to be up to date on the situation in India and to know what is at stake on the eve of the crucial April-May 2014 general elections, which begin in a few days’ time, Denyer’s latest analyses of current issues and problems could prove to be a very useful guide. All the major headlined personalities of the hectic past three or four years in India are covered under Denyer’s wide umbrella:
Bedi, Kiran; Gandhi, Rahul; Gandhi, Sonia; Goswamy, Arnab; Hazare, Anna; Kejrival, Arvind; Kumar, Nitish; Modi, Narendra; Raja, Andimuthu; Ramdev, Swami; Singh, Manmohan; Vadra, Robert; Yadav, Lalu.
The publisher’s comments on the inside front cover are a fair and concise presentation of the book’s contents and an expansion of its eye-catching title. I quote it in toto:
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, India seemed to stand on the brink of an exciting new era. Second only to China as the fastest growing major economy in the world, gleaming shopping malls were being built around the country to service a rapidly expanding middle class, and mobile phones were reaching even the remotest villages.
“The installation of Manmohan Singh as prime minister in 2004 seemed to promise more good times ahead. Singh had unleashed ‘shining’ India’s potential more than a decade before as finance minister, introducing the liberalising economic reforms that had set the country on a new course towards prosperity.
“Yet a decade later, the dream has crumbled. A series of corruption scandals has badly tarnished the nations image and undermined its self-confidence, while the economy has slowed and violence against women has dominated the headlines. The country is no longer ‘shining’ and Indians are left wondering where the magic has gone.
“Reporting from across India, meeting activists, farmers, bureaucrats, office workers and media figures, and interviewing influential political leaders including Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, Denyer exposes the battles taking place between powerful vested interests and those trying to foster change.
“By delving into many of the country’s most troublesome issues, from gender relations to education, from corruption to populist politics, Denyer analyses the Indian malaise and, equally important, discovers signs of new and vigorous life and a deep desire for change. If the world’s largest democracy can control the greed, corruption and bad governance that bedevil it, its future may indeed be dazzling.”
(As the balanced presentation of these 440 pages indicates, this appears to be a big IF.)
The chapters offered by Simon Denyer are listed below. The more explicit sub-headings (usually followed by a quotation) may be especially helpful for potential purchasers. (These sub-headings then become the page headers of the chapters.)
Asking for It
Gang-rape provokes unprecedented outcry
2. Man out of Time
The silent fall of Manmohan Singh
(The author’s Washington Post article on this topic created quite a stir in India:
‘Indian Leader’s Legacy is Fading, 5 September 2012. See pages 41-45 of this chapter.)
3. Money (That’s what I want)
The battle to rid Indian democracy of criminality and corruption
4. It’s a family affair
How dynastic politics is stifling Indian democracy
5. Is there Something I should Know?
The Right to information returns power to Indian citizens
6. Headline Hustler
The twenty-four hour news television helps awaken a nation
7. This Land is your Land
Farmers stand up for their rights, and politicians look for answers
8. Get up, Stand up
India against Corruption galvanizes the middle class
9. How can you mend a broken heart?
The heart of India’s democracy, Parliament, is barely beating
10. Fight the Power
Arvind Kejriwal launches his political career in uncompromising fashion
11. Hard Times for an honest man
Whistleblowers under attack in India’s bureaucracy
One woman’s lonely struggle to rein in the powers of the army in India’s remote northeast
13. I want to break free
India’s youthful aspirations threatened by a lack of skills and jobs
14. The Age of Information
Technology empowers India’s people to fight corruption, elect better leaders
15. I’m the Man
Narendra Modi offers himself as India’s saviour
Denyer offers a comprehensive and nuanced 29-page chapter on the man of the moment and the favourite to win the Prime Ministership. In spite of all that detail, the author adds two final personal comments on Modi’s candidacy:
“While Modi promises to cut through much of the tangled mess of governance and unshackle entrepreneurs, he threatens many of the things I love about India. I find Gujarat under Modi to be stifling, a state where cinema owners dare not show films about the riots for fear of violence, where criticism of Modi is interpreted as disloyalty to the state, where some of the oxygen of democracy has been shut off. ” (p. 360).
“Say what you like about Narendra Modi, but he doesn’t lack confidence in his own ability. But in his assault on secularism and the rights of minorities, in his autocratic style, does Narendra Modi threaten the very essence of what makes India great?” (p.365)
16. Hell is for Children
Efforts to protect India’s women and children intensify after the Delhi gang-rape
Denyer’s Notes contain many vital recent bibliographical references, especially to relevant articles by himself and his Washington Post colleague, Rama Lakshmi, and to the work of historian Ramachandra Guha.