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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

‘I think the pessimism is overdone’

Simon Denyer, former bureau chief of the Washington Post in India, on his book Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy

Written by Arun Mohan Sukumar | Delhi |
Updated: April 2, 2014 11:50:43 pm
simone-medium Simon Denyer

Who is your audience and why should they read this book?

My audience is a global one — people both in India and around the world. I hope that the book paints a larger picture while trying to make sense of a chaotic governing set up — one of the things that inspired me to write this book is the general perception that Indian democracy is a bit misunderstood, underrated, unappreciated.
How so?

When you discuss Indian democracy with a foreign audience, the response is usually, “Oh…isn’t it awful, isn’t it holding the country back?”

I’d disagree, it’s actually one of the best things about India. When you look at it from one angle, democracy has unfortunately come to highlight the prospect of corrupt or inefficient politicians taking over the country’s reins. The popular sentiment, both in India and abroad is that the country is not fulfilling its  potential because of  its politicians.

I actually find quite a lot of hope in the situation now. When I arrived in 2004 to cover the country, India was telling itself it had arrived. It wasn’t fashionable in the foreign press to write about the problems of India then. And I always felt that it was a bit
complacent.

The problems of governance cannot obviously be wished away. Soon I went back to Washington for 18–20 months — when I returned, the “India story” bubble had almost burst. The corruption narrative became centred around the Commonwealth Games and 2G scams and there was an all-enveloping mood of pessimism. That said, I think the pessimism is overdone just like the optimism of the mid-2000s was.

The struggle for a “better democracy”, though, is not going to be a short battle where entrenched vested interests are just going to walk away and say, “oh, you want better governance? Here you go”. The battle nevertheless has begun.

There is the book’s macro-narrative of a chaotic democracy but how did you select the many stories that populate  its pages?

I begin with the 2012 Delhi gang rape and the subsequent protests because they were probably one of the most powerful and immediate manifestation of a desire for change from Indians; the role of mainstream and social media in fueling this movement

was discernible. So that sets the book up.
The first parts deal extensively with this “desire for change” motif. Chapters on the role of money and criminality in politics follow. Then I move squarely into channels that have facilitated mass movements – the Right to Information movement, the role of the media, etc.

How important are political characters and the values you ascribe to them to the India story?

I try to be dispassionate and objective in evaluating personalities. So with Narendra Modi, there is an evaluation of his economic record, without shying away from a treatment of the 2002 riots. It’s really quite difficult, I must admit, not to be emotionally involved in the India story, especially when you have been staying here for so long. So, with the Prime Minister, of course you feel some frustration when you see a person who is perceived to be honest and upright but who is  not doing anything to improve  the situation.

Let’s take Rahul Gandhi — whom I interviewed in 2004 — for instance. What I write about him in the book are not revelatory points. I do emphasise that there is a dissonance between what he stands for and what he is a product of. But more than listing his perceived flaws or inadequacies , I analyse them in the book  through facts.

When did you start writing the book?

It’s been a year. I wrote most of it in the first half of 2013, distilling my work for nearly a decade here. I had been harbouring the idea of writing this book for a long time.

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