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Book Review: Staying With the Headlines

A foreign correspondent’s account of the faltering India story throws up predictable heroes and revealing anecdotes

Published: March 8, 2014 3:04:08 am
book-m An Anna Hazare supporter in Delhi, 2011. (Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Book: Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy

Author: Simon Denyer

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Rs: 599

Away from the competitive hustle of Indian media, the foreign correspondent covering India is an important, at times unnoticed, bystander, who works tirelessly at figuring out this complex country and explaining it to an audience unlikely to question his or her judgment about the inner workings of a far-off place.

True, technology has opened access to multiple sources of information. But the account of a Reuters or a Washington Post (the organisations where Simon Denyer worked) correspondent remains trustworthy to readers. This is why the foreign correspondent bears a significant weight of responsibility, one that necessitates rigour and accuracy. Simon Denyer’s book, Rogue Elephant, on the last few trying years of the India story, brings out these attributes. Going by the sheer expanse of his reportage, his ability to gain access to almost every important actor of this period and to cater to the alternate view while drawing conclusions, Denyer does justice to his trade.

But he is cautious not to stray from the dominant discourse. So Rogue Elephant is constructed around predictable themes: the appalling lack of security and the status of women, the falling stock of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, corruption and the Anna Hazare movement, the anger against dynastic politics, the RTI revolution, land acquisition issues, a dysfunctional Parliament, the movement against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the rise of Gujarat CM Narendra Modi and the skill deficits constraining youth employment.

By extension, therefore, the book’s heroes are also equally predictable — former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai, Times Now anchor-editor Arnab Goswami, Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, Haryana bureaucrat Ashok Khemka who sought to expose Robert Vadra’s land dealings, anti-AFSPA protestor Irom Sharmila and a host of RTI and pro-democracy activists. His conclusions are also in line with what is, by now, general belief —  a corrupt Indian system in need of fresh blood, a tottering economy undone by indecisive governance, poor infrastructure, unfulfilled aspirations of the youth and, to cap it all, inefficient and timid leadership.

This reporter’s account offers interesting anecdotal references. The author’s encounters with Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Vinod Rai, among several others, lends a certain exclusivity to the contents. Rahul Gandhi’s remark that his father would have given him “one across the face” had he harboured any notions of becoming the country’s prime minister; or, Modi’s aide negotiating with Denyer to refrain from asking more than one question on the Gujarat riots during his interview provide little insights into politicians who, otherwise, speak little to the media.

Denyer’s fascination for Indian television news — Arnab Goswami, in particular — is striking. He concludes that the television anchor deserves credit for deepening India’s disorderly democracy and dwells at length on Goswami’s struggles with his peers, calling him a “force of nature” who turned Times Now into a successful channel. In fact, there’s a whole chapter on the “Headline Hustler”.

Denyer also credits Rai with a lot, when it comes to exposing corruption. While he mentions the doubts about how the former CAG reached the mind-boggling numbers in the 2G and coal scams, he avoids detail. On the question of whether those reports ended up paralysing the government, Denyer endorses Rai’s line that this was an “alibi for non-performance”. That Rai had been part of this system for decades, rose to become a secretary in the finance ministry and was, probably, in the mix as these decisions were taken, are questions that could have been pursued further.

The most thought-provoking part of the book, however, is right at the start. Denyer’s treatment of the appalling gang rape of a young woman on December 16, 2012 is quite insightful as he seeks to draw out the contradictions in present-day India through the life stories of the victim and the juvenile rapist. One, he argues, “represented the Indian dream” and the other, the dark side — a story of “child trafficking and child labour, of abuse and denial of opportunity, of exclusion from India’s bright future, and the alienation that can breed”.

Thereafter, the narrative again slips into a predictable account of government apathy and events that followed, leaving one to wonder whether the thought was adequately explored.

Denyer puts in creditable effort to understand the federal nature of India’s polity and the rising profile of states. He is also insightful while discussing technology and empowerment, following success stories in government and civil society.

But the author’s characterisation of the last few years representing an awakening of India from “democratic slumber” may appear stretched, if one were to look at earlier awakenings like the JP movement, the Mandal agitation or even the movement around language in the 1960s. These had profound implications for India’s polity, led to the formation of new political parties and tested Indian democracy.

Rogue Elephant is a first stop for readers who missed out on what happened in India, and to India, in the past five, lightning-fast years.

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