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Dispatches From the Front Lines of Indian Democracy

  Simon Denyer, Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014) Democracy in India has always been an ambitious project. The country’s founders sought to turn a nation of largely of illiterate farmers into an informed public that could defend its own interests. Following independence in 1947, democracy had ...

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

 

Simon Denyer, Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014)

Democracy in India has always been an ambitious project. The country’s founders sought to turn a nation of largely of illiterate farmers into an informed public that could defend its own interests. Following independence in 1947, democracy had to contend with deep ethnic divisions and the bloodshed of India’s partition from Pakistan, then decades of persistent poverty. Today, the challenges are no less daunting – corrupt politicians; failing infrastructure; divisions between classes, regions, religions, and castes; populist policies that make little economic sense; a youth bulge with limited prospects for education and employment; and politicians and institutions that lag behind rising expectations.

Amid these overwhelming challenges, confidence in India’s unruly democracy has sunk to an all-time low. Meanwhile, China’s authoritarian bureaucracy has steered its economy onto an impressive high-growth path. In a poll on India’s Churumuri website in December 2011, more than 56% of respondents agreed that democracy had become a hindrance to India’s growth and development, while only 35% disagreed. This disillusionment was one reason why Narendra Modi, a notorious strong man, was able to vault so easily into India’s highest office last May.

Has democracy failed India? Does it deserve to be discarded? Or is it merely sickly and sorely in need of work? Simon Denyer, the former India bureau chief for Reuters and The Washington Post, clearly believes the latter. In Rogue Elephant: Harnessing India’s Unruly Democracy, Denyer offers a careful and thorough examination of the ailing patient. His book broaches a wide range of subjects: the anti-corruption and nascent women’s rights movements, fiercely adversarial TV journalists, nationalistic sentiment and India’s attitude toward Pakistan, the role of zoning laws in perpetuating corruption, martial law in the border regions of Kashmir and Manipur, and much more. It also offers intimate portraits of politicians including Modi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Congress party vice president and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi.

In the book’s darker sections, the reader is left feeling that Indian democracy is truly broken – for example, in a chapter on India’s parliament. A rule that allows the government to veto topics of debate has essentially gagged the legislature, and high-profile politicians such as Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, the leaders of the Congress party, barely bother to show up. Instead of honest debate or bipartisanship, the parliament features polarization and point scoring. “Adversarial, often more interested in protecting vested interests than representing the will of the people, demagogic rather than deliberative, the heart of Indian democracy has not stopped beating, but the pulse is weaker than it should be,” Denyer says of the parliament.

The book also offers a damning portrait of India’s last government, led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Denyer describes Singh as a “dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat,” an honest and well-meaning man who was undone by his humility and loyalty-bordering-on-obsequiousness to the Congress party. Singh’s minders, Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, the party’s leaders and members of India’s political family dynasty, are pictured as hypocritical elitists who rhetorically argue for the common man but in practice deride the multi-party democracy that their ancestors fought to establish.

The former PM and his Congress party saw their approval ratings plummet during Singh’s second term, when a string of corruption scandals implicated high-level officials, including Singh himself. The government’s failure to improve India’s economy, despite Singh’s background as an accomplished economist, and its wooden response to the anti-rape protests that began in Delhi in 2012 further blighted its reputation. The gap between the expectations of voters and the slow, inadequate responses of an out-of-touch government yawned wider. Yet, as Denyer describes it, the government’s apathy and weakness actually created a space for a positive occurrence in India: the growth of a vibrant civil society and strong institutions that check executive and legislative power.

A new hope

This trend – the growth of civil society and stronger institutional checks and balances – features prominently in Rogue Elephant’s more hopeful chapters. One exceptional chapter focuses on India’s 2005 Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to request information from their government and is one of the strongest such acts anywhere in the world.

The story begins with three activists who move to the rural desert state of Rajasthan, hoping to help villagers stand up against a predatory government that is embezzling the funds provided for a rural work program. After their appeals to the state are rebuffed, the activists stumble on a new tactic: holding public audits of the work program, in which the government’s alleged accomplishments and fabricated worker lists are read out loud, to the amusement and outrage of the villagers. The stunt forces the government to send officials to listen to the proceedings and try to explain its actions.

It is an awesome discovery – that the airing of information about the government reverses the power dynamic, prizing power out of the hands of the political class and returning it to the public. And it begins a wider battle for transparency that eventually leads to the RTI, a law which, Denyer claims, India’s politicians and bureaucrats never would have enacted if they understood its power. In just a few years, the RTI has won the poor access to food ration cards and seats at educational institutions, exposed widespread fraud and embezzlement, and even played a role in exposing the 2G scandal that reached India’s highest office. “If the Internet is the empowering expression of the information revolution for the middle class, the Right to Information Act is its expression for the poor,” says Denyer.

There is a dark side to the story. More than two-dozen activists filing RTI requests have been killed, many requests go unanswered, and there is almost constant pressure to limit the scope of the law. But overall, the law is a revelation in a country where power has often stemmed from connections or appeals to the political elite. The story of the RTI attests to the awesome power of information in a democracy. Says one activist, “Power has passed from the village heads to the villages. It’s like a storm, this change that has come, and it’s going to last a long time.”

As a journalist, Denyer clearly knows the power of the anecdote; that the story of one person can shape readers’ perceptions much more than numbers that summarize the experiences of hundreds or thousands of people. He uses this power judiciously, bracketing stories of hope with stories of brutality and devastation. In the process, he gives a rich and varied portrait of India, a country where a truth and its opposite can happily coexist.

Denyer has an eye for hypocrisy and contradictions, and they are everywhere in the book. He describes how the gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey, in December 2012 triggered widespread outrage in New Delhi and an awakening in the women’s rights movement. But he also relates the story of the rape and killing by soldiers of a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama Devi in Manipur, a border state with an active insurgency, “a backwater where democracy barely functions, and where its people feel like second-class citizens.” There, “no amount of popular rage or self-sacrifice” over the crime – even a naked protest by 30 middle-aged women – could “budge the needle an inch.”

The dark side of India’s white knight

Rogue Elephant’s take on Indian democracy is varied, complex, and fiercely independent, characterized by a dogged refusal to give in to common generalizations or the readymade interpretations of India’s political parties. This approach allows Denyer to create an original and illuminating portrait of a man who has already spent much time in the spotlight: Narendra Modi.

Rogue Elephant shows why the current PM remains one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics today. Modi is pictured as an effective administrator with great political skill, but also with thuggish and manipulative tendencies, as well as troubling ties to right-wing Hindu nationalists. The book describes Modi as “a demagogue who mixes humour with vitriol to captivate his supporters and appall his enemies,” “Margaret Thatcher on steroids,” and “the political equivalent of television’s Arnab Goswami: a nationalist, a bully, but an achiever, a messiah for the middle class and the young.”

The book also gives a chilling account of the slaughter of Muslims during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, when Modi was serving as the state’s chief minister. Following an incident in which a mob burned dozens of Hindus alive in a train, thousands of Hindu attackers descended on Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, the attacks seemed to have been planned in advance, and some government officials appeared complicit: The Hindu attackers were guided by computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families and businesses, and police, fire brigades, and ambulances in some cases refused to help the victims. Over the course of three days, thousands of Muslims were mutilated, raped, killed, and saw their homes and businesses looted and burned. According to the official death toll, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots, though other sources estimate that up to 2,500 Muslims died.

Though a government investigation subsequently cleared Modi of any wrongdoing, Modi’s reluctance to express any apology or even the mildest regret for the violence is troubling. Denyer claims this reluctance has deeper roots: Modi campaigned on a macho assertion of Gujarati Hindu pride, and his political success is based partially on exploiting his supporters’ prejudices and fears for his own ends.

Modi’s followers present the man as the solution to India’s problems, a white-bearded knight who will ride in and set India back on the right track. But while acknowledging Modi’s achievements in governing, Denyer sees his autocratic tendencies as a threat to Indian democracy. “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.” Time will tell what influence Modi as prime minister has on India as a whole.

A wider scope for justice

What should the reader take away about Indian democracy? Rogue Elephant leaves the perception that Indian democracy is valuable, but deeply flawed. The book features many tragic accounts of individuals who have had their dignity robbed by government officials, the army, local strongmen, or common criminals, and are unable to find any semblance of the justice that democracy and the rule of law should deliver. But in other accounts, there is that rare glimmer of success, of progress forged through the democratic process, which says, just maybe, it’s all worth it.

Rogue Elephant doesn’t discuss China too much, but it’s an unspoken comparison. Contrasted with the Chinese system, Indian democracy has significant costs: time and money, missed opportunities for development, inadequate infrastructure. Yet Indian democracy provides valuable checks on the tyranny of the state. Compare India’s sluggish, start-and-stop development with the Chinese construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced more than 1.2 million people and destroyed ecosystems, while opposition by human rights and environmental groups was silenced. Or contrast India’s noisy, polarized, and argumentative polity with China during the great famine of 1958-1961, when up to 45 million people perished because the dire situation in the countryside was not communicated to leaders on top.

India’s RTI movement never could have occurred in China, where disclosures depend on the benevolence of the government, not the demands of the people. And while India’s poor materially possess even less than their Chinese counterparts, at least they have the power of their vote. Rogue Elephant’s portraits intimate that the potential scope for justice and dignity is wider in India than it is in China. Many Indians live in destitution, but some find rare opportunities to remake their government and their lives.

Ultimately, the book suggests that while Indian democracy is troubled, it is evolving for the better. The widespread protests over women’s rights and corruption in recent years; the consultative process with the government and new laws that followed these protests; the growing political participation of the middle class; an embrace of social media by urban voters and some politicians; and the increasing focus on voting for politicians because of their record of governance, rather than their caste and religious ties – these are all encouraging signs of an evolving democracy. It will be “a slow and painful process, with almost as many steps backwards as forwards,” but India is seeing a strengthening of checks and balances that will guide its democracy in decades to come, Denyer writes.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with a call to every Indian to join the struggle to improve their country. It seems like an appropriate ending for a book about democracy, which is, after all, an inherently hopeful enterprise. Denyer’s tempered optimism is persuasive, and the reader finishes the book with the cautious enthusiasm of some of its characters. At one point in the book, Denyer describes a photo he received of the New Delhi protests. In it, an elderly white-haired man holds up a placard that reads, in block capital letters,

“THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I’VE FELT HOPEFUL IN A VERY LONG TIME.”


Ana Swanson is a contributor to Foreign Policy and a former editor of the South Asia channel. Follow her on Twitter at
@AnaSwanson.

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