THE ANIMAL SPIRITS
India’s lost decade may well contain within it the seeds of a national revival
Katharine Mayo’s 1927 Mother India, which Mahatma Gandhi famously described as a drain inspector’s report, was full of rather odd observations. Roberto Rossellini’s 1959 India: Matri Bhumi had a 24 minute sequence between an elephant and mahout. Louis Malle’s 1969 Phantom India was a meditative trip across India, without a compass, map or mediation. Things have changed considerably since then. The efflorescence of recent foreign writing on India has forgotten the exotic and is focused almost exclusively on politics. From Thomas Friedman to Edward Luce, journalists have written extensively on India’s stunning rise. Of late, the portraits have been less flattering, the prose more pondering. A decade of UPA in government has seen the India story go from boom to bust, from shining to sliding.
Two recent books have encapsulated it best— bad news, after all, is far more compelling to tell than a success story. Last week saw the release of John Elliott’s Implosion, which chronicled how India had self-detonated. This week, Simon Denyer of Reuters and later Washington Post, digs into India’s lost decade—his only nod to India Exotic is its anthropomorphic title. Rogue Elephant takes off with Pankaj Pachauri screaming down the phone line at Denyer for writing an unflattering article about his boss, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and doesn’t look back. It analyses Manmohan’s silent fall, and why he should have resigned at the end of his first term. It walks alongside Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2005, contrasting his curious unpreparedness despite ten years of political engagement with his sister’s natural charisma. It showcases Narendra Modi’s take-no-prisoners style of governance, including the utter fear his colleagues live in. It shows Sonia Gandhi’s remarkably invisible and invincible hold on power. And it gets a ringside view into the mind of the man whose political rise shows a mirror to Rahul—Arvind Kejriwal is where Rahul could have been had he had the courage of his conviction.
Denyer dates the disenchantment with the India story to the big stink over the Commonwealth
Games and the series of scams that followed. It is an unhappiness echoed by countless Indians. Denyer doesn’t have to work too hard to tap into the outrage. It pours out of the anti-rape protesters at Jantar Mantar; it bleats angrily from the barely beating heart of Parliament; it oozes from the manufactured rage of Times Now’s prime-time show; and it flows from the halting English of Irom Sharmila as she sits on the lawns in front of Raj Ghat, talking about her long incarceration.
The usual haunts of the headline-hunting foreign correspondent, you would imagine? The garden variety reporter who is trying to make sense of the chaos that is India? Rogue Elephant becomes more than that when Denyer listens carefully to what India is telling him. There is an associate of Kejriwal telling him that the activist is the kind of “decent but impatient” man who will get up at 2 a.m. and start working if something occurrs to him. There is Priyanka Gandhi telling him on the election trail that she has seen how people live and “it is important to do something to better the way they live”. There is Rahul telling him in 2004 that “I am thirty-four years old, you know. I need to be in a phase of understanding as opposed to a phase of executing.” Ten years later, he notes, nothing much has changed. There is Modi in 2007 giving Denyer a brief audience which he describes as a strange, unsettling encounter. He quotes Modi saying, “I know how fascinated you foreigners are with India. I have a list. How many foreigners come here, how many like it here. A lot of them marry Indian women, some even marry their maids.”
Denyer tells it like it is, writing the story of changing India outside the corridors of power in Delhi and Gandhinagar. He travels to Haryana for the remarkable story of Ashok Khemka’s fight against corruption and to Bangalore to understand how Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan gave up their flourishing careers in San Francisco to create awareness against corruption much before Team Anna.
There are quieter stories too. Of Maqboolpura, a village on the outskirts of Amritsar, where so many men have died of drug use that it is nicknamed the place of widows. Of Bhawanipur in Uttar Pradesh, where the author meets the starving mother of the juvenile rapist of December 16. Of Balla in Haryana, where a young couple is strangled to death for daring to fall in love across caste lines.
Yet, there are citizens learning to use the Right to Information, IIM professors creating the Association for Democratic Reforms to fight criminals in politics, farmers battling for their land in Singur. By the end of Rogue Elephant, even the most hard-boiled India sceptic is converted. Ten wasted years seem within reach of redemption as citizen movements, individual acts of courage, and sweeping legislative changes cut through decades of deadwood. Perhaps the perfect sentiment to have as we head into an historic election.
ROGUE ELEPHANT: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy
by Simon Denyer Bloomsbury Price: RS 599 Pages: 440