THE AN­I­MAL SPIR­ITS

In­dia’s lost decade may well con­tain within it the seeds of a na­tional re­vival

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

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.

MATJAZTANCIC

SI­MON DENYER

ROGUE ELE­PHANT: Har­ness­ing the Power of In­dia’s Un­ruly Democ­racy

by Si­mon Denyer Blooms­bury Price: RS 599 Pages: 440

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