Beauty & the beast

Rogue Elephant is an extraordinarily hard-hitting, biting and candid tale of post-democratic India

Democracy in India in academic and journalistic circuits has increasingly become a classic tale of doppelganger, a paranormal double of a living person with a phantom self. And this is often projected as ?historic novelty?. For instance, the fifth-largest concentration of dollar billionaires in the world lives happily with the world?s single-largest concentration of the poor and hungry. And the most chaotic, most corrupt moment in politics coincides with the most heroic anti-corruption struggles in contemporary India.

But democracies are not animal parks, where elephants, dragons, leopards and various other predators fight a bloodied survival of the fittest. We are aware that democracy in India was doomed to fail, but destiny had other designs. It has not only survived, but also flourished, though not unblemished. Call it ?rogue? or ?unruly?, it has also deepened beyond imagination. Democracy is probably the only genre of humanity that grows like human beings. Therefore, no matter what we do, we will accumulate wrinkles, deposit fat, turn grey and will continually be disappointed in our phantom image.

And this explains why politicians and bureaucrats rush to lifestyle gurus, beauty parlours and plastic surgeons for yoga lessons, hair dyeing, face-lifts, liposuctions, eyelid operations and breast-lifts in this 65-year-odd-old democracy in India.

This paranormal double has become the most popular steroid for performance enhancement among the elite band of foreign correspondents-turned-India experts in Lutyen?s Delhi. It is not an ordinary coincidence that former India bureau chief for Reuters and The Washington Post Simon Denyer?s Rouge Elephant finds itself in an unenviable date in A Strange Kind of Paradise by BBC?s Sam Miller and reaches a climax in Implosion: India?s Tryst with Reality by former Financial Times journo John Elliott.

As I finished reading Denyer?s Rogue Elephant, I could not help hiding my glee that the book is not about the mythical white elephant Airavata, which carried Hindu god Indra, nor is it about William Dalrymple?s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Foreign correspondents have a penchant to write from the ?posting? perspective rather than a historical perspective. But Denyer excels in the self-appointed task of historian in compressing longue duree into a de-centred, mini-narrative of micro-powers of democracy in India.

In short, there is no guessing that the history of the ?unruly democracy? in post-independence India is loosely structured around sensational events and extraordinary personalities: the Delhi gangrape, Nithari murders, ?silent fall of Manmohan Singh?, anti-corruption struggles of the duo of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi?s meteoric rise to being demi-god of Hindutva, Rahul Gandhi?s reinvention of the social democratic state, Kejriwal?s anarcho-communitarian model of governance, charismatic headline-hustler Arnab Goswami, Irom Sharmila?s decade-long fast against the atrocities of the Indian army in Manipur, the Supreme Court?s judgments on criminality in elections, decline of Parliament, Right to Information Act, Association for Democratic Reforms, Nandigram in West Bengal, whistleblowers in bureaucracy, and also about the empowering effects of technology in India.

Denyer reproduces his most controversial and memorable reporting for The Washington Post on September 5, 2012. Without any cynicism or hidden agenda, he decimates Manmohan Singh in an absent-minded act of treason, so much so that the Prime Minister, who is all but forgotten, ?worried, withdrawn and dejected? these days, will find himself as ?a shattered mirror between shadow and sun?. His take on Manmohan Singh reminds us of Neville Maxwell?s piece, Tarnished Image of Mr Nehru, in the aftermath of the Indo-China war in 1962.

Perhaps, democracy is divinely ordained to produce tragic heroes as well! Unlike most foreign correspondents who are often glued to the narcissistic power elites of Chanakyapuri, Denyer is comfortable with the multiple stripes of an exotic elephant?from public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta, historian Ramachandra Guha, former CAG Vinod Rai, Odisha politician Jay Panda, Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan from Janaagraha in Bangalore, whistleblowers such as Ashok Khemka and Sanjiv Chaturvedi, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shekhar Singh, Shailesh Gandhi and scores of Right to Information activists to flash mob protesters on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere.

Written in Texas-style ?bounty hunting?, especially the way he hunts the rise and fall of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and sifts through scams in UPA I and II, Denyer?s in-depth-reporting with a forensic eye on contemporary India is an extraordinarily hard-hitting, biting, candid tale of post-democratic India, while also lending an unusual poignancy to the hope of ?harnessing the power of unruly democracy? in India. In other words, it is, in part, a hurried travelogue about ?troubled India?, and also, in part, about the ?infectious optimism? in India as a beacon of democracy in a region where the future of deliberative democracy is almost a cartographic oddity.

There is nothing in the book that you don?t know, and yet, you yearn for more. If his realistic, uncluttered prose has the aroma of a roasted apple, it also brings forth the odour of human excreta of growing inequality in India. And this is evident in the very first chapter on Nirbhaya, a young girl whose barbaric rape by lumpen proletariats in New Delhi is an outcome of an increasingly violent, unequal and illiberal India.

No foreign correspondent has ever shown this kind of rare courage and sensitivity in exposing the violence of rape and also the darker side of Bhura (brown), a perverse story of the violence of child trafficking and child labour.

India is, indeed, witnessing a ?social revolution?, Denyer persuasively argues, as voters have increasingly started choosing empowerment over American-style ?pork-barrel? politics of patronage. Regional politicians will relish Denyer?s insightful observation that ?much of the good news in India at the moment is taking place in individual states, whose governments exercise considerable control over issues ranging from law and order to education, electricity, land, and roads?.

Chapters on dynastic politics, Parliament, India against corruption and headline-hustler are factual and researched, but the narratives are circumstantial and anecdotal. It solicits your attention to subtlety and also demands partisanship if you want to continue reading.

Denyer has travelled with Nepal?s Maoists, but has strangely shown no stomach for footloose workers in cities, the sufferings of suicide-prone farmers, insurgent tribes against mining companies and ?servant raj? in Delhi?s post-Macaulay residencies of ?brown babus?. The book is also intriguingly silent on raven plutocrats, crony capitalists and the ?crime capital? in real estate business. While it may be true that democracy in India has emerged from a puddle bath and become more sclerotic, it has also increasingly become more resplendent with gold piercings all over its body politic. And it is to this real self, not the phantom self, that democracy in India really belongs to.

Ashwani Kumar is the author of Community Warriors, and professor and chairperson at Centre for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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First published on: 30-03-2014 at 02:19 IST