BOOK REVIEW: Rogue Elephant

WITH a population of 1.3-billion, India is often referred to, reverentially, as the world’s largest democracy.

Simon Denyer, a former Washington Post correspondent assigned twice to the country as well as to other parts of the sub-continent, insightfully and intriguingly unravels the truth behind the awe.

Rogue Elephant is a no-holds-barred deconstruction of India’s crazy, colourful (and often tragic) incoherence. Dispensing with descriptions of romantic spirituality and travelogue tapestry, Denyer instead uncovers a runaway level of systemic graft, a turgid bureaucracy and endemic political patronage.

The book’s title alludes to the state as being dysfunctional — out of control, even — and failing its citizens. Democracy — or the appearance of it — cloaks the misdeeds of the ruling elite and the staleness of the body politic, the frustrations of the middle class, and the penury of the slum-dwelling urban masses or the landless rural underclasses.

The book has a particular focus on the corrosive effects of corruption. As Denyer chases this demon across the country, the incredible scale of waste is laid bare. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a $9bn programme intended to upgrade infrastructure and uplift India’s neediest rural communities, has seen less than half of its projects through to completion.

Scandalous amounts of government expenditure have been siphoned off to unscrupulous local politicians and fictitious contractors.

The overall economic impact of corruption is estimated to cost the nation over $50bn annually in forfeited investment, growth and jobs. But, immeasurably worse, it is degrading India’s international reputation, gnawing at the citizenry’s morale, and chewing at the country’s worryingly threadbare societal fabric.

“A person who experiences corruption every day is broken in spirit. When your spirit is broken, you tend to accept other forms of bad governance also,” the author writes.

Denyer illustrates the appalling ramifications of a failing state with reference to the infamous 2012 New Delhi gang-rape and murder of “J”, opening a window into the generally shameful status of women.

Overall, the book maintains a journalistic objectivity in tone, but in this episode we can almost feel the clench of Denyer’s note-taking knuckles or his hands pounding the keyboard in outrage. From the incident’s root causes, to an unresponsive and seemingly uncaring government leadership, it’s evident there is a burning agenda for change.

Denyer worries that India’s massive youth bulge — potentially an economic advantage if it were to gear productivity — will fail to deliver a demographic dividend and may comprise, instead, an unfulfilled generation: undereducated, underemployed and restive.

The threat of social unrest seems very real, even imminent.

If it’s feasible that India is a tinderbox, the torch paper could be a slower-growing economy in tandem with harsh but overdue economic policy reforms. Interestingly, Denyer posits that democracy — championed as India’s shining light — may in fact be a constraining factor: comparisons to neighbouring China, with triple India’s per capita gross domestic product, contradict the idea of a democratic dividend.

Nor is Rogue Elephant overly optimistic about India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Previously, as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi engineered significant economic growth. His pro-business stance and crafted social media profile has seen him feted in the West.

But his record on religious tolerance and wide-ranging social issues is massively tarnished: questions and criticisms still surround his possible incendiary role in — or inaction to prevent — the 2002 revenge killings of over 1,000 Muslims during two months of religious and sectarian violence in Gujarat.

“The diversity of India, of our civilisation, is actually a thing of beauty, which is something we are extremely proud of,” he says, but these sentiments are at odds with his unrepentant history of fervent, jingoist Hindu nationalism and the discriminatory policies he implemented as Gujarat’s chief minister.

Now as prime minister, the outlook for the economy may be improving but political clientelism’s till exerts a vice-like grip and corruption scandals continue to rock the nation — accompanied by leadership silences.

Denyer’s scepticism seems warranted; he points out that a succession of governments and prime ministers have initially committed vociferously and unequivocally to reform, but have backtracked after partial early delivery.

Denyer is hopeful that Modi can modernise the economy, but he is not holding his breath that he has the will, simultaneously, to reform the country’s political system and unshackle it from the debilitating forces of patronage and graft.

But Rogue Elephant is not entirely pessimistic. Denyer sees powerful forces for change in new technologies and the potential for information-sharing and collaboration which these technologies enable.

The liberalisation of the country’s broadcast environment has recently spawned 24-hour satellite and cable TV news stations, which feed an insatiable appetite for sensation and hyperbole. But the stations’ filibuster has a positive corollary as an impetus for transparency and accountability: in the spotlight of the cameras, there is no place for India’s politicians to hide.

Interactive media platforms, too, are empowering citizens. In 2011 social media drove an explosion of popular support for the India Against Corruption movement, led by activist Anna Hazare and former tax commissioner Arvind Kejriwal. This coalition of diverse interest groups forced the government to heed a powerful, single-minded mass protest. For many Indians, especially the smaller but growing middle class, it demonstrated the potential of their unified voice, aggregated by social media and amplified by the populist broadcasters.

Strikingly, Kejriwal was subsequently galvanised to start a new political party, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party, and is now New Delhi’s chief minister. Aam Aadmi’s rapid ascent in the capital city-state represents a green shoot in the morass of Indian politics, but it is proving a difficult transition from the agitation and hype of electioneering to the reality of governance.

As such, Aam Aadmi may be contributing, finally, to breaking the year 70-year dynastic structure of Indian politics, but Rogue Elephant has an undercurrent of déjà vu: leadership egos and intransigence, unrealistic policies and vested interests represent an awfully difficult political paradigm from which to break.

Nevertheless, Denyer is at pains to convey balance. In the early-1990s the ruling Congress Party started to loosen its welfarist policies, and since then an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 7% has been achieved, which has indeed geared palpable socioeconomic improvements. And, as economist John Kenneth Galbraith said: “When you think of what is true in India, the opposite is also true.”

Thus, having set up the proposition of the state as rogue and cumbersome, with moribund political processes and structures integral to the problem, Denyer dismantles it and concludes that the seriously flawed democratic system remains a vital beacon of hope and stability in the churning chaos.

India has to deal with massively disparate class or caste groupings, a chasm differential in wealth measurements, and cultural and religious differences. But Denyer’s profound hope is that democracy’s glue remains sticky and unleashes the country’s enormous potential.

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