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India is … everything. Rich and poor, ancient and modern, conservative and progressive, capitalist and socialist. This country of contrasts, where we send rockets to the moon and offer it flowers, where we exalt women as goddesses and rape them, where helipads on skyscrapers cast shadows on slums, can be an emotional overload to those of us who are of it. Perhaps it requires an outsider to consider the nation dispassionately and thereby pick out seminal events that sometimes come roaring into public consciousness and sometimes make unobtrusive debuts that are inadequate indicators of their eventual influence. Veteran journalist Simon Denyer moved to India before the 2004 elections and has been privileged to be in the country reporting for Reuters and, later the Washington Post, during one of its most tumultuous periods. Instead of trying to tackle the events of the next decade chronologically, he wisely picks themes that reflect the seismic rumblings of a nation in transition. It is a pity that the book ends just before the run-up to the 2014 elections, though Denyer devotes a whole chapter to Narendra Modi. (Denyer expresses his reservations with Modi’s autocratic style, though a 2011 poll, where only 1 in 5 Indians believe democracy is right for India, foreshadows the ascent of a charismatic king-like personality who promises to rule benevolently.)
The book begins with the brutal gang rape in 2012 of the young woman who came to be known as “Nirbhaya.” The horrific incident shook the nation, much as the chapter grabs the reader’s attention, but Denyer suggests that the outrage that followed was a boil-over of simmering resentment towards decades of government mismanagement, corruption, and a near-total breakdown in the machinery of law and order.
As a Non Resident Indian who, I am ashamed to admit, gets most of her Indian news from status updates on Facebook, I found the chapters on the creation of the Right to Information Act (a landmark piece of legislation that has dealt the first significant blow to endemic corruption in India) and the development of shrill but influential anchors on 24-hour news networks (an unfortunate Western import) absorbing. What is even more fascinating is an inside look into the breakdown of the Congress party, which once held a seemingly unshakeable sway over Indian national politics. Observers who wonder how a respected economist like Manmohan Singh became a caricature of a politician will find some answers in the book. Others scratching their heads at prince-elect Rahul Gandhi’s bizarre behavior on the campaign trail and in parliament will gain, if not empathy, at least some understanding.
Ultimately, though, Rogue Elephant is about unsung heroes, and that is what elevates the book from yet another attempt to cash in on the prevailing interest in the turbulent and vibrant democracy that is India. There is Anil Bairwal, who left his comfortable job as a software engineer to become ADR’s National Coordinator; Shekhar Singh, a grassroots activist who is one of the leaders of the Right to Information movement; Sanjiv Chaturvedi, a bureaucratic whistleblower who accepted demotion after demotion because he would not corrupt his principles; and Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger fast for over a decade to rein in army abuse in her neglected north-eastern state of Manipur. These stories and these people rarely get heard in the ADD world of modern news and I am grateful to Denyer for giving them the attention they deserve.
If there is a flaw to be found, it is a slight Western-centrism in Denyer’s perspective, which often leads him to blindly support foreign investment, international trade agreements, and corporate funding of political campaigns. But when he writes “… I have come to love its freedom of speech, its secular DNA, and the checks and balances inherent in its democracy” you know that India has woven its magic around yet another visitor, who can see the mighty and resilient heart beating under bruised and battered skin.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She is currently working on a script for a television show for kids. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.