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Sunday, March 09, 2014
 
 
 

TAKING NOTE OF A DEMOCRACY IN DISTRESS

By Bibek Debroy

WHAT is going on in India? “ The country is no longer shining and Indians are left wondering where the magic has gone.” That is a quote from the dust jacket of Simon Denyers book.

Simon knows India well.

He has been India Bureau Chief for Washington Post and has moved to China now. India isnt easy to understand, not even for Indians. When I meet foreign correspondents based in Delhi ( I dont mean Simon), as polite conversation, I often ask — which parts of India have you travelled to? Delhi, Mumbai, other metros, Agra, Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala — thats a typical list.

Thats India, but thats also not India. A perspective from a village in Jharkhand, or from the North- East, will be somewhat different from that in Delhi.

The title Rogue Elephant is almost a certain reference to the Indian economys image of a lumbering elephant, an elephant thats gone rogue in the sense of no longer shining and no longer being the flavour of the month in Davos, or wherever. If one were to write a book on the rogue elephant, there are different angles one can take.

Arvind Panagariya and Jagdish Bhagwatis Indias Tryst with Destiny ( 2012) is also one such recent book.

However, though he studied Economics, Simon Denyer isnt an economist, despite the training coming through. He is a journalist and the chatty, conversational, anecdotal and reader- friendly style comes through, making for good copy and excellent reading. The blurb on the back jacket states, “ A rivetting portrait of India today.

A brilliant combination of observation and insight into what lies in store for the worlds largest democracy.” Thats misleading. It is rivetting. It has observation and insight. However, it isnt about Indias churn and Indias future. There are certain issues that are important for India, when India is defined as NCR, extending from Noida to Gurgaon. There are issues important for English language print and electronic media, defined as media read and watched between Noida and Gurgaon.

Many of these concern civil society, media, NGOs, activists and countervailing pressure exerted by citizens to improve governance, however defined. Its not that these issues are unimportant.

But it is also important to recognise that these issues, and their identification, not only have an urban/ Metro bias, but a NCR bias. In fairness, Simon hasnt identified these issues and the chapters himself. He has talked to friends, journalists, academics and activists, mostly Indians. But they also reflect those biases.

The smorgasbord of 16 delightfully written chapters thus cover the Nirbhaya case, the silence of MMS, de- criminalisation of politics, dynastic politics, RTI, 24/ 7 news channels, farmers and land acquisition, India against corruption, Parliamentary collapse, Arvind Kejriwal, whistleblowers, Irom Sharmila, lack of skills and jobs for Indias youth, use of IT for better governance, Narendra Modi and protecting women and children against abuse. You will say that not all of this has a NCR bias and that is right. However, something like 24/ 7 news channels ( really English language channels) is not as important as its inclusion suggests.

But thats neither here nor there.

As the “ Afterword” makes clear, much more clearly than the blurbs or the introduction do, Simon wrote a book about Indian democracy, not about the economy, or about the socio- economic churn going on all over India. In that, he has seen the power of democracy through his lens and through those of the friends he spoke to. Had he asked me ( thank God he didnt), I would have asked him to chuck out 24/ 7 news channels and the silence of MMS as chapters and club the two on India against corruption and Arvind Kejriwal.

Instead, I would have asked for a chapter on PRIs, one on anti- corruption initiatives other than India against corruption ( say Janaagraha) and a third one on interesting private sector ( not corporate private sector) attempts in social sectors.

But those are my biases, though I think that would have made the book a bit more about India in general. We are headed for elections and the formation of 16th Lok Sabha. It is a good book and would always have been read. However, with Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and the silence of MMS thrown in, the timing is just right. It will do well, as a book and should be read.

A word of caution is in order, not about the book. In all this citizen activism for better governance, there is often naivete displayed by the so- called middle class, as if there is a magic wand that will solve problems overnight and clean up the system.

That naivete creeps into some of those chapters, since Simon often bases his accounts on what others have told him.

That countervailing force is desirable. It is what has kept Indian democracy going and democracy is not only about the three tiers of elected governance.

However, countervailing pressure is typically about chipping away at the system incrementally, RTI being a case in point. It isnt about overnight miracles, nor about overthrowing a rotten system through revolution.

If Indian democracy has endured, thats because we have incrementally chipped away, more so since the 1980s. However, read the book.