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'India's current pessimism as overdone as its confidence was 10 years ago'

 

Simon Denyer, was posted in India as Bureau Chief of the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has recorded his impressions of the ten years of United Progressive Alliance rule in his latest book, Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy. Crisscrossing India on reporting assignments, he interacted with newsmakers and those that are challenging the traditional power structures. Currently posted in Beijing as Bureau Chief, Denyer was back in India recently to release the new book. It takes potshots at India’s top leadership for failing its citizens. He spoke to KS Narayanan about the broad themes that he has covered in the book. Excerpts from the interview:
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: March 23, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Simon Denyer | Sam Miller | Rahul Gandhi | Rogue Elephant | China | Manmohan Singh | American Presidents | Arnab Goswami | Arvind Kejriwal | Anna Hazare | BJP | Narendra Modi | Washington Post | Gujarat |
 

Of late several foreign correspondents (Sam Miller, John Elliot, etc) have written books on India. Why now? Is it because of India’s perceived growth potential?                                 
I guess Sam Miller has got a different perspective. The genesis of my book dates back to many years ago. I was in India from 2004 to 2014. Are people writing on India because of any particular reason or it is coincidental I don’t know the answer. It is an interesting question. For me it is the culmination of ten years of United Progressive Alliance rule. It is time to take stock and move forward. I have a thesis in the book, which is watching the change in India.

Didn’t you have a book on India soon after you arrived here as you held back your interview with Rahul Gandhi in  2004?
I never dreamt of writing a book on India. India is so complicated and there is so much to learn about it. It is not a presumption I made that I would be able to write a book about India. When I came for a second posting here, it occurred to me that I have something to say in the debate.

Is your understanding of India better  now?                                                 
It is always incomplete. The more you stay, the more you report and you understand aspects of the country. My philosophy is to just get out and report. There is another person to talk to, another place to go to and report. I try to be thorough in my reporting. You can understand the bits of the India story. I thought I had enough bits and enough insights into certain things. This culminated in the book.

You have interacted with people, interviewed important personalities, read books and articles. How much is Rogue Elephant an attempt to see India through their prism and how much of it is your own assessment?                                                                      
It is primarily based on reporting on the ground. Every month I would travel to some parts of India. Essentially the book is based on reporting. India’s leading historian Ramachandra Guha has influenced me.

You had a long stint in India.                                                                                                                     
When I arrived in 2004, I witnessed India going from huge confidence and probably overconfidence to complacency in some way about the problems it still faced and felt like a superpower in the making to a mood of pessimism and gloom now. Earlier, the confidence was overdone. Now, the pessimism is overdone.

As a foreign correspondent and an outsider was it easy for you to understand India?                         
I am not an Indian. But I care about India. Equally, I am also dispassionate and objective. As a foreign correspondent your understanding of India and its culture is not going to be instinctive or deep. It can’t be. But you bring a fresh eye to the story.

You came to India after a stint Pakistan and now you are in China.                                                                     
A lot of Indians are looking to China and saying it is doing better and we need the Chinese kind of leadership (dictatorship). To me that is utterly wrong. Under dictatorship India would be more like Pakistan - a failed state. India needs democracy. It is like oxygen that keeps it together. India is doing better than Pakistan partly because India is a democracy and Pakistan has not been a democracy for long. India can look at China and say she is not doing as much as China. Look at the history of China during the last 70 years, it has faced and suffered incredible violence, famine and cultural revolution. India has built a nation through democracy and giving this diverse country a voice. Democracy is valued instinctively and consciously, sometimes Indians, like foreigners, say that democracy is holding them back. I don’t believe that.    

Then how far is India from an ‘India Century’?                                               
I don’t know whether it is for a journalist to comment on the century of a particular nation as they write daily, weekly and monthly. I don’t know if and when there will be an India Century. India has a difficult road to travel to address some issues.

Manmohan Singh was praised as the architect of economic liberalization in 1991. Now with him as PM nothing has moved  forward.                                   
The tragedy of Manmohan Singh is he knows largely what needs to be done to bring the economy back on track. But he has not delivered it. It is about setting the agenda. It is about standing up and picking up fights to win. Did Manmohan Singh pick up fights as the Prime Minister? Two fights he picked up - one was over the Indo-US nuclear deal and the other was foreign direct investment. Both came after promises made to two American Presidents to do something. But neither actually resulted in any benefits to the people. Will he look back and say that he should have picked up more fights? Or was he more concerned about his standing on the world stage or left the domestic fights to other people? I believe he should have stood up for the economy and clean government.

Is it enough to be honest when you are PM?                                                                                                     
When you are the leader of the country, you don’t say I don’t take bribes when your colleagues are taking bribes.

You have a wonderful chapter on Rahul Gandhi. Is he carrying the burden of history, dynasty, a great family and  expectations?                                      
I think to some degree there is a burden on him. There is an understandable feeling. My point is essentially that Rahul Gandhi needs to understand and resolve the idea that he is the product of the dynastic-sycophantic-unmeritocratic Congress Party. He talks the language of an outsider and wants a new kind of politics. But he is a product of the old kind of politics. He needs to show intent through his deeds.

You have described India as a rogue elephant. Is there any parallel we can learn from?                                          
No democracy functions perfectly. Every democracy has to learn from others. People know what these reforms are and should have the political will to do it.

Compared to the Arab Spring India handled its local protest in a much more dignified manner. Would you agree?                                                              
Absolutely. Going out into the streets and protesting against corruption is not going to solve everything. It cannot be just an outpouring of anger.

You were impressed by Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, and TV anchor Arnab Goswami.                           
All the people you mention have pretty obvious flaws. I think one thing they have in common is that they are not afraid of challenging the status quo and the elite. They play the role of outsider. They are not afraid of asking tough questions. So those kind of kind of people are not only those who effect democracy. There are also other people within the system who bring about change.

What is your take on the Arnab Goswami brand of journalism?                   
I don’t endorse anything. In the book I have mentioned things I am uncomfortable with in Arnab Goswami’s journalism, in particular the nationalist stance. 24X7 channels have had mixed results.

What’s your assessment of BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi? Will he catapult the party to power?
I cannot make any predictions on the elections. It is not my game. I am not reporting on India. I am posted in China for the last few months. I can understand people’s desire for change. I can understand people’s desire for a strong leader who appears to keep corruption under check. But as I write in the book, I also think there are serious questions that continuously need to be asked about Narendra Modi. I have written about the 2002 riots in Gujarat because that chapter of India or Gujarat has not ended yet. There are still active questions about that.

What do you make of Washington’s changed attitude towards Modi?                                   
When a star is rising the international community has to find ways to accommodate him. It is inevitable. Also American business interest is reporting back to US that Gujarat is a good place to do business. Probably nations think that engagement is a better policy than isolation.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017