One of the irritating aspects of writing a book about current events is that those events change faster than the book can reach the market. Simon Denyer’s account of Indian politics and society comes out in the United States after Indians have elected a new government, with a new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Until recently, Modi was unable to enter the United States because of his role in sectarian violence in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister; more than 1,000 people died, the majority of them Muslims. Since Modi’s election in May, President Obama has invited him to the White House, and this fall — for the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York — Modi will finally get to make the visit that his supporters will see as vindication.
Denyer has reported from India extensively over the past decade, first for Reuters and then as a correspondent for The Washington Post. (He is now The Post’s Beijing bureau chief .) He likes India’s raucous democracy, its feisty media and the bursting optimism of its people, just as he is dismayed by its governance. “I have grown immensely frustrated with its chaotic style of government,” he writes, “the inability to take decisions, the rampant corruption and the denial of economic opportunities to so many of its people. But I have also come to love its freedom of speech, its secular DNA, and the checks and balances inherent in its democracy. To deliberately mix a metaphor, it is the glue that keeps India together and the oxygen that keeps me breathing here. I can understand the frustration in the way that the great secular vision of India’s Independence leaders has been debased by today’s mediocre politicians into the politics of appeasement and pandering. But the miracle of India, the way that Hindus and Muslims live together largely peacefully as citizens of this great nation, largely immune from the polarizing winds of the ‘War on Terror,’ still inspires me to hope.”
But Denyer is lukewarm about the new prime minister. Modi makes a proper appearance in this book only in the penultimate chapter, and because the book was written before the elections, we can only surmise the source of his appeal to voters. Denyer scrupulously credits Modi with the economic growth and development that Gujarat has experienced under his rule, but he also notes Modi’s penchant for publicity. He reports that young Indians are willing to forget Gujarat’s bloody past, but he is not so sure: “Say what you like about Narendra Modi, but he doesn’t lack confidence in his own ability. But in his assault on secularism and the rights of minorities, in his autocratic style, does Narendra Modi threaten the very essence of what makes India great?” Denyer does not answer the question, but his dismay and anxiety reveal where his sympathies lie.
Though not discussing Modi’s appeal, Denyer presents an accurate view of the slow disintegration of public faith in the United Progressive Alliance, which ruled India from 2004 for a decade under the leadership of the soft-spoken economist Manmohan Singh. Denyer contrasts the respect Singh earned among world leaders — Presidents George W. Bush and Obama speak highly of him — with the ridicule he provoked among Indians, particularly in his second term. Denyer traces the disenchantment to three factors: a buoyant anti-corruption movement, which targeted Singh’s administration; a ratings-hungry electronic media, which is unruly and combative; and the emergence of a generation that has known India only as a growing economy.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, India ran a fairly closed economy with severe restrictions on foreign trade and investment. That changed in 1991, when the government of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao initiated economic reforms (Singh was finance minister at the time) and India began its reintegration with the global economy. Since then, Indians have been used to growth rates exceeding 5 percent, often reaching 8 to 9 percent, unlike the chronically sluggish 2 to 3 percent growth rates of the socialist era of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, who between them ruled India for 33 years. Denyer shows how the combination of these factors fed an impatience among voters that most politicians failed to understand.
Denyer has reported well out of India, but he refers once too often to a 2012 article he wrote about Singh in The Post that described the prime minister as a tragic figure. It was a balanced if critical assessment, but unsurprisingly Singh’s aides were incensed. While Indian politicians know that their voters don’t read international newspapers, they like to pretend to be thin-skinned, and much of their bluster against foreign media is for domestic consumption. But Denyer seems to take the reactions to that article too seriously, referring several times to ordinary Indians praising him, and ruling politicians criticizing him or canceling meetings with him.
Those incidents are credible, but Indians turned against Singh not because of that article but because of the events Denyer describes so meticulously in the book: appalling incidents of violence against women, widespread corruption, the struggle of the landless against the economically powerful, the campaign for the right to information, and blissfully unaware and utterly lackluster leadership by the Congress Party’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, whose father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) had all been prime ministers.
Denyer emphasizes the tone-deaf inability of the government to understand or meet the rising expectations of the country. He focuses not only on well-known cases such as the ghastly rape and subsequent death of “J,” a young student in Delhi in December 2012, but also on indescribably cruel but less-known instances of sexual violence in the countryside. He describes the corrosive influence of corruption on the allotment of licenses for coal mining and for additional radio frequencies for cellular communications. And he showcases inspiring bureaucrats such as Ashok Khemka who question the land deals of Rahul Gandhi’s brother-in-law, and auditors such as Vinod Rai who point out the potential loss to the country because of rigged bidding that awards licenses to favored businessmen, allegedy for bribes. He also sketches the anti-corruption movement, from the eccentric, faux-Gandhian leader Kisan “Anna” Hazare to the shrewd and stubborn former revenue official Arvind Kejriwal, who went on to form a political party that briefly ruled the Delhi state government and fielded more than 430 candidates in parliamentary elections, but won only four seats.
Denyer travels to remote parts of the country, but oddly, too many of the people he consults come from the capital’s set of talking heads — journalists, writers and academics. Tighter fact-checking could have prevented a few avoidable errors: e.g., Vishwanath Pratap Singh defeated Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, not 1984. There are also curious phrases, such as that the people of the northeastern state of Manipur “look much more Burmese than they do Indian,” which implies that in such a polyglot country as India there is such a thing as an “Indian” look.
But those are minor blemishes. And even though the book does not trace the rise of Modi, it makes abundantly clear why the Singh government lost, paving the way for precisely the sort of politician who doesn’t appear to care much about the liberal, secular and democratic fabric of the country that Denyer so admires.
Harnessing the Power of India’s
By Simon Denyer
Bloomsbury. 440 pp. $30