Rogue elephant


Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy.

Published by Bloomsbury in hardcover in 2014 and paperback in 2015.

Shortlisted for International Affairs Book of the Year at Paddy Power Political Book Awards 2015.

Available on Amazon/Kindle in the United States, United Kingdom and India with reviewers giving it 4.3 stars out of 5.

“A rigorous, perceptive and sympathetic account of a fast-changing nation.

“Refreshingly clear-eyed and balanced as an observer, Denyer highlights both India’s undeniable challenges as well as the equally undeniable reasons to hope why the manifold obstacles to the nation’s growth will be surmounted. Years of ground reporting means he steers well-clear of unthinking optimism without succumbing to over-simplified pessimism. A very welcome addition to the growing stack of literature on the new India, ” Jason Burke.

“If there is one book you should read to understand the new India it is
this. Simon Denyer has explored India with a depth and freshness which
captured me as a reader,” Lord Meghnad Desai.

A link to my Facebook author page.

Listen to this interview on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi show from July 2014. Changing Dynamics in India’s Complex Democracy.

Interviewed by NPR. “Democracy has united India and will save India: The power of the people to speak, to ask questions and to throw people out of office, it gives me great hope.”

Reviewed in Foreign Policy.

  • Has democracy failed India? Does it deserve to be discarded? Or is it merely sickly and sorely in need of work? Simon Denyer, the former India bureau chief for Reuters and The Washington Post, clearly believes the latter. In Rogue Elephant: Harnessing India’s Unruly Democracy, Denyer offers a careful and thorough examination of the ailing patient.
  • As a journalist, Denyer clearly knows the power of the anecdote; that the story of one person can shape readers’ perceptions much more than numbers that summarize the experiences of hundreds or thousands of people. He uses this power judiciously, bracketing stories of hope with stories of brutality and devastation. In the process, he gives a rich and varied portrait of India, a country where a truth and its opposite can happily coexist.
  • Denyer has an eye for hypocrisy and contradictions, and they are everywhere in the book. Rogue Elephant’s take on Indian democracy is varied, complex, and fiercely independent, characterized by a dogged refusal to give in to common generalizations or the readymade interpretations of India’s political parties..
  • The book ends on a hopeful note, with a call to every Indian to join the struggle to improve their country. It seems like an appropriate ending for a book about democracy, which is, after all, an inherently hopeful enterprise. Denyer’s tempered optimism is persuasive, and the reader finishes the book with the cautious enthusiasm of some of its characters.

Reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

  • The author remains generally optimistic about India’s prospects…. but to his credit, Mr. Denyer does not gloss over India’s many problems, from an out-of-balance sex ratio in parts of the country, caused by a cultural preference for sons, to log-jammed courts and a proliferation of criminals in politics.
  • Educated Indians can’t stop complaining about the politicians who lead them. Yet, echoing the historian Ramachandra Guha, Mr. Denyer argues that India’s main success since its independence in 1947 has been political rather than economic. It has strengthened its democratic institutions and nurtured religious and cultural pluralism. Despite the fact that the average Indian earned $1,500 last year, less than a fourth of the average Chinese, it is in New Delhi, not Beijing, that you can afford to call the president (or prime minister) a blithering idiot without worrying about a midnight knock on the door.

Reviewed in The Washington Post.

  • 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.

An address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Interview with the London School of Economics.

  • There is a unique tension in Indian democracy. On one level, democracy has united India and brought the nation together in a way that cynics didn’t expect—it is India’s greatest strength  But on another level, it’s the worst thing about India. Looking at India from China [where Denyer is now the Post’s China Bureau Chief], people say Indian democracy is awful—defined by crime, corruption, populism and politicians who don’t do anything good. The tension between Nehruvian ideals of a secular, democratic nation and India’s dysfunctional parliament – the dual nature of Indian democracy – is at the heart of understanding India.
  • There’s also a third aspect of Indian democracy that’s becoming more important now:  democracy has to do much more than keep people together, it actually has to deliver. And expectations of what democracy should deliver have grown with the middle class and the rise of media and technology. There’s a growing engagement among Indians with politics and democracy: voter turnout in this election was incredibly high and people are engaging through the Right To Information Act, 24-hour television, street protests, and more. This energisation of Indian democracy is exciting: people have realised that they need their politicians to deliver and give them the opportunities to realise their aspirations.

Op-Ed for the BBC. “Indian electors have delivered a clear message to their politicians: that they want governance instead of corruption, opportunity instead of charity. India’s democracy has done its job, and delivered that message loud and clear; now it is up to Mr Modi to do his job, and deliver on what he has promised.”

Op-Ed in The Washington Post.

  • The past decade also saw a political revival in India, as youth rose up and demanded change. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to rail against corruption; more protests erupted after the gang rape and murder of a young, middle-class woman in Delhi at the end of 2012. An explosion in 24-hour news television tore down the walls of deference that had sheltered politicians. A Right to Information Act gave the poor masses power to demand accountability from the nation’s vast bureaucracy. Even the traditionally apolitical middle class started to demand better governance. In contrast with the West, voter turnout in India is rising.
  • The likely beneficiary of this democratic awakening is, ironically, a man who seems to set little store in the checks and balances of democracy, a chest-thumping “strongman” who runs a state where dissent is suppressed and the media are cowed.
  • By voting for Modi, many Indians hope to end years of underachievement under desperately weak leadership.

Review in Business Day, South Africa

  • 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…
  • 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… 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.

Publishers Weekly Book of the Week, July 23, 201`4.

  •  In this revealing panorama of Indian politics, Denyer, former Washington Post India bureau chief and current China bureau chief, presents a wide-ranging indictment of the country’s deep-seated problems: a corrupt, unaccountable, often criminal political class (being charged with violent felonies is no bar to Parliament); a government bent on extracting bribes rather than building infrastructure; a culture of lawlessness that turns a blind eye to rape and child-trafficking; brutal counterinsurgencies; rigid economic policies that stifle growth; terrible schools that produce unemployable graduates; vicious religious strife; and a callous indifference to the misery of the poor. Denyer explores these issues through well-told stories of activists, officials, crusading lawyers, and grandstanding television journalists who are fighting to expose and correct abuses, sometimes at considerable peril.

Library Journal. VERDICT: While it remains to be seen if the May 2014 elections are a watershed event that changes India’s economically diverse society for the better, this book is important for scholars of Indian history and culture as well as general readers seeking understanding of recent events in that country.

My daughter Molly at our local bookstore in New Delhi in 2014.


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