Book review: 'Rogue Elephant' by Simon Denyer
The average Indian earns less than the average Chinese. But it's in New Delhi—not Beijing—where you can call the prime minister an idiot without worrying about a knock on the door.

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Article Highlights

  • The author remains generally optimistic about India's prospects.

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  • For many Indians, the most pressing of those problems is corruption.

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  • Ultimately, the big beneficiaries of dissatisfaction with the status quo have been Mr. Modi and his party.

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Only a few years ago, India was widely viewed as Asia's next great economic and diplomatic powerhouse, a democratic rival capable of challenging authoritarian China's bid to dominate the region. Then the country's economy slowed, crime and corruption hijacked the headlines, and doubts resurfaced about the subcontinental giant. Was sluggish old India—its legendary red tape matched only by legions of unreconstructed socialists clinging to power—ever really going to make it?

Now optimism is back, following May's sweeping electoral victory for the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which gave India its first single-party majority government in 25 years. Many are hopeful that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be India's Deng Xiaoping, the leader who unleashes his people's entrepreneurial energies and modernizes his country's economy.

Simon Denyer is no fan of the new prime minister, whom he blames for failure to prevent the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 that claimed over 1,000 lives, the majority of them Muslim, while he led the western Indian state of Gujarat. But Mr. Denyer's book is not primarily about Mr. Modi. It's about some of the phenomena that led to the Modi juggernaut: the spirited anticorruption movement of 2011; outrage over violence against women spurred by a gruesome rape-cum-murder in Delhi in 2012; pitched battles between farmers and the government over the acquisition of farmland for private industry; and the decline of India's once-dominant Congress Party.

"Rogue Elephant" is the latest in a long list of books by foreign correspondents seeking to interpret India for a Western audience. As a correspondent for Reuters, and subsequently the Washington Post's bureau chief in New Delhi, Mr. Denyer has doggedly covered many of the stories that have dominated India's headlines in recent years, and his thorough reporting is on display here.

The author remains generally optimistic about India's prospects. Economic reforms that began in 1991 have quickened growth. On average, GDP has grown nearly 7% a year since then. Thanks to a media revolution that began in the 1990s and has exploded over the past decade, a state-owned monopoly over television news has given way to upward of 450 raucous channels that make Fox News look staid by comparison. The author argues that together these two trends have sparked a kind of virtuous cycle: Better-educated and better-fed Indians are demanding more from their politicians. A take-no-prisoners media will keep them on their toes.

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 logjammed courts and a proliferation of criminals in politics. Though plainly enamored of the idealism of India's myriad civil-society groups, he correctly diagnoses the weakness of their "knee-jerk distrust of private profit" and bottomless faith in more government money as the solution to every conceivable problem.

For many Indians, the most pressing of those problems is corruption. Three years ago, Mr. Denyer's hopeful model was exemplified by an anticorruption movement that ignited massive protests across India. Angered by spiraling graft under the watch of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, normally complacent middle-class voters took to the streets across India's major cities demanding change.

At first, this middle-class rage seemed likely to disproportionately benefit an entirely new political outfit, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party of a 45-year-old tax official-turned-activist, Arvind Kejriwal. But as Mr. Denyer points out, the stubborn will that pole-vaulted Mr. Kejriwal into national consciousness was not enough to sustain his fledgling party. Lacking a coherent economic program, and overly eager to buy the support of poor voters by promising even bigger handouts than the already profligate Congress Party, Mr. Kejriwal began to lose the middle-class support that had propelled him to prominence in the first place. In May's election, his party won just four seats in India's 543-member lower house of Parliament.

Ultimately, the big beneficiaries of dissatisfaction with the status quo have been Mr. Modi and his party. Born to neither wealth nor high social status (the prime minister belongs to a "backward" caste of oil pressers), Mr. Modi did more than just gripe about the fecklessness of the Singh administration. By showcasing the pro-business Gujarat model of development—named for the industrialized state—the BJP placed economic development at the heart of its electoral message. Mr. Modi's thumping victory marks a turning point for India, the first time a message centered on growth has decisively trumped the warmed-over welfarism that helped the Congress Party dominate Indian politics for most of the past seven decades.

The contrast that emerges in these pages between Mr. Modi and his putative rival, the Congress Party's fourth-generation scion Rahul Gandhi, could not be starker. Mr. Modi offers a promise for the future; Mr. Gandhi harks back to his father's rule in the 1980s. Indeed, Rahul Gandhi's politics are "a slightly uncomfortable mix of his entire family's tradition, as it is filtered through his rose-coloured spectacles."

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.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

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