Sunday, April 06, 2014

Other countries, other cultures (Two foreign correspondents'accounts of Indian politics)

By John Elliott
HarperCollins; Pages: 478; Price: Rs 699; 2014

By Simon Denyer
Bloomsbury; Pages: 440; Price: Rs 599; 2014

These two books by seasoned journalists, John Elliott who had worked for Financial Times, and Simon Denyer, who had headed Reuters news agency, and then the Washington Post, in different stints, contain lively reportage combined with dollops of comment which is what good journalism generally is about. The titles of the books are not to be taken seriously. Like all titles, they are there to grab your attention. Inside, the books are not really an extension of the titles.
The curious question that arises is about the readership of these two books. Is it meant for the English-speaking Indian readers, who would no doubt enjoy reading the accounts of Elliott and Denyer? The English-knowing Indian readers would generally agree with their comments, but they would know but not say that the comments are not too insightful or incisive because of the sheer familiarity with the situation that is being described and analysed. But the comments of the two journalists could be of immense value for a first-time visitor, investor and diplomat to the country from another country and culture.
Elliott has some interesting things to say and some interesting arguments to offer. He makes the nicely controversial observation: “The role of Manmohan Singh in the early 1990s is often overstated. As has been seen in this chapter, he was certainly not the ‘architect’ of the 1991 reforms – an easy but inaccurate tag that is often used by foreign journalists and others.” He reveals that the 1991 reforms appeared first as an ‘unsigned article’ in Financial Express and that planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia revealed to Elliott that he (Montek Singh Ahluwalia) was the author of that article. Of course, Elliott also traces tell-tale signs of economic reforms in Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980 and then kept up by her son Rajiv Gandhi who became prime minister after her assassination. Then Elliott goes on to reveal: “I heard in London in June 2012 that Rahul had told a friend on a recent visit that the way for Congress to stay in power and win elections was through the aid scheme route, not reforms.” Foot-note 24 to this sentence says: “Non-attributable conversation with JE, London, June 2012”.
Denyer displays greater flamboyance as he writes about the country he has come to report about. His introduction starts with an unintended special witness/guest statement: “When I arrived in India in February 2004, the country stood on the cusp of an exciting new era.” And the second paragraph on the same page reads: “India was changing in front of my eyes, as gleaming shopping malls selling the latest Western brands sprang up across its major cities.”
Of course, he traverses a much more diverse and rough landscape – political and social than these two observations would indicate, from tracing the history of the 23-year-old girl, who was gang-raped in a moving bus in December 2011, her family, and the 17-year-old Bhura, a Muslim, who had migrated from a troubled and poor family in Uttar Pradesh, and who was a victim in more than ways one as he grew and eked out a bare living in the nation’s capital. Denyer pushes the argument and tries to sum up the situation: “His story is one of child-trafficking and child labour, of abuse and denial of opportunity, of exclusion from India’s bright future, and the alienation that can breed.” The generalisations are weak but a journalist has to hold on to them to make sense of the bewildering things he or she has to write about.
Most of the time, Elliott and Denyer are dealing with the developments of the last few years which were in the headlines of newspapers and on prime time news, and giving their assessments. It becomes necessary to remember their journalistic credentials in order to avoid judging their narration of events and their heart-felt judgments born of liberal sensibilities. It seems that in doing what they know they are unable to look at India in a different and fresh way. The clichés and generalisations about dysfunctional Indian democracy, the teeming poverty and the shallow gleam of opulence, the venality of Indian politicians and the promise that India holds out of being a land of liberty and plenty are writ too large over the pages of these two books, making the narratives predictable and quite tiresome.
It is quite brave of them to have ventured to write about India and it is to be hoped that many Indian journalists who are serving as foreign correspondents in Washington and London, in Paris and Rome, will be inspired and have the courage to write books about the people and politics of those countries, and learn from the mistakes of Elliott, Denyer and other foreign correspondents make in their writings about India. It is indeed a difficult task to write about other countries, other people and other cultures which we are forced to do in a glocal context.

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