India is often heralded as the world’s largest democracy. But the country is still grappling with widespread political corruption, income inequality and violence toward women. Journalist Simon Denyer covered India for a decade and joins us to examine how Indians are pushing for greater accountability and to point out the signs of hope on the horizon.


  • Simon Denyer Author, "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy" (Bloomsbury Press, 2014); China Bureau Chief, The Washington Post


  • 13:28:04

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIndia's population of over a billion people, which includes an amalgamation of regional cast-based cultures, a wide variety of religions and no fewer than 22 official languages, includes over 840 million people eligible to vote. And most of them make it a point to go to the polls because in the decades following the end of British rule, as sure as cricket is that nation's pastime, democracy, however imperfect, has taken a firm hold in India.

  • 13:28:33

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us explore its flaws and its promise is Simon Denyer. He is the author of "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy." He's a veteran journalist currently serving as China bureau chief for the Washington Post. Simon Denyer, thank you for joining us. Good to see you.

  • 13:28:50

    MR. SIMON DENYERKojo, great to be here. Thank you.

  • 13:28:52

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Simon Denyer, you can call now at 800-433-8850. Have you traveled to India, studied the government there? Share your impressions with us, 800-433-8850. Simon, India is often described as the world's largest democracy. You've called it an insanely complex one. How does the government system in place both typify the kind of democratic ideals as we know them and where does it fall short?

  • 13:29:19

    DENYERSure. I mean, it's -- the idea of democracy, the idea of a right to vote, the idea of throwing people out of office, the idea of freedom of speech, those have become deeply imbedded in the Indian psyche. And they are really, really important to India because in a nation as diverse as India with so many languages, as you mentioned, so many different casts, so much social stratification, so much division, what democracy's done is it's given Indian people a voice. And it's united India, since independent, since the British left, into one nation. And that's been a tremendous achievement by giving all of these people a voice.

  • 13:29:57

    DENYERSo in that sense, it works really well because it's united a nation peacefully and produced a cohesive idea of India. So democracy in India, if you like now concepts that are together in the Indian psyche where it hasn't worked always, is in governing the people in terms of governance, in terms of actual politicians doing things for people, in terms of entrenched corruption. So in many ways in terms of governing it's been dysfunctional in the 70 years since the British left.

  • 13:30:30

    NNAMDIWell, let's go back to the unifying aspect of it because the rigor with which democracy has been embraced and sustained is all the more impressive if you consider the state that India was left in after English rule in 1947. How important were those early years to establishing a solid foundation?

  • 13:30:47

    DENYERThey were tremendously important. And Nehru and the people around him, the first leaders, really did a huge amount to create this idea of a secular nation where, you know, Hindus and Muslims could both live together in peace where liberal democracy, where constitution, where institutions were built on. You know, real institutions. So you've seen in India recently the failure of a government to govern but what you've seen is the Supreme Court has come in and it's done things. You've seen the media playing a role.

  • 13:31:19

    DENYERYou've seen other branches, if you like, of the democratic institutions that were set up in those years after independence have come into play to provide checks and balances. So checks and balances are absolutely fundamental to India to keeping it, if you like, from disaster, keeping it on the straight and narrow.

  • 13:31:36

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Did recent headlines from the country India peak your interest in that country? Tell us what topic you were most aware of, 800-433-8850. You can send email to or go to our website, ask a question or make a comment there. In the heady first years you spent covering India a decade ago, it seemed that the nation was on an upswing that it couldn't really come down from. What caused things to change or perhaps brought to you the fact that not as much had changed to light?

  • 13:32:11

    DENYERRight. I mean, I think that mood, when I first arrived, was a little bit complacent. India really felt like it had arrived. It was the next super power. People were talking about Chindia, China and India in the same breath, you know. And there was a story in the Times in India saying, it's official. India's no longer a poor country. We have ten people in the world's -- four people rather in the ten world's richest men, the Forbes Rich List, you know. This is great. We've arrived on the world's stage. We belong on the UN Security Council with a permanent seat and so on.

  • 13:32:44

    DENYERAnd it became unfashionable to talk about and to write about the poverty that still existed in Indian villages. You know, we were supposed to -- well not we were supposed to but I think journalists tended to focus on shopping malls and IT centers and call centers and all those kinds of things and focused on the transformation. But of course, there was a huge, huge area of India that wasn't enjoying that economic transformation. And there was a huge part of the political system that was still dysfunctional. And that's the corruption and the criminality which we're still and is still imbedded in Indian politics.

  • 13:33:20

    DENYERSo that complacency was -- that was overdone. What you saw was corruption scandals really punctured that complacency. One of the things was the Commonwealth Games...

  • 13:33:32

    NNAMDI...of 2010.

  • 13:33:33

    DENYER...yeah, of 2010. You'd seen the Beijing Olympics. What a tremendous advertisement that was supposed to be for China's one-party state. And then you saw the Commonwealth Games and everybody saw a scandal. And they saw corruption, they saw dirt. They saw all the prejudices, if you like, about India. All the bad stereotypes appeared to be reinforced.

  • 13:33:53

    NNAMDIChild laborers working in stadiums, squalid athlete's apartment, a lot of the rampant corruption, an estimated $400 million wasted from the $2 billion budget. Yeah, that'll bring you down all right.

  • 13:34:06

    DENYERAll of a sudden it did. And it brought Indians down. You know, I went away for a short time in state and lived here. And I came back and the mood was so pessimistic. Indians would come up to me and say, I've never felt so depressed about the future of my country. And so, in a way, one of the reasons I wrote the book was that I felt the pessimism was as overdone as the complacency had been in 2004.

  • 13:34:29

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Simon Denyer. He is the author of the book "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy." He's currently serving as China bureau chief for the Washington post. He joins he in studio where you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or sending email to The recently concluded term of Prime Minister Singh was one that as often cheered on the international stage. That was one of his big assets. It ended up however working against him in his own country. How so?

  • 13:35:04

    DENYERWell, it was a fascinating thing. I think that his international standing really reinforced at first his image at home, a very honest upright person, a respected economist. People listened to him on the world stage. I remember here Obama's advisors proudly telling me that Obama counted Manmohan Singh as one of his personal friends on the world stage, you know. So that really worked in his favor at first.

  • 13:35:31

    DENYERBut when it became apparent that he was a weak leader, that he was ineffective at keeping the economy going, he was ineffective at keeping corruption in check, people began to question his leadership at home. But then they also began to look at his standing on the world stage and they saw that the only two things he really ever stood up for were two things he promised to U.S. presidents.

  • 13:35:56

    DENYERThe first was for George Bush. It was a civilian nuclear cooperation deal. He threatened to resign and his parliament passed that deal. And the second thing he stood up for was a deal to bring in foreign investment into supermarkets, bringing Walmart into India. That was a promise he made to President Obama. So we actually had members of his own party coming up to me privately and saying, he's more worried about his constituency in Manhattan than Mumbai. Or perhaps he should've said, in Washington rather than in Delhi. But people really felt that he wasn't standing up for what he should've done at home. And he was too worried about his international image.

  • 13:36:36

    NNAMDIWell, all politics is loco.

  • 13:36:38


  • 13:36:40

    NNAMDIDon your headphones, please, Simon, because we're going to talk with Gerald in Washington, D.C. Gerald, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:47

    GERALDHi, guys. How are you this afternoon? Last week, I was -- took another look at "The Last Life Story (sp?) ." It was a PBS, I think it was on Masterpiece Theater, I think, in the '90s because I was, you know, looking at democracies -- fledgling democracies struggling around the world. And I was like, let me take another look at India and just how Lord Mountbatten, how he pulled -- was able to pull that off. And India is a remarkable -- I think it's a remarkable story of so many people that, you know, have come together like this, the unintended consequences of imperialism.

  • 13:37:31

    GERALDAnd -- but the British -- there was a lot of opposition especially from Winston Churchill for letting go the jewels in the crown. And I just think it's a remarkable story. And if I was a revolutionary running a country trying to take over a country right now, that's who -- and wanting democracy -- I think India -- and this has been -- it's a very short time, 60 some years and I think they've done a remarkable job.

  • 13:37:58

    NNAMDIWell, that's the point that Simon Denyer wants to underscore in "Rogue Elephant." That's at least one half of the story.

  • 13:38:03

    DENYERRight. That's one-half the story. Thanks, Gerald. I mean, I think the British do get some criticism, and rightly so perhaps, for allowing the partition of India and Pakistan, which caused a lot of problems. That wasn't just done to the British. That was done to Indian politicians, Pakistani politicians too. But that was sort of a hurried decision perhaps that did have consequences that India and Pakistan have to live with 'til this day.

  • 13:38:26

    DENYERBut, yeah -- no, I mean, the vision of the people who led India in the years after independence was absolutely crucial. And, you know, apart from a two-year period of the emergency when Indira Gandhi really suspended civil liberties, we've had unbroken democracy, peaceful transfers of power in India at every election since independence. I don't know of any other post-colonial country that can boast that record. So it's a pretty amazing achievement for India to have made.

  • 13:38:56

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think of India as unique among developing nations in terms of the challenges and opportunities there, in terms of how democracy has been established and settled? Tell us why or why not, 800-433-8850. Onto the newly elected prime minister, we see a near complete swing in the other direction from Prime Minister Singh. How does Modi's standing on the global stage change the game for India with its allies?

  • 13:39:27

    DENYERWhat a fascinating character Narendra Modi is. I mean, he's the antithesis of Manmohan Singh, the strong man where Manmohan Singh was the weak man. He's promising to eliminate corruption or at least reduce it. He's promising strong economic governance. He's promising -- in manufacturing he's promising jobs. But of course he has this great Achilles heel which was the 2002 Gujarat riots. And he's accused of not doing enough to prevent those riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed, mainly Muslims, at the hand of Hindu mobs when the police stood and watched, and then sometimes actually abetted the rioters and contributed to it.

  • 13:40:08

    DENYERAnd at the very least -- there's been no proof that Modi actually encouraged this, but I think it's fairly clear that he didn't stop it. And that he thrived on the culture of discrimination that was in Gujarat at the time and continues in Gujarat to this day. So he took political advantage from that atmosphere. And that's why in 2005 the U.S. denied him a Visa. So we have someone who is a pariah on the international stage, who was -- has now risen to power.

  • 13:40:40

    DENYERAnd you saw, 18 months ago, diplomats started trying to rehabilitate him in Delhi because they realized that he was an up and coming figure. So they started, you know, privately -- you could see them in -- and talking to me they were trying to defend him, they were trying to excuse him because they saw they had to make the adjustment. And then you saw the American ambassador who'd not been allowed by the American government to meet him. Then did meet him. Traveled to Gujarat. So America clearly preparing the way to rehabilitate him.

  • 13:41:10

    DENYERAnd then now, of course, now he's won election. President Obama has invited him to India in November. So they do have some problems because Mr. Modi has not forgotten the fact that he was denied a Visa in 2005. So that's an issue they shall both have to overcome.

  • 13:41:25

    NNAMDIIf you have called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break. But when we come back we'll return to our conversation with Simon Denyer about his book, "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy." The number is 800-433-8850. The email address, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Simon Denyer. He is the author of "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy." He's currently serving as China bureau chief for the Washington Post. I want to go directly to the phones because Leeus, in Sterling, Va., wants to bring up an issue that we were just discussing about Prime Minister Modi. Leeus, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Leeus, are you there? Leeus?

  • 13:43:55

    NNAMDIOkay. Leeus seems to have dropped off. But Tony, in Annapolis, Md., wants to talk about the issue that I was going to get to. So, Leeus, we're going to put you on hold and see if we can get back to you. Now, onto the issue of women in India, with Tony, in Annapolis, Md. Tony, your turn.

  • 13:44:12

    TONYHi. How are you?

  • 13:44:14

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:44:14

    TONYGood, good, good. Yeah, it might be a little off topic, I guess, but I guess it's just general topic on India today with, you know, I was just curious about -- been hearing a lot still about the treatment of women over there, particularly like the rape issue, kind of like. Still just like real bothersome to me a bit with some of the stories coming out of there. And I know it might be relocated to like the poor areas and I know we certainly have rape issues over here, too, of our own. But it just seems so -- I don't know…

  • 13:44:54

    NNAMDIWell, you know…

  • 13:44:54

    TONY…like the rule over there.

  • 13:44:55

    NNAMDI…Tony, we also got a…

  • 13:44:56

    TONYIt's like (unintelligible) girl that had -- didn't -- couldn't come up with $400 and her court case or whatever. And she was -- had to be sentenced to gang rape her or such and just crazy. And then…

  • 13:45:10


  • 13:45:10

    TONY…I looked online just to see kind of more about it -- I've been hearing about that. And then the first thing that comes up is this comment about the leading police officer or something over there…

  • 13:45:22

    NNAMDIWell, there's a lot going on, Tony, because we got an email from Tracy, who writes, "Sexual violence is rampant in India. Is it because of heightened media attention or is it getting worse? As a woman, I have crossed India off my bucket list." Well, Simon, you write quite a bit about women and the way that endemic problems, like rape, brought to the forefront recently are being approached. Talk a little bit about that and whether the political system in India is doing enough to help empower women as they work to overcome both gender biases and castes prejudices.

  • 13:45:53

    DENYERWell, I think the political system and the media clearly hasn't done enough to protect women in India over many decades. You saw a huge hidden problem. To Tony's question, we don't really know whether the situation is getting worse or whether it's being reported more because we are seeing high statistics. But, you know, let's bear in mind, if a woman was raped in many parts of rural India, if she went to the police to report it, she would as likely as not be raped by the police when she reported it.

  • 13:46:21

    DENYERIt's that bad. We had rampant rape by upper caste men in Indian villages of lower caste Indian women, which really was not reported -- and continues to be seriously under reported. So it's a major problem. Finally, the media -- and if you like, the middle classes have woken up to it because there was this famous gang rape of a sparring middle class young woman in Delhi, which woke people up. But it's still happening in India's villages. We had a very, very gruesome case this year of two young girls who were raped and their bodies were hung from a tree afterwards in rural northern India. Absolutely horrific cases.

  • 13:47:04

    DENYERSo it's a huge, huge problem. And it is still going on. And all I can say is that at least there is some attention to it. And there is some media attention, and some political attention. But you still get politicians basically saying, "Boys will be boys." And you get men throughout rural India saying the same thing. So it's not going to go away. There are a lot of -- there's also a problem of underemployment.

  • 13:47:32

    DENYERThere's a problem of men underemployed, hanging around in villages without much to do, with rising aspirations that aren't being satisfied and taking that out on women who are becoming more empowered. They're wearing jeans. They're getting mobile phones. They're actually rising up against the old social constraints. So you've got those forces, as well, coming into play.

  • 13:47:52

    NNAMDII think that's what Gerry, in Washington, wants to talk about, also. Gerry, have we answered your question?

  • 13:47:58

    GERRYNo. No, there's still more. Unfortunately, there's still more, Kojo. Hi. There were two articles in the Post within one week, the last week. And one was about how they take out revenge on a man by raping his wife or someone in -- woman in his family. And then yesterday there was the -- what's going on in villages where they -- some Shaman or somebody who might have a grudge, takes it out on a lower class woman, a caste woman and calls her a witch.

  • 13:48:27

    GERRYAnd then they make her feces, they torture her, and they kill her. They do all sorts of things. Make her parade around naked. Then they torture her and kill her. This is unbelievable. This is unbelievable. I never knew that there was such a primitive country on the face of this Earth as India. And the police -- what is going on? I think we really have to do something very seriously about India and what they're doing to women. This is not acceptable. They have to have a world conference at the U.N.

  • 13:48:57

    NNAMDIWhat do you say in response to that very emotional appeal, Simon Denyer?

  • 13:49:00

    DENYERWell, I mean, I absolutely understand -- I absolutely understand the emotions. I -- the police, unfortunately, in rural areas, they come from the same social milieu as the people in the rural areas. So their attitudes, which, you know, these are centuries-old attitudes which are in place here. And as I say, women are becoming slightly more empowered in the villages. If they get a mobile phone they have a little bit more independence from their husbands. And that challenges those old conservative social norms.

  • 13:49:26

    DENYERAnd so the conservatives, if you like, take it out on the women for trying to be a bit more independent. You know, all I would say is this, there were huge protests in India against the treatment of women. There is much more media attention about this than there was. India has to sort this out. I'm not sure that the world -- world pressure is what's needed. I think Indians need to sort this out. I think they're beginning to sort it out. They've realized the scale of the problem.

  • 13:49:54

    DENYERBut there's a long way to go to change centuries-old societal norms. And I will say one other thing, though. And this is really something for, you know, in India there is a huge child trafficking problem, as well. There are teenage girls who are used as maids in middle class households. And those girls obviously are very, very vulnerable. So that's another struggle that India is only just waking up to. The fact that if you employ 11, 12, 13, 14-year-old girls in your homes, with agents who often -- often who take advantage of them and employers who sometimes take advantage of them, that's another huge problem which India hasn't really woken up to.

  • 13:50:38

    NNAMDIHow important is it, on the other hand, that a Dalit, so-called untouchable woman, was elected chief minister of a state with more than 200 million people? Could that have happened 20, 30 years ago?

  • 13:50:50

    DENYERIt's -- it was -- it would be unimaginable when the British left that a Dalit woman would be chief minister. It's -- I'm not saying she didn't do a particularly good job chief minister -- I have to say. But the point is that for, you know, the Dalits were the untouchables of India. And for a Dalit woman to be running a state, you know, almost as many people in it as the United States, is an amazing step forward in the grand scheme of Indian history. It will be -- it will be marked down, if you like, as a landmark in Indian history.

  • 13:51:24

    DENYERAnd that's what I mean about democracy giving these people. It gives lower caste people and it gives women a voice. Change isn't going to happen overnight. India's not going to suddenly transform into the West. But it's best hope is through the voice of these people, through the voice of women, through the voice of the lower caste, through the voice of the middle class who are finally waking up to the fact that they need to, as well, to get engage with politics because you've seen the middle class quite apathetic about politics in the past.

  • 13:51:55

    NNAMDICorruption is a problem in many developing nations -- and some developed nations, too -- where it's often seen as being somehow in the developing nations, inevitable. Just how widespread is the problem in India? And is that sense of inevitability being challenged?

  • 13:52:11

    DENYERRight. I mean, I think that a few years ago you might have said, you know, India's so irredeemably corrupt. Indians live with corruption. They're, you know, people might even say Indian's are corrupt. And yet, what you've seen in the last sort of five or ten years, is Indians rising up and saying, "We've had enough." You know, huge anticorruption protests all over the country. One man came up to me at one of those protests and said that his first act for his newborn son was to bribe someone to get a birth certificate for his son.

  • 13:52:43

    DENYERAnd he, you know, he was -- how demeaning was that? The first thing that he has to do for his son. And then he's going to have to bribe to get him into college. He may have to get him into his primary school, to get him into college, maybe to get him his first job. You know, that's something the Indians really are fed up with.

  • 13:53:00

    NNAMDIHow does the career of one Arvind Kejriwal exemplify the kind of change taking place and the appetite for it?

  • 13:53:08

    DENYERRight. Well, I mean, here's a man who was leading that anticorruption campaign, brought people out onto the streets. Then made a transformation to become a politician. And overnight his political party went from nowhere to winning the Delhi elections. He became chief minister of Delhi, which is like the mayor of Delhi, in the space of six months from a standing start, which just shows you how many people were fed up with corruption.

  • 13:53:37

    DENYERBut unfortunately, he proved to be a better activist than he was a politician. He was-- actually went out -- kept going out as chief minister and organizing street protests against the central government. And after 49 days he resigned because he wasn't getting his own way over one issue. And he then didn't do well. He lost all credibility at that point. And he didn't do well in the national elections at all. So he was a representative. He was like a signal of the desire for change, but he was an imperfect sort of vessel for it.

  • 13:54:13

    NNAMDIFor those who can navigate the bureaucracy, there is money to be made in India. How wide is the gap between the public and private sector when it comes to progress and advancement?

  • 13:54:23

    DENYERIt's huge. And I think, you know, that was the reason that India seemed to be doing so well a decade ago, was the private sector had been unleashed. All the rules which tied it down -- what's called the license-rage (sp?), licenses to do almost anything in India. That had been slowly dismantled. And so you saw this tremendous drive, Indian entrepreneurship. You know, India has the same entrepreneurship and potential -- economic potential that China has.

  • 13:54:52

    DENYERThese people are absolutely, you know, absolutely great, innovating and very, very hardworking. And that was unleased, but, unfortunately, it's not enough. You can't run a country just on the private sector. You need governance. You need electricity. You need infrastructure. And you need law and order. And when the government can't provide those basic things, then even the private sector can't function.

  • 13:55:19

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Richard, who says, "As a graduate student I lived in India for two and a half years. Like others, I was amazed at the success India has had in establishing democracy. It seemed to me that one thing that made it possible was the extremely lively press that grew up during the years of the British Empire. Now, the number of TV news channels in India has grown dramatically in the last decade. What's the general tone and tenor of most of these stations? And how are they influencing the nation?"

  • 13:55:45

    DENYERRight. Well, it's got a lot -- you'll -- if you watch Indian 24-hour news TV, you might recognize a little bit about the culture of American 24-hour news TV. A lot of…

  • 13:55:56

    NNAMDIThe sensational dominates?

  • 13:55:58

    DENYERA lot of sensation. A lot of manufactured confrontation. A lot of -- a soundbite culture. You know, so a lot of sound and fury, not always very high quality debate.

  • 13:56:14

    NNAMDIBut freedom of the press is a crucial part of democracy. And that's what Richard seems to be asserting that helped India.

  • 13:56:19

    DENYERRight, right, right.

  • 13:56:20

    NNAMDIIs that freedom likely to remain unhindered under Modi's prime ministership?

  • 13:56:24

    DENYERRight. I'll just go back and say that…

  • 13:56:26


  • 13:56:26

    DENYER…despite my criticism of the 24-hour news culture. It's been tremendously important in the last 10 years. Magnifying people's dissatisfaction with corruption and with the treatment of women. It's really supported these street protests. And it's questioned politicians like never before. So it may not look very pretty at times, but it's been extremely important. So the free press is tremendously important of brining politicians to account and insisting on better governance. And expressing and magnifying the will of the people. So that's the first thing to say.

  • 13:57:03

    DENYERNow, is it under threat now? That's a very good question. Narendra Modi does not have a good reputation when he was chief minister of Gujarat of -- if you like -- allowing dissent. People were cowed, people were scared within Gujarat of expressing criticism. And what you've seen as a prime minister -- and it's very, very early days. And I think we have to give Narendra Modi the benefit of the doubt as prime minister, for the time being.

  • 13:57:31

    DENYERBut we have seen elements where he clearly is not happy, not comfortable with the press. He's not -- he's encouraged his government -- he's basically told his government not to talk to the media. He doesn't take the foreign press on his foreign tours. It'd be very interesting to see if he takes the foreign press when he comes to America, actually. But more than that, you've seen pressure on the press not to criticize the Modi government.

  • 13:57:58

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Simon Denyer is the author of "Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy." He's a veteran journalist, currently serving as China bureau chief for the Washington Post. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck on the book.

  • 13:58:12

    DENYERKojo, pleasure. Thank you very much.

  • 13:58:15

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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