Book review: Democracy on the Road by Ruchir Sharma

What make the book immensely readable are the anecdotes and the portraits of key political figures it offers.

The backstage interviews with leaders throw light on the less-known facets of the persona.

Indian elections are as complex and diverse as the people. The pageant riot of colours and slogans need not give an insight into a voter’s mind. Gauging the popular mood is not an easy task. Pollsters often err in assessing what sways Indian voters. They struggle to look for a winning formula. But what is clear is that the voters have developed a knack of throwing out unpopular governments, making our democracy vibrant. Ever since the Congress defeat in 1977, anti-incumbency has become a key factor in elections.

Ruchir Sharma, a New York-based investment banker and author, offers a snapshot on Indian democracy in action in his book Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey Through India.

The work is the outcome of his road trips chasing the campaigns over the years, leading a convoy of elite journalists across the states. Sharma has managed to cover 27 elections.

What make the book immensely readable are the anecdotes and the portraits of key political figures it offers. The backstage interviews with leaders throw light on the less-known facets of the persona.

Sharma recounts his meeting with L K Advani, who was certain of becoming prime minister in 2009. He even discussed his future cabinet and names of key ministers. Lalu Prasad Yadav, who introduces his horses and cows by name; imperious Mayawati appearing casual in private meetings; tech-savvy Chandrababu Naidu talking on welfarism; and Mamata Banerjee in no-holds-barred campaign against the Marxists spice up the book. There is also the portrait of an RSS leader sitting under a map of Akhand India sans borders.

Sharma and his group had none too pleasant encounters with Narendra Modi. While the journalists wanted to quiz him on Gujarat riots, Modi wanted to talk on development. He was dismissive of questions on riots and walked out, reinforcing his suspicion of English media. The run-in with Amit Shah was no different.

An unabashed votary of free market, Sharma pins hopes on economic reforms to transform India and pines for the emergence of a charismatic free-market reformer like Ronald Reagan. But he finds our political leaders hesitant to tread the path of reforms.

In 2002, he met Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi pitching for free-market reforms and found them skeptical on the issue. He was hoping against hope that Modi will focus more on economic than sectarian issues. Modi’s thrust on nationalism above development compels Sharma to compare him with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin.

Sharma realises that good economic growth and visible economic improvements are no guarantees for the re-election of a government in India. The book cites the cases of Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar and P V Narasimha Rao being voted out despite achieving high GDP growth rates.

Extensive travels opened the eyes of city-based journalists on the harsh realities of rural life. Pathetic condition of roads in parts of Bihar and UP, poverty and squalor were eye-openers.

Democracy On The Road gives an overview of how Indian elections have evolved in the past two decades. It tracks polity since Vajpayee’s second victory for a full term; the flop show of India Shining in 2004; the return of Manmohan Singh in 2009; and finally, the wave election which swept Narendra Modi to power in 2014.

The coverage of state polls mirrors the changing caste equations and the enduring hold of regional leaders.

Mayawati’s successful experiment of wooing Brahmins, Nitish Kumar’s alliance of most backwards with upper castes, politics of freebies that made Jayalalitha unassailable, visits to Nandigram and Singur that witnessed violent backlash against CPI (M) are dealt at length. The book analyses how Gujarat became a springboard for the national ambitions of Modi.

Influential and well connected, Sharma and his group had easy access that an ordinary reporter on an election beat is denied. This provided them rare insights. An early lesson Sharma learnt was that local issues outweighed national issues and the stranglehold of castes. However, the treatment of state issues is rather fleeting and at times patronising.

Sharma, while expressing optimism on the future of democracy in India, doesn’t hazard a prediction on the outcome of this general election. He is content to observe that if the opposition parties put up a united fight, Modi government won’t get another term.

Democracy On The Road is a ready reckoner for those seeking an overview of the players, forces and issues that have shaped politics over the last two decades.

Also watch: This election season, Ruchir’s group of journalists went to Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
He shared his findings in a conversation with DH Editor Sitaraman Shankar.

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