Book Review: Democracy on the Road

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Recently, I completed reading the book ‘Democracy on the Road’ written by Ruchir Sharma. The book is very well elaborated by the author with his journey across India as a political landscape. The author has written a wonderful memoir of his journey for the last two decades in India with the quest to understand how democracy functions in a country like India!

The book is divided into six parts, with total forty chapters. And each chapter dives into a particular state the author and his team have toured during that state election. I find this book interesting not only because this is about India and politics ( which is one of my favorite topics to talk and debate), but also the fact that the author and his famous ‘Limousine Liberals’ tried to predict the elections outcome ( as they were a group of famous journalists, authors and psephologists)in that particular state but many times the result was completely opposite of what they thought. And this is the beauty of Indian elections, where we never know what is the going to be the outcome, until the results are out.

After reading this book, my understanding of India and its elections have increased manifold, thanks to the author. I have always been intrigued by the question of how can democracy work in a country like India which is so diverse in almost all respects? But this book has convinced me ( and the author) that miraculously, democracy works in India, and even better than many other countries in the world. Even though it might look chaotic or even noisy democracy( as being the world’s largest), but at the end, people do have the power to change the government through their vote.

We see that India had been ruled by Congress govt for a long time, from 1947 when India became independent until 1989, with the brief period of 1975-79, when the Congress suffered opposition all over India and had to lose power in 1977. But it came back in 1980 and ruled till 1989. It was only after 1989, that the decline of Congress dominance started, and this continues till date. Before 2014, when the largest opposition party, BJP came to power under the charismatic leader, Narendra Modi, India had a variety of governments which were formed by rather different parties who had been against each other for many years.

So, the political history of India is divided into these three phases, from 1947 to 1989, 1989 to 2014 and 2014 till present for a general understanding.

Yet, Indian politics is one of the most complicated theory to understand. Because there is no standard concept or even agenda of the political parties. Unlike USA, where democrats are liberals vs Republicans are conservatives, we cannot define Indian politics in a rigid way. Because there are so many parties in every state, that the agenda of one party in a particular region of India might not work in another part of India. Even more interesting is the fact that the elections are often won on basis of which candidate is in the contest, or which caste/religion he belongs to over what the party’s election agenda is stated. People will vote for a candidate if he is famous, or even belongs to particular caste. So, the way the community is polarized to vote for their own caste/religion candidate makes the party’s agenda or even ideology irrelevant.

Also, the author points out one interesting point is that often in India, good economics doesnt go well along with good politics. So, even though the country or state is performing well economically, with high GDP growth rate, low inflation, still there is no guarantee that the government might get re-elected. This happened in 1996, when Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh had liberalized the economy in 1991, still they got defeated in the 1996 elections. And same happened in 2003, when Vajpayee govt assumed that ‘India was really Shining’ but lost election inspite of initiating some of the good development projects across the country.

But this is also true that if corruption and inflation rises too much, then the people do get angry and topple the govt in the next elections. Rajiv Gandhi suffered with corruption charges in 1989 and lost the election, and later Manmohan Singh govt suffered from people’s wrath over rising inflation and corruption charges ( even though the PM was clean as a whistle), which resulted in losing elections in 2014.

The book shows many examples of both sides, including miracles in Indian democracy such as Mayawati , a Dalit leader ( the caste which is considered one of the most exploited in India) rose up to become the CM of a state, Uttar Pradesh which had known for its upper caste dominance of Brahmins and Thakurs, and religious rivalry with the Muslims. Her becoming CM was hailed as a miracle of democracy, and also as a sign that democracy works in India!

But on the other side, Indian democracy has also seen leaders having criminal background, religious fanatics, communal extremists, and even electing a member of Parliament, who was known as ‘Bandit Queen’ for taking revenge against a group of bandits ( by killing the entire group) who had repeatedly raped her. The Indian democracy even saw buffoons like Lalu in Bihar, who made the sacred Temple of Parliament as a Stand up comedy show. People even elected film stars and cricketers just because they were famous and loved by the people. Hence, the book covers a lot of such interesting facts of India.

Finally, I recommend reading this book to know how Indian democracy functions. Various rallys, interviews and minute details of places in India have also been covered. Actually, I think this book might even serve as a political travel guide for journalists and writers. Every state is different, votes different, elects different party and different candidates, yet the country is one, democracy resonates as one. This is the beauty of India. And just as Gandhi said, to know India, we must visit the villages of India. Similarly, the author also opines that Indian politics cannot be understood by sitting in Mumbai Cafe’s or Delhi Lutyen’s gardens, we need to visit the villages and rural areas of India. That’s where the real democracy lies!

Indeed, Ruchir has written an excellent book on Indian politics, and it is simply worth reading!

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