Democracy on the Road
Author - Ruchir Sharma
Publisher - Penguin, Rs 699
This book views Indian elections over the past 25 years from an NRI perspective, says GAUTAM MUKHERJEE
Ruchir Sharma is fond of emphasising India’s many castes, religions and languages as the key to understanding it and its electoral behaviour. He is an Indian Brahmin, patrician and sweeping in tone, based in New York. Sharma works there as the Chief Global Strategist and head of the Emerging Markets Equity team at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, managing over $ 25 billion in assets. He is also an author and columnist. On the side, though something of a “Free Market” votary, Sharma writes regularly and mellifluously for the left-leaning New York Times. His columns and essays have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and many other publications. His earlier books Breakout Nations and The Rise and Fall of Nations, with the titles echoing the original hero of Capitalism, Adam Smith, have been bestsellers on the New York Times’ bestseller lists.
This one, Democracy on the Road traces the decline of the “cult of the Gandhis”, in typically Indian zig-zag fashion, low on predictability — and the inexorable rise of “Hindu Nationalists”. This, to replace the “Congress’s infatuation with socialism”. Sharma writes always with elegance and wry humour, if not with any deep insight of India’s future direction.
The book begins with Sharma’s periodic visits to India on holidays growing up, and the homes of his two sets of grandparents. Both of his grandfathers were bigwigs in the legal profession. His maternal grandfather was a prominent lawyer and landlord in “mofussil” Bijnor. His paternal grandfather was a judge in much more urbanised Jaipur. In this period, amusingly, he frequently refers to the swearing by the “pillars of the community” watching state-run TV together, at the ham-fisted Indira Gandhi era propaganda. The lens he brings to the task is not new, and perhaps does not take into account the unifying effects of the smart phone, the internet, 24x7 news and opinion that is accessed in real time in every Indian language.
Sharma, the quintessential overseas Indian, is the umpteenth external political observer, skeptical about its cohesiveness. This ranges from the “Orientalist” of the 17th and 18th centuries, to Winston Churchill, arch-imperialist that he was. This book, aimed primarily at a foreign audience given its many asides, explanations of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, is also true to form. Sharma writes: “A key lesson, which would be driven home on every trip for the next 20 years, was that Bijnor is only one slice of India, which is so thinly diced between thousands of castes and hundreds of languages, many isolated in a pocket inside a single state, that it is better understood as many countries than one. The reality of the ‘Many Indias’ is nonetheless a source of great controversy, particularly among the nationalists who would like to live in a country united under one culture. But there is no other way to think about India that can explain the way its democracy works, or why its elections are so full of surprises”.
In this book, Sharma follows various campaign trails over the last couple of decades in different parts of the country, drawing pen portraits of aspiring and established politicians. There is social commentary on their chances based on opinion gathered on the stump. There is travelogue style local colour, and a brand Kerouac romance of the open road injected by the writer in Sharma. Sometimes, he is travelling with other journalists and commentators, in a couple of “wedding Volvos”, that over the 20 years, “expands to four”.
He describes, for example, the campaign trail in northern India, circa 1999, that brought in the Vajpayee Government for the second time. In another chapter, Sharma is in undivided Andhra Pradesh, following Chandrababu Naidu. During another election, Sharma meets Mayawati, along with his fellow travellers. He meets Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at 10, Janpath, but cuts no ice with his suggestions of Rajiv Gandhi style economic reforms. The mother-son duo seem firmly committed to socialism of the Indira Gandhi “mai-baap” type.
Ruchir Sharma’s bias towards high-growth reformist policies does not quite overcome his sympathies for the Nehruvian “Idea of India” with its blatant tilt towards the minorities. Sharma gently mocks the majoritarian worldview prevalent in many parts today, and doesn’t hide his surprise when the BJP wins under Vajpayee. He is most amused, along with his group of Congress favouring journalists, at the India Shining campaign that ended Vajpayee’s tenure in 2004 too. Sharma covers a number of State Assembly elections important today because of his commentary on many of the regional leaders who form part of the loosely knit Opposition today.
Sharma could not really fault Modi when he covered the elections in Gujarat himself: “Gujarati businessmen told us that Modi lacked completely the deep suspicions of the private sector that had long animated the Congress party, indeed most parties in India”. But Sharma is hamstrung by the company he kept. The likes of journalists Prannoy Roy and Shekhar Gupta (of The Indian Express at the time), harp constantly, not on development, that Modi wanted to talk about, but on his attitude towards Muslims. Modi, of course, won a landslide victory in 2002, even if Sharma does call him, somewhat sniffily, a “strongman” — both as Chief Minister, and again later, as Prime Minister. There are more pen portraits — Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan, BS Yeddyurappa of Karnataka — at the General Elections of 2009.
As the General Elections of 2019 loom now, Sharma ends the book unwavering in his vote for “diversity”. He writes, probably by way of consolation to those who do not want Modi to win again: “Those who fear that rising nationalism threatens India’s democracy, also tend to underestimate the check provided by subnational pride. Many Indians still see themselves first as Bengalis, Maharashtrians, Tamils, Gujaratis or Telegus, and they are much more likely to support a strongman (or woman) at the state level than in Delhi”.
Ruchir Sharma is quite wrong about some things, despite his 25 years of coverage of the Indian elections described in this book. The Indian electorate sees Narendra Modi as the man of destiny to take India to the top of the table. A man needs to be strong and visionary to do this. Many people of India, subnational pride notwithstanding, are with him and his leadership.