Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey through India

Ruchir Sharma

Allen Lane, £25

Review by Harry McGrath

Ruchir Sharma is a New York-based investment manager who specialises in emerging markets. His political models include Thatcher, Reagan and Deng Xiaoping. He was also a fan of Putin and Erdogan before they began to “slide towards one-man rule”. Sharma travels extensively in emerging markets and has used these travels to inform two previous books and numerous columns in The Economic Times, Newsweek and elsewhere.

Prior to moving to New York, Sharma was an investor in Mumbai and suggested to his boss that they should go out on the street and meet “actual voters”. His boss “instantly saw the merit of improving our forecasts, given the impact India’s choice of prime minister could have on the economy and markets.” Market reform and economic improvement are never far from the surface in “Democracy on the Road”, but this time the journey is personal as well as political.

Sharma hatches a plan to follow India’s politicians while they campaign in state and national elections, acquires some old Volvos and is joined by a crew of journalists and writers who help him gain access to many of India’s politicians. The numerous interviews they facilitated are fascinating, both for their conduct and their content.

During the 2002 state elections in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, Sharma interviews Mayawati, the “champion of the Dalits” who would eventually serve four separate terms as Chief Minister. As an icon of the so-called untouchables, she could have been wary of an interview with Sharma who is Brahmin. Instead, he finds her sitting on the bed in her nightgown reading newspapers. Her opening statement to his team was “Let me first do my Colgate”.

Shortly afterwards, they met with Sonia and Rahul Ghandi, either of whom could “one day become the charismatic free-market reformer India so desperately needed.” Sharma’s argument for reducing the role of “the obtrusive state” in peoples’ lives, however, was met with scepticism by the two Ghandis. They felt that the models he cited – Kim, Putin and Erdogan – did not represent real democracy and doubted that his vision of reform would really help the poor. The radio silence that followed the interview confounds Sharma’s notion that he had made progress and he concludes that the Ghandis are “out of step” and burdened by their “fundamentally socialist ideology”. This is the not the last time in the book that Sharma uses the word “socialist” as an under-defined, all-purpose insult.

Not all of the interviewees are as sober as the two Ghandis. In the state of Tamil Nadu, they track down Vijayaraj “Doc” Vijayakanth, former star of Tamil movies and leader of a “ragtag coalition of minor parties”. Doc is somewhat the worse for wear after a night on the tiles. Asked if he could be the kingmaker in a putative coalition government, he responded with “I’m not the kingmaker, I am the king!” before raising his arms to show off his muscles and letting out a roar.

It would be easy for Sharma’s 25-year journey to descend into a bewildering procession of politicians and elections, but his knack for noting quirks and eccentricities keeps the narrative alive. He is also good on the colour and excitement that attend the Indian campaign trail. In Rajasthan, for instance, he sees rickshaws careening through the streets with loudspeakers blaring campaign jingles and “women dressed in lehengas and odhnis in a rainbow of varied shades. Party men ... with their heads wrapped in pagdis, dyed in bright reds and yellows, the saffron of the BJP, the sky blue of the Congress, the Rajput men wearing earrings that symbolize their warrior caste.”

Sharma has a recurring interest in the condition of the hotels he stays in and the roads he travels along. Both are important for his personal comfort but he also sees them as measures of progress. In Bihar his hotel is fly-infested with no plumbing and only intermittent electricity and the night is punctuated by the sound of people screaming as geckos fall from the ceiling. In Moradabad, by contrast, he finds a Best Western with the lobby “decorated with opulent chandeliers and marble statues of Hindu apsaras with pointed breasts".

This kind of descriptive writing eventually fades as the story is increasingly given over to one man. We first meet BJP politician Narendra Modi when he is chief minister of the state of Gujarat; his popularity undiminished by the belief “that he had encouraged or at least winked at Hindu attacks on Muslims that had wracked his state a year earlier [2002].” Sharma and his team catch up with Modi during the Gujarat state election of 2007 but the interview is a car crash with Modi wanting to talk about development but being pressed on the anti-Muslim riots. He departed abruptly, muttering “What happened here isn’t good”.

Sharma’s team subsequently lose access to Modi but they track him anyway through political rallies and various campaigns until he becomes India’s Prime Minister. Many of his so-called strongman traits are familiar from elsewhere: the emphasis on anti-establishment credentials, suspicion of the media, “othering”, a personality cult and even boasting about his fifty-six inch chest which Sharma considers to be reminiscent of Mussolini.

Mordi also symbolises the inevitable disappointment that is at the heart of Sharma’s vision for his home country. Initially he thought that Modi could be “the Ronald Reagan of India”, but comes to see him as a “performer not a reformer”, drawn to “socialist” ideas about state power and economic control. Sharma has a lot of faith in Indian democracy and believes that Modi only has a 50:50 chance of winning the upcoming general election with an electorate that is predisposed to anti-incumbency and the prospect of other parties coalescing against him. However, since the book was published, India and Pakistan have been eyeballing each other over Kashmir and his assessment takes no account of what the prospect of conflict can do for a politician like Modi. At least one of Sharma’s political heroes was re-elected on the back of a war.