Cut-outs of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in Kolkata © (Photo by Avishek Das / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Why Indian democracy still works

Ruchir Sharma meets mavericks and ministers, holy men and hoaxers on his illuminating roadtrip
April 3, 2019

Every time India goes to the polls, a world record is broken. With 900m of its 1.3bn citizens registered to vote, the upcoming election will be (again) the “largest ever exercise in democracy.” Yet, as Ruchir Sharma argues in this remarkable political travelogue, the focus on numbers is misplaced. What’s surprising isn’t the number of voters but their optimism. The democratic process, Indians still believe, can generate change. In an age of cynicism, his confidence is refreshing.

Democracy on the Road charts the ebbs and flows of this national obsession from the vantage point of a series of road trips over two decades. With a cadre of hand-picked journalists, the 20-something Sharma set off in a battered Volvo to cover the 1999 general election. Over the intervening years, he and his growing press pack have clocked up 27 election-time trips.

Why does he do it? First, because Sharma is as obsessed with politics as his fellow countrymen. He got hooked as a boy during visits to his grandfather’s house in small-town Uttar Pradesh. There he saw the “combustible mix of religion, caste and poverty” that frames Indian politics.

The second reason is more prosaic: his boss thought it would be a good idea. Curiously for a bestselling writer, Sharma has a high-flying job with a US investment bank that likes to know the lie of the land. That means escaping the “Delhi bubble” and hitting the hinterland. Sharma’s account of his travels offers a fascinating insight into the quixotic characters populating India’s political landscape. Along the way, we meet mavericks and ministers, holy men and hoaxers.

Sharma is a diligent, informed and sympathetic guide. He recognises the faults of India’s political class (corruption, nepotism, communalism) but he retains faith in the system. For all its weaknesses, democracy has held together the “many Indias” for seven decades. In short, it works.

Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey through India by Ruchir Sharma is published by Allen Lane (£25)