How does the humble Indian voter manage to repeatedly foil the attempts of psephologists and pollsters to call election outcomes? Does economic development exert a stronger pull than caste affiliations in India’s diverse hinterland? Do free laptops and mixer-grinders matter more to the voter than Bijli, Sadak and Paani ?

Ruchir Sharma, investment banker and writer, answers many such intriguing questions in his timely book Democracy on the Road: A 25-year journey through India , published just ahead of India’s seventeenth general elections. The 389-page book is a colourful and meticulous travelogue of the author’s road trips over the past 25 years, leading a convoy of leading journalists across Indian States to gauge the popular mood just ahead of key assembly and general elections.

Quite unlike Sharma’s earlier tome The Rise and Fall of Nations which was number-based, this book is an impressionistic and anecdotal account of the Indian democracy as seen through the eyes of the author and his entourage.

Private persona

The unique aspect of the book lies in the glimpses it offers into the private lives and persona of key political figures across States, gleaned from back-stage interviews conducted by Sharma and his friends as they hopped from one election to another.

So, we get to know that the crafty Lalu Prasad Yadav loves playing the genial buffoon with visiting journalists, introducing his horses and cows by name and asking his wife to remind him of the names of their nine children. We are also told that the firebrand leader Mayawati could be casual, respectful and mild in private meetings. We learn that the laptop-toting Chandrababu Naidu is savvy enough to talk reforms to global investors, but tones down such talk, to dwell on welfarism in his voter interactions.

The book recounts a couple of instances where Narendra Modi, for all his outward suaveness, lost his cool when the group persisted with uncomfortable questions about the Gujarat riots. After a couple of such run-ins, the author and his friends lost direct access to the leader.

Thanks to close family acquaintances in their caravan, the group seems to have enjoyed easier access to the Gandhis though. The book depicts Rahul Gandhi as an earnest but cosseted politician, often divorced from the real concerns of common folk, but is kinder to Sonia Gandhi.

What sways voters

For readers who don’t care much for personalities of politicians but are looking to decipher the mysterious workings of the Indian polity, the book offers three good insights. One is that the anti-incumbency factor is a particularly potent force in Indian politics. Between 1952 and 1977, the book notes, Indian voters seemed quite content with their elected leaders voting out the incumbent only in 10 per cent of the elections. But from 1977 onwards, anti-incumbency has been a raging epidemic, with the electorate dumping the incumbent candidate in two-thirds of all elections.

The book offers a convincing explanation for this. Given India’s humongous population, creaking infrastructure and bumbling bureaucracy, even leaders with the best of intentions struggle to deliver last-mile services to citizens, leaving voters simmering with discontent. The author also points out the yawning disconnect between the issues that the mainstream media and voters in the metros obsess about, and those that dog voters in mofussil areas.

A second takeaway is that even if Indian netas manage scorching rates of economic growth of 8 per cent plus in their home turfs, they have a 50:50 chance of being dumped by voters in the next election. The book offers several instances of leaders, from Chandrababu Naidu to Nitish Kumar to PV Narasimha Rao (at the Centre), being ignominiously voted out after delivering high GDP growth rates and visible economic improvements for their electorate.

The author reckons that Indian voters have such a tough time dealing with the broken state that even high economic growth at the aggregate level doesn’t do much to alleviate their daily struggles. As a result, even the most reform-oriented leaders eventually learn to temper their development agenda with welfarism and freebies.

A third conclusion is about how caste equations still play a make-or-break role in deciding voting patterns despite blatant caste-based discrimination receding across India. Electoral verdicts in most States (save a couple like Tamil Nadu or Kerala in the South), the author demonstrates, are still largely decided by a politician’s ability to cobble together last-minute gathbandhans that unify splintered vote banks. Given the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of Indian voters, he reckons that coalitions may work better for governments at the Centre than single-party majorities that centralise power.

Lighter detours

In chronicling the twists and turns in political fortunes, the author often pauses to demystify the quirks of Indian democracy to the unaware reader. These midway detours offer primers on why there’s a strong nexus between Indian politicians, film-stars, godmen and dacoits (private campaign funding), and why political rallies manage to draw such huge crowds (pay-offs in the form of booze and cash, of course).

In its attempt to offer a whirlwind tour of multiple political actors and States, the book also comes across as perfunctory in dealing with State-specific nuances, especially on economic issues.

As any good travelogue should, the book offers dollops of local colour to make it an engaging read. Descriptions of chance encounters with local strongmen, the décor of resorts the group stayed at and sumptuous lunch and dinner spreads laid out by local politicians, spice up the book. But on a side note, with their travels in convoys of Innovas, stays at Taj properties and VIP treatment wherever they went, one does wonder if author and his group managed to capture the pulse of the ordinary Indian voter, as effectively as they did of the political figures who are so well-profiled in this book.