Book Box: Engaging with Democracy

Jan 30, 2023 08:31 AM IST

This Republic Day weekend, celebrate by engaging with these 4 books on democracy.

Dear Reader,

Jaipur Lit Fest. PREMIUM
Jaipur Lit Fest.

Every time I stand in that line waiting to vote, there’s a thrill and excitement and a sense of deep power”, says Yamini Aiyar, president, Centre for Policy Research.

Aiyar is addressing a packed hall, at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Questions come fast and furious.

What about the feeling of fear in today’s India?

Why are criminals allowed to stand for election?

Why is no one talking about what Narendra Modi is doing to democracy?

Jaipur Lit Fest.
Jaipur Lit Fest.

Aiyar’s co-panellists include Ronojoy Sen, author of House of the People and Mukulika Banerjee, author of Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India.

Later that day, there are more impassioned arguments; differences of opinion around BR Ambedkar, the man who gave us India’s Constitution.

Shashi Tharoor has just written a biography of BR Ambedkar. And now he is in a heated argument with firebrand activist and anti-caste rap singer Sumit Samos. The two spar on narratives — would Ambedkar criticise the crowds carrying his placard through the streets as they protest against the State?

The crowds here are even larger. People of all ages, hang onto every word of the exchanges, nodding, clapping and pulling out pads to jot down notes on the discussion.

Seated next to me, are two Australians. They tell me they relate to everything that’s being said about caste and democracy at a personal level — they work with an NGO in Bihar, that educates Dalit girls.

Everywhere at JLF, ideas around democracy and the republic, on liberalism, caste and money power are being debated and dissected, in a way that is amazingly appropriate for a 74th-anniversary celebration of India’s Republic Day, this January 26.

Listening to these conversations, I come away with a reading list of these 4 books.

Book 1 of 4: Ambedkar: A Life

Ambedkar: A Life.
Ambedkar: A Life.

Shashi Tharoor has a debater’s dazzling dialectic, you see it in all his books including Era of Darkness, his polemical protest against British colonialization. Plus his prose has such fluency and fabulous felicity. Ambedkar: A Life describes how ‘the son of an untouchable subedar, scrabbling in the dust in the cantonment town of Mhow, rose to earn two prestigious doctorates.’ It looks at the Ambedkar legacy, including ‘Ambedkar’s Four Flaws’, that sets off the argument with Sumit Samos at JLF. Samos incidentally, is the author of an autobiography entitled Affairs of Caste, which sadly seems unavailable.

Book 2 of 4: House of the People

House of the People.
House of the People.

Elections are a big festival of democracy and we focus on them at the expense of other areas, says Ronojoy Sen. His new book House of the People aims to address this imbalance, by focusing on the institution of Parliament. It looks at the history of Parliament, including its changing composition through the years. I was surprised to learn how dramatic this change has been — one example being that the early Parliaments were composed almost two-thirds of lawyers, who are now down to 5%. Sen also looks at Parliament's disruptions, the standing committee system, and corruption and criminality.

For more on corruption and money power, read Milan Vaishnav’s superb When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.

Book 3 of 4: The Great Experiment

The Great Experiment.
The Great Experiment.

Moving from India to the world, read The Great Experiment: How to Make Diverse Democracies Work by Yascha Mounk, who is also the author of The People vs Democracy, which traces the rise of populism. In The Great Experiment, Mounk looks at ways of keeping the peace in diverse democracies. There are examples from across the world, with analysis as well as an effort to suggest solutions to the problems that plague democracy today.

One such solution looks at India, drawing on political scientist Ashutosh Varshney’s comparison of why the city of Kozhikode with the same Hindu-Muslim mix of the population has had not a single communal riot, whereas Aligarh has had so many. The answer — in Kozhikode, unlike in Aligarh, Hindus and Muslims encounter each other as equals, eating together in social settings and letting their children play together.

Book 4 of 4: The Diary of an MP’s Wife

Diary of an MP's Wife.
Diary of an MP's Wife.

And finally for some light relief, pick up the The Diary of an MP’s Wife. Written by Sasha Swire, wife of Conservative MP Hugo Swire, this true life account of British parliament and politics is both funny and scathing. Swire’s diary entries from 2010 to 2019 are packed with interesting observations and insights, all of which have a Yes Minister- ish feel about them.

If you’ve enjoyed these, here are more books in The Secret Life of Democracies. Also see this conversation with founder of PRS Legislative Research MR Madhavan on why Game of Thrones is essential reading for anybody investigating democracy.

Until next week then, Happy Reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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