Book Box: The secret life of democracies
Read these five democracy books and meet M R Madhavan, who tells us why “Game of Thrones” is essential reading for anybody investigating democracy
On Thursday, we discussed Midnight’s Borders by Suchitra Vijayan. It was apt, as the day was International Democracy Day. And this book that we had all read, pushed our book club readers to examine the anomalies in our democracy.
“Are we an empire?” somebody asked.
“We behave like an empire- specially in our borderlands.”
Midnight’s Borders is full of stories of rebellion and state repression, and covers the lives and deaths of people living in borderlands, that stretch from the North East to Pakistan and Bangladesh.
We should debate democracy, we agreed, because democracies are fragile. Democracy can die in different ways if you let it.
Read How Democracies Die to examine how. Written by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, this book looks at different histories and geographies, from Nazi Germany to Venezuela, to pick out patterns in our political systems. It used to be that democracies were done in by military coups, they say. Now this destruction of democracy, happens in more insidious ways, as elected leaders turn authoritarian, and subvert the very processes that brought them to power.
The Silent Coup by Josy Joseph does a deep dive into the secret life of democracy in India, to investigate this kind of derailment. You do not need a military coup to subvert democracy, agrees author and journalist Josy Joseph — in India, democracy has already been subverted. Years of fighting militancy, have led to the political executive turning sinister. The State in India has taken on sweeping powers, subverting citizens’ democratic rights, faking and framing evidence and even creating terrorist organisations, says Joseph. He doesn’t make mere allegations, he substantiates them, naming politicians, police officials, and civil servants and referencing court judgements. That such a book could exist and be freely available, is in itself a tribute to the strength of our democracy.
For democracy is a wondrous thing — and reading The Great March of Democracy reminded me why. This book of essays, edited by SY Quraishi, has contributions from experts whose life’s work has been democracy. Ornit Shani, for instance, writes in mesmerising detail, about the start of democracy in India. I heard Shani speak with such impassioned enthusiasm, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, that I went out and immediately bought How India Became Democratic. Other contributors include TN Sheshan, the rock star former election commissioner and Milan Vaishnav, who has also written a fascinating book about the power of money in elections.
Democracy is an idea worth engaging with early, and a good book to do this is We The Children of India by Leila Seth. The ideal mix of text and illustration, it covers complex concepts easily. It’s a good book for families to read together, and it provides the perfect starting point for political discussions.
Finally, meet M R Madhavan. This investment banker turned founder of PRS Legislative Research, talks about his reading, and tells us why Game of Thrones is essential reading for anybody investigating democracy. Edited excerpts of our conversation.
Your office in Delhi is full of specialised books. Tell us a little about these — where did you buy them from?
The books in the office are mostly related to the Constitution, various laws, parliamentary procedures, and some sector areas where we have written notes on bills or policies. These were bought from standard bookshops and the sales counter of Parliament. One book that was difficult to get – I found a second-hand one on Amazon – was the book on Indian Parliament written by Morris-Jones in the 1950s.
Which three books would you recommend to learn about democracy?
To understand how power is gathered by any person (and therefore, needs to be controlled in a democracy) I recommend reading the Game of Thrones series – I have been waiting for the sixth book for a decade.
An example of how democracies can collapse would be the story of Rome as Julius Caesar took over. An easy and enjoyable read is the historical fiction trilogy by Robert Harris: Lustrum, Imperium and Dictator.
There are several core concepts that lie behind any liberal democracy. The Federalist Papers (freely available online) is a set of essays that explained these to New Yorkers ahead of the framing of the American Constitution. To understand how and why various provisions found their way into the Indian Constitution, I would recommend Granville Austin’s Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation.
Has your reading changed over time?
Over the years, I have started reading much more non-fiction (all types). Also, while thrillers have always been a part of reading, such as Alistair Maclean and Fredrick Forsyth from senior school days, there are more choices available now, especially as ebooks. So have read a far wider range of authors from across the world.
I know you enjoy humour and mysteries, tell us about some favourite books.
Humour – an all-time favourite is PG Wodehouse. My PGW reading started when I was in my 10th, and that’s still a constant as I keep re-reading his books. Difficult to choose specific books, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, and The Code of the Woosters are a couple of favourites.
Thrillers/mysteries, lots to choose from. The Martin Beck series is brilliant and also gives an idea of life in Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. The Rebus books by Ian Rankin are also top of the heap. I have many other favourites – including recent ones such as the Orphan X series and the Gray Man series.
PRS is well known for its excellent research reports that are read by many Members of Parliament (MPs). Any fiction recommendations for MPs?
I read fiction to relax, so no particular recommendations for MPs. If I may recommend a non-fiction book, I’d suggest Factfulness by Rosling, as it is an easy read and shows how to look out for misinterpretation of data.
And finally, what books are you currently reading?
Non-Fiction: How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil.
Fiction: Just got hold of the latest book by Mark Greaney (author of the Gray Man series), Armored, which has a new main character. So that starts this evening.
On that thrilling note, it’s a wrap for this week. Next week, I have a mix for you — a book for every mood, as we celebrate some much-loved authors' September birthdays.
Until 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal