Milan Vaishnav is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.
Your book "When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics" has just been published. Would you tell us a little bit about it?
The book attempts to address a puzzling question about democratic functioning: how can free elections and criminal politics coexist? After all, voters in democracies are supposed to be empowered to punish elected representatives who seemingly betray the public trust. Yet, in so many countries, individuals tied to corruption and criminality are regularly elected and re-elected. The book tries to answer this question by drawing on evidence from India -- the world's largest democracy. In India, one-third of politicians elected to Parliament assume office while under criminal indictment. One-fifth of Members of Parliament (MPs) are implicated in serious crimes -- crimes that, if a conviction were obtained, would merit real jail time. The book unpacks this marketplace, by exploring the supply and demand factors that make this market thrive. The book, while focused largely on India, has lessons for democratic practice far beyond any one country's borders.
What sort of feedback have you gotten thus far?
The feedback has been very positive so far. The nexus between crime and politics is not India-specific so people who live in or work on a range of countries have told me that the book has resonated with their own experience. Having said that, the biggest interest has obviously come from India. Most people in India have some familiarity with the subject at hand, but like so many things that stare you in the face each and every day, you never stop to question them. Most readers have really appreciated, I think, the attempt to create a framework for understanding an issue that seems so deeply ingrained in democratic politics.
How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?
As with most first books, this one began its life as a PhD dissertation. After I completed my graduate work, I literally could not look at the dissertation for almost a year. After some time away and some fresh perspective, I came back to the material and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. It was important to me to write the book in a way that would appeal beyond academia, which meant I had to assume readers would have very little baseline knowledge about democracy, governance, India, etc. I also carried out additional field research, collected new data, and did some historical analysis to round out the material I began with. That process began in 2013 and I handed in the first draft of my manuscript at the end of 2014. The writing, in the end, did not take very long. But peer reviews, edits, legal reviews, production and design added almost two years.
In the beginning, I did not have a writing routine and this really slowed me down. Finally, one day a colleague who just completed her book pulled me aside and told me I had to drop everything else and focus on the book if I wanted to get it in done. That was a wake-up call. The next day, I went through my calendar and began blocking at least 3-4 days a week for book writing. Once I did that, things started to gel. I realized that an hour here or a few hours there was not really cutting it. A book requires immersion.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I think people are really intimidated by the prospect of writing a book; I know I was. It's a bit of an obvious piece of advice, but it truly helps to break things down into bite-size chunks. When I outlined the book, I had eight chapters divided up into three parts. Thinking about the whole manuscript was terrifying so breaking this down into constituent pieces really helped. I spent a lot of time making fairly detailed outlines and then adjusting/revising them as I went. This up-front investment ended up saving me.
The second piece of advice, especially for people in the research community, is: pick a big question. There is a trade-off between going deep and going broad, but I think authors who are researchers need to push themselves to look for questions that stretch the boundaries of what we know. A book, as opposed to a research paper, gives you the flexibility to expand beyond the narrow topics we often focus on in our day-to-day research.
What do you read for fun?
My family constantly mocks me for reading books that seem like work-related books "for fun." The truth is: I am a news junkie so I find myself spending too much time on short-form stuff and then I catch up on books related to work (social science, India, and South Asia) in my free time. But the truth is I enjoy that material a great deal, so it usually does not feel like work. Be that as it may, I started a new resolution last year that I would strike a better balance between fiction and non-fiction, so my current rule is to alternate between the two.
What's the best book you read in 2016?
I was very, very late to this, but I finally read Vikram Chandra's caper, "Sacred Games," in 2016 and thought it was marvelous. It's seemingly the story of a cop trying to nab a major player in the Mumbai underworld, but it's much more than that. It is really a kind of sociology of big-city India. Despite its massive length, it's a fast read.