A Manual for Philosopher Kings



Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Director, Centre for policy research

Recommending readings is always a bit presumptuous. One has to be particularly mindful of the insight of Hobbes, author of Leviathan, the great masterpiece of political philosophy. When accused of not reading enough, he said, “If I had read as much as everyone else, I would have known only as much as everyone else.” Politics requires a constant ability to see and think. Thinking requires that a book not be seen as an instruction, but as a provocation. These readings are less ideological manifestoes or how to do books. Nor do they address a catalogue of familiar challenges India faces. One should not presume to tell Indian politicians that anyone knows India better than them. These books are reflections on the nature of power and political activity itself. They are in different genres, and hopefully fun as well.

Mahabharata | Vyasa The most extended meditation on what it means to snatch snippets of moral order from a world hurtling towards chaos. Everything we do leaves a trace on the world. What would it mean to act in consciousness of this responsibility? And besides, if it is not in the Mahabharata, it does not exist!

Parallel Lives | Plutarch Used to be compulsory reading for any wannabe statesman. Rome was the crucible of republican greatness. The context is alien, but the human passions and the call to exemplariness are not. And there is a lot of high gossip.

Democracy in America | Alexis de Tocqueville The masterwork of social theory that was really about France, but even more deeply about India. The deepest meditation on what democracy is about.

The Constituent Assembly Debates This is the best introduction to the Constitution that has given us the political identity we have. At the very least, you come away with the sense that the Constitution is not an instrument to be wielded when convenient; it is an intricate and interlocking system of values, not to be reduced to a slogan.

Politics as a Vocation | Max Weber Dated, but still the sharpest account of existential pathos of being a politician, and the means-ends problem. Brilliant on the combination of passion and judgement politics requires.

Yes Minister | Anthony Jay & Jonathan Lynn There is no better introduction to the pathologies of government; how it becomes a virtual world of its own. Government is a language game that makes sense, but has no reference.

Raag Darbari | Sri Lal Sukla Still no better literary introduction to Indian democracy, warts and all. How can something so magical also be depressing?

The Road to Serfdom | Friedrich von Hayek
In an Indian context, it is interesting to read these as a pair. The first is an account of the myth of the autonomous market and its pathologies. It’s also a pertinent account of the process of development. The second is an insightful account of the dangers of the State.

The Great Transformation |  Karl Polanyi
The Road to Serfdom | Friedrich von  Hayek

In an indian context, it is interesting to read these as a pair. The first is an account of the myth of the autonomous market and its pathologies. It’s also a pertinent account of the process of developement. The second is the insightful account of dangers of the state

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson | Robert Caro
This is one of the great political biographies and reflection on the nature and murkiness of power.

Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography | Sarvepalli Gopal
A bit dated and has the occasional feel of a court historian. But a reflection on the difference between mere politics and statesmanship.

The Economic Consequences of the Peace | John Maynard Keynes
Everything by Keynes can be profitably read still. But this is the greatest political analysis of the 20th century. The economic facts of the post-WW I world may seem obscure, but every politician should read the description of the Versailles peace talks as a mirror on how good men can produce disaster if they don’t exercise foresight.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies | Jared Diamond
A reminder of the deep ecological, biological and physical forces that shape us.



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