On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, co-founder of Enquire AI and author Bilal Baloch discusses his new book, When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Bilal Baloch about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the work that went into his new book, When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m the co-founder and COO of Enquire AI, a global insights startup, and a non-resident scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. But more importantly than that, I’m a father of two living in Washington, D.C. with my family.
I grew up in east London and have spent the past ten years post-college working as an academic and a consultant. My book, When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India, was published recently by Cambridge University Press.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Growing up, I was never a voracious reader. But I’ve always been inspired by impactful storytelling. Be it in novels, newspapers, or nonfiction, I’m moved by the fact that books can transport us to new contexts and into the lives of distinct people in ways that are only otherwise possible by physical travel.
Telling a story I care about became a reality as I began researching for my doctorate in political science at Oxford. The topic I researched covered protests, politics, government decision-making, corruption, and other related issues that defined much of the world around me back then – and the story I tell in my book relates to these themes.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I first put pen to paper in a meaningful way, for an external audience, right after my undergrad. Like many others, I was deeply inspired by Barack Obama’s election to office and so moved to Washington, D.C. to work on global issues and comment on a host of policy areas that were ripe for change. The interest grew and bloomed through my masters, consulting work, and into my PhD research.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
About five years.
What made you want to write When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India?
The motivation for the book began to develop throughout 2012 and 2013, when several governments, from Chile, Brazil, India, and Mexico, to Turkey and Indonesia, faced social movements calling for less corrupt or more transparent governance. Some decision-makers in these countries responded by crushing these movements; while others sought to co-opt; yet others fell into negotiated concessions.
A closer look revealed that governments’ response and these movements couldn’t be examined in isolation. Rather, they represented the culmination of a series of domestic and international pressures that, together with collective action on the street, represented what I refer to as a credibility crisis for incumbent government decision-makers. So the entire crisis had to be interrogated – and that is what the book focuses on.
What were your biggest challenges with writing When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India?
Several! Let me outline three that were unanticipated. The first is pivoting during research. My book began its life as a PhD thesis and when conducting doctoral work, you can often get too tied to your own theses. So being able to pivot, in the field as you are researching, and reformulating or revising assumptions invariably impacts writing – think of the image of a writer constantly screwing up drafts!
The second, and somewhat related, is being able to predict the “flow” in writing. There are times when you can write for a few hours and not make any headway on the story and at other times you can write for less time but break through a milestone in the book’s argument. I eventually came to enjoy the unpredictability of this “flow” – it is difficult to turn it into a science.
Finally, I’d say learning not to perfect as you write. I took this approach in the early days of writing and it locked me into a particular style or substantive position. Writing as close to a “stream of consciousness” actually helped with early drafts.
What was your research process for When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India?
In most doctoral programs there is a clear instruction and support for planning your research design. You don’t always have to stick to it, but it helps you to keep moving forward in the process. I was fortunate to have very creative and forthright mentors and supervisors who helped sharpen my design and therefore when I got to India – the main focus of the study – I was able to execute on who I would meet with for interviews, where I would go to gather archival materials, and where I would store the data.
How did you plan the structure of When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India?
The structure is perhaps the most basic part of the entire book. It mimics the argument and case studies itself – I theorize an interaction between political power structures and decision-makers’ worldviews in two case studies where government’s in India faced a credibility crisis. So outside of the introduction, theory and conclusion chapters the remaining chapters reflect two chapters each on the case studies – one on power structures and the other on ideas.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did When Ideas Matter: Democracy And Corruption In India need?
I received a lot of editing support. Eventually the book went through the usual university press editorial process from professional editors, but the biggest and most substantive editorial changes throughout writing came from my wife, supervisors, friends, and other experts in the field who gave up their time to workshop the manuscript. It truly takes a village to produce a book – and that’s why my acknowledgements section is so big!
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Probably a common counsel: just start writing. We all just start with words on a paper. Worry about meaning and substance later.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I feel very grateful and humbled to have been able to write one book. But it has left a taste for writing more. I don’t have a project yet, but I do know that I’d like the next book to tackle a “big idea”. We face so many critical challenges around us – climate, technology, sustainable development, governance, ideology, and more. And so I’d like to devote the next book to disrupting the prevailing wisdom on a big idea.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Totally. It’s an arduous, painful, enjoyable, long, and tedious journey. But the ambiguities, and at times ambivalence, of emotions you go through is a necessary part of the process. And the feeling of contributing to our collective knowledge, however small, is supremely satisfying.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
The book is called When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India, and you can buy it directly from Cambridge University Press, here (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/when-ideas-matter/AD855D59AF433830B95276776130FF2A) or Amazon, here (https://www.amazon.com/When-Ideas-Matter-Democracy-Corruption/dp/131651983X). The best way to follow updates on my research and work is through Twitter, @bilalabaloch
Bilal’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/bilalabaloch
Bilal’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/babaloch/
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