The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 22, 2002

Right on Mark about India!
S. Nihal Singh

India in Slow Motion
by Mark Tully and Gillian Wright. Viking. Pages 302. Rs 450.

India in Slow MotionTHERE are many ways of looking at India and berating the elite, comprised not merely of the ruling establishment, the politicians and bureaucrats, but also the professional classes and captains of industry. The problems, it is universally acknowledged, are immense; the difficulty is not just in defining them but also in suggesting ways to surmount them.

The great merit of the latest offering by Mark Tully, this time with his companion Gillian Wright, is that he describes specific problems, some of them simple, others complex, to draw his conclusions. They are, in a sense, disconnected, except for the thread of malgovernance and its twin, corruption. At the same time, the authors have chosen current problems much in the news, from the Tehelka revelations to Kashmir with a refreshing directness and absence of cant.

After all, corruption, the farmers’ plight in Karnataka, the place of the church in today’s India, the political progress of Vishwanath Pratap Singh and his brother all boil down to people – politicians, administrators and common men and women alike – trying to lead their lives or impoverishing others’ lives. And we have a friend, philosopher and guide drawing his conclusions on their immediate or deeper causes.

To those who know Tully, who has become something of an icon for India’s middle class, it will not come as a surprise that apart from berating the pessimism of Indian intellectuals, he points an accusing finger at the Indian elite’s refusal to pierce the colonial legacy it was bequeathed, whether in reforming the police or in simplifying the mind-boggling files encased in red tape, literally and figuratively.


Tully believes, with some reason, that the neta-babu nexus prospers not only because there are venal politicians but also because of the administrators’ refusal to part with power, routinely lubricated by the oil of corruption. This nexus comes into play at every level: the irrigation ditches that are not dug but charged to government account, the levels of corruption revealed by Tehelka, the Kashmir problem. And he punctures the myth of the otherworldliness of politicians of the ilk of Vishwanath Prapat Singh.

The reader can relate to Tully’s stories because they are told simply — of men and women running from pillar to post to claim dues that are not given, of the officiousness of those in power, of how farmers are led by the system to suicide, of how the misuse of religion for political purposes distorts priorities and destroys peace and tranquillity. The author does not pontificate. He stands aside, as it were, to let the characters speak, contenting himself with an aside to share with readers his feeling about India and its people.

In Tully’s view, Jawaharlal Nehru’s stress on secularism had some unfortunate consequences in enabling the Hindutva forces to paint it as anti-Hindu. Talking of an idealist, he asks: "I wondered how he had survived in the turmoil of an Indian agitation where everyone is perennially enraged, no one speaks, they only shout and violence is the first not the last resort".

Or take the aside: "The measurement of age is not an exact science in India".

But Tully is far from being a pessimist. His very vehemence against the evils of the "neta-babu raj", as he calls it, stems from his belief in India’s phenomenal progress if it would surmount its present state of corruption and inefficiency. Nor is he shy of acknowledging the idealists who give up lucrative careers for causes they hold dear and the strength of Indian civil society. But in the main, the winds are blowing the opportunists’ way.

Tully himself is an idealist in a sense and the implicit faith he reposes in Mahatma Gandhi’s path (which he sarcastically describes as being unfashionable in today’s India), rather than Nehru’s, is a trifle unrealistic. After the long independence struggle, the actual transfer of power by the colonial ruler was peaceful, marred though it was by a horrendous bloodbath. Among the Mahatma’s injunctions was the dissolution of the Congress Party. Who then would have ruled India? Besides, it is all very well to talk about village democracy – there is obvious merit and logic in the emphasis on rural India – but a modern state cannot be run on the basis of a decentralised village government.

Since Indian independence did not come out of a revolution, the country had the benefits and disadvantages flowing from the process. In the latter category was the all-too-human tendency of the babus and their political masters to slip into the role of colonial administrators, empowered further by a variety of new development jobs. The change from Nehru’s socialism, delayed long after its usefulness ceased, created a new paradigm of consumer culture which encouraged the rapaciousness of the neta-babu raj because of the new demands that had to be met.

In reality, there was never a choice of paths in building up a modern India. The tragedy has been that in building the new temples of India, as Nehru called the modern works, cant, corruption and inefficiencies multiplied. There were, and are, idealists – among politicians, administrators and common men and women – but they are swamped by opportunists and carpetbaggers, men and women enthused only by personal and family profit motive.

If there is a criticism about Tully’s new effort in understanding India, it is directed at the fact that the stories he has to tell are very diverse in nature. One gets the feeling that trained as he is as a broadcaster and journalist, he has gone for the newsy morsels to keep readers’ interest alive. But Tully is dead right about the evils of bad governance and its immense cost to the people of India.