Friday, May 23, 2003

an insider's view of india

India in Slow Motion, by Mark Tully, Gillian Wright. Viking. £17.99

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in May 2003).

IN INDIA IN SLOW MOTION, long-time BBC correspondent Mark Tully argues that the primary force holding India back is neither its history of invasions and foreign domination nor its religious fatalism and divisive caste system. The fundamental problem is "a peculiarly Indian form of bad governance.

"That observation will not come as a revelation to anyone--certainly not to Indians. But, fortunately, Tully does not waste pages cataloguing the endless train of governmental malfeasance that comprises India's recent political history. Instead, he examines a few choice examples of crusades--grass-roots or personal--to provide the safety from economic exploitation, access to water and freedom from religious persecution that are the promises of "good governance."

Although the book jacket lists Tully's partner, Gillian Wright, as co-author, Wright's role is not clear as all the essays are written in the first person from Tully's perspective. The old India hand brings an infectious love for India to the task, but his is not a blind love. Born in Calcutta and educated in England, he spent 25 years as South Asia correspondent for the BBC--getting a journalist's tour of the region's grimmest catastrophes. These experiences colour all the chapters of Slow Motion, and some of the finest writing is essentially memoir of a life covering Indian politics; of strong friendships forged with complex politicians.

The scope of the book is wide. In a chapter titled "The Water Harvesters" Tully examines how government corruption has exacerbated drought problems in Gujarat. At least one village has eliminated the drought problem with a network of water barriers that the villagers built themselves. But the government remains focused on a large infrastructure project to dam the Narmada River. The money the government has allotted to small-scale irrigation projects is often directed to contractors who build dams of mud, with a thin plating of concrete, or who don't build dams at all, except on paper.

In "Creating Cyberabad," Tully addresses an innovative programme undertaken by the chief minister of Andra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu, who turned Hyderabad, the state capital, into an information technology centre second only to Bangalore, now seeks to bring the IT revolution to the common man by creating a system of "e-governance." The pilot programme eliminated much of the waste and frustration endemic in India's bureaucracy. Now, instead of needing six clerks, six counters and six queues to renew their driving licences, pay bills or register a birth, constituents can accomplish 18 formerly onerous tasks at one counter, with one clerk equipped with a computer. But this obvious improvement won Naidu as many enemies as friends, the writers say, because bureaucrats know that good governance is bad news for them and the Indian democracy is addicted to "leg pulling"--dragging down people doing good things.

While these two chapters (and several others) relate directly to the book's central theme, in other chapters the connections are more tenuous. Some of the essays do not seem related to bad governance at all. "Altered Altars," for example, touches on the Catholic Church of Goa's role in fighting corruption, but it is less about graft than about India's religious pluralism, a subject that Tully picks up again in "The Sufis and a Plain Faith." Certainly Indian politicians have exploited caste and religion to gain and hold power despite failing to improve the lot of their constituents--as Tully argues in his introduction and conclusion. But these essays do not advance that argument; rather they reinforce the already well-established view that India is a mix of cultures and not a Hindu state.

Unfortunately, the book's appealing discursiveness also prevents its authors from exploring either the central argument or his intriguing stories in their full complexity. For instance, a chapter that recounts a sting on the Defence Ministry conducted by the dotcom company Tehelka, relies wholly on an interview with the reporter who orchestrated the coup. Tully and Wright fail to advance the story or to investigate the reasons why the defence minister caught taking a bribe was ushered back into power less than a year after the scandal.

Tully's and Wright's characterizations are acute, their knowledge of the subject is exhaustive and their writing taut and unpretentious. The real reason to read this book, though, is for the unique insider's perspective that Tully's long tenure as the BBC's top man provides. Few writers could match nostalgia for once-peaceful Kashmir with a cogent analysis of where Farooq Abdullah's government went wrong, as Tully does in "Paradise Lost."

And no other writer could have produced "A Tale of Two Brothers," an article about the relationship of former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and his gossip-addicted, politically doomed brother. The chapter captures the machinations of Indian politics and the enduring, complex loyalty of Indian families. That is the Mark Tully readers have come to adore.