Off to new boom town, with Mark Tully

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Book: “Non Stop India”; Author: Mark Tully; Publisher: Penguin India; Price: Rs.499; Pages: 357

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It is a muddle of a new kind. An anti-corruption crusade which has united Indians as a single soul after 65 years and a resurgent nation that pines for salvation through its economic policy of vigorous privatisation and lowering of barriers could seem incompatible. Yet they co-exist in chaotic bliss.

Veteran journalist and inveterate writer Mark Tully tries to freeze in fine print this blundering nation of 1.2 billion on the move in his new book, “Non-Stop India”, 20 years after he wrote his first volume of India stories – “No Full Stops in India” – in 1991.

Twenty years is long a time to catch up with. But Tully, the hard-nosed reporter, does so with rare sensitivity – uncharacteristic for a Briton.

However, when you think of the writer as a son-of-the-Indian soil, with nearly 40 years of the India experience, the revealing insights of Tully’s new India portraits fall into place.

“Looking back over the years since 1991, and looking forward too, all this ‘jugaad’ raises a question – is India still muddling through and, if so, how much does it affect its much touted prospect of becoming an economic superpower?” Tully asks with the air of a veteran.

The answer is simple – there is a widely publicised view of India’s history over the last 20 years that would have us believe that this country with its vast population will be on the top of the economic boom-chart by 2050, Tully points out. But the path is a sweaty endeavour.

The country, though free of the “License Permit or the Neta-Babu Raj” of the 1970s-1980s post-liberalisation, needs to shed its mindset of red tape to reap the benefits of growing international interest in India. The tallest hurdle to scale is corruption.

“You can’t just look at corruption as a problem of governance. It has to be seen in a wider context. The private sector is as much a partner in corruption as the public sector…Mere liberalization and reducing the government’s role in the economy does not reduce corruption. Society as a whole needs a moral compass to make a difference,” Tully says quoting his economist friend Ram Gopal Agarwala.

The inequitable economic growth model of the country, its vote-bank politics, historical dilemmas like the uplift of the economically and socially challenged groups and attempts at militant subversions make India vulnerable to the scourge of corruption.

The 10 chapters which make up the book are lucid – almost narrative in the trademark style of the writer known for his combination of reportage, storytelling and incisive analysis.

In “Red India”, Tully travels to the heart of the Naxal country in Jharkhand with companion Gillian Wright to learn more about the rebels who had been telling tribals that Indian democracy was a sham. And despite advising them against the futility of Indian democracy, the tribals had turned out in large numbers to poll in the recent local elections. What was it that could not dent their commitment to democracy?

Tully infers: to overthrow Maoist guerrillas, India should be fighting a war to fulfil people’s will.

The pro-people train of analysis runs through the book – making it easily recognisable and pertinent. In every chapter like “Vote Banking”, “Ramayana Revisited”, “Farming Futures” and “Entrepreneurship Unleashed”, the common man shines at the centre of Tully’s tales.

The essay, “The English Raj”, in which Tully raises clamour for a two-language policy -English and a vernacular tongue, echoing eminent intellectuals – is striking in its novelty and humour.

The writer talks about a quaint Dalit shrine in southern India where Goddess English modelled on the Statue of Liberty is the deity with a computer at her feet.

Simple, engaging and an easy read, “Non-Stop India” is a delightful documentary of 21st century India.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])