There was a time when our man at the BBC was the most famous foreign correspondent in India, his broadcasts reaching one fifth of the world’s population. Road-blocks and armed insurgents tended to melt when confronted by Tully-sahib, the man to trust, who understood the problems. For 30 years he trawled the sub-continent, covering its social, political, personal and religious upheavals, but his career with the BBC ended in 1994 after a doomed attempt to point out to John Birt, in a public forum, the error of his broadcasting ways.
There have been many journeys in Mark Tully’s life, the first from India, where he was born in 1936, going ‘home’ at ten to a dark, chilly England which he didn’t much like after India’s warmth and colour. He returned in 1964, as the BBC’s India correspondent and later Bureau chief. There were interior journeys too – he flirted briefly with the priesthood, did a television series and a book on The Lives of Jesus, and in No Full Stops in India he controversially defended traditional Indian values at a time when he felt they were threatened by the modern world.
India in Slow Motion, co-written with Gillian Wright, is an account of his latest journey, trying to get answers to the question ‘What holds India back?’. The short answer is, predictably, corruption and endemic inefficiency, but Tully is after something more: a way forward. It is a very Indian excursion; meandering and intensely personal, frustrating, emotional and frequently despair-inducing, but lit up by those moments of sweetness, of hope, of humour and potent charm that anyone who knows India will recognise.
The phrase that constantly recurs is ‘bad governance’. The country, which he sees as still shackled by a colonial bureaucracy and mind-set, has become a byword for red tape and corruption – ‘a kleptocracy’ as a distinguished Indian civil servant has called it. Corruption has become a low-risk, high-reward activity. Investigating one of many local disasters Tully concludes, ‘As I have found so often in India the government was the problem, not the solution.’
Since Independence there have been many attempts to explain the continued failures of India in the modern world: nationalists blame the humiliation suffered under foreign rulers. Others see it differently: V. S. Naipaul, in A Wounded Civilization, excoriated the caste system and the inertia it can breed: ‘The past has to be seen to be dead, or the past will kill.’
Tully examines all this and more, as he sifts through the contradictions, the hopelessness, the official cover-ups, exploring the simmering landscape that contains a population of over a billion people. He describes the rise of the extremist Hindu nationalist BJP which has been tightening its grip on local and national politics year by year; and the RSS – the National Association of Volunteers – who continue to stir up mistrust and hatred of Muslims, though even here, as elsewhere, Tully clings on to optimism, unwilling to accept that Hindu fundamentalism is sweeping the country.
Repeatedly we get confirmation of the courage and dogged pursuit of truth by a free press – a beacon in the darkness. What Tully calls ‘e-government’ could transform the scene: computers would spread information and speed up snail-paced bureaucracy. Indeed. But one official, conceding that computerisation must come, added, ‘If one computer can do the work of five men, the other four should not be taken away.’
Tully investigates child labour, agriculture, visits big cities and small villages. In a grim chapter he returns to the paradise destroyed of Kashmir. He sits in on local discussions under a tamarind tree like a character out of a Narayan novel, drinks sweet tea, listens, feels helpless: ‘I was, as so often