India; The Road Ahead, Mark Tully, Random House, 2011

 

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan

 

The author was born in India and worked as the BBC Bureau Chief for twenty-two years. This book examines a number of themes ranging form politics, caste, religion, culture, business, history and tigers. Each chapter begins with a short essay introduction to a theme, setting a context for the personal stories that follow, as Tully retells the encounters he and his wife have as they explore some understanding of the question or phenomenon introduced at the start of that chapter.

 

The book begins with the author’s story of the Naxalite movement in India. The movement originated in 1967 in Naxalbari, a village in the Northeast, near Nepal, as a peasant revolt against corrupt landlords. It was an active threat to the established order in many village areas when I visited India in 1969, and continues to this day. Today, the Naxalites operate in the heavily forested areas of central and eastern India, populated mainly by ‘tribal’ groups. Tully visited some remote villages to speak with some Naxalite supporters and locals as well as some police and government officials, about the movement. He found a kind of stalemate where neither police nor Naxalites were gaining ground.

 

In a later chapter, entitled Building Communities, he tables the question of poor governance and the perception that India is a ‘flailing’ state. Government programs targeting social improvement have frequently failed due to corruption and collusion between bureaucratic officials and contractors. ‘Ghost works’ and ‘ghost labourers’ siphon of most of the funds. So how to change things? Tully explores the story of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2004) whereby the central Government seeks to pay local villagers directly to do needed improvements bypassing several levels of State and Ministry structures that could siphon off funds. Quoting Robert Putnam’s study of Italian society (Making Democracy Work), Tully sees Indian social structure as hierarchical all the way from the patriarchal family and the feudal system of the Mughals to the paternalistic British administration and then centralized independent state after 1948. He travels into the countryside to see first-hand what is going on. Seva Mandir (www.sevamandir.org), the leading NGO, working in the towns and villages, trains local members to form responsible local communities to oversee projects. They teach that a responsible horizontal structure of community can keep an eye on unscrupulous landlords, graft-taking contractors and corrupt officials.

 

Similarly, the focus of Development Alternatives (www.devalt.org), another NGO, is empowering communities through employment generation and skill development and a clean environment (green jobs), and clean technology. The question is, who can deliver development, the government, the private sector or NGO’s?

 

Development will depend on India’s continuing growth. In an interesting aside Tully asks, what is the role of the English language in India? He quotes Mark Abley: “English is the Wal-Mart of languages… devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand”.

 

The complexity of Indian society is formidable yet change is occurring. Chapters on the changing caste system and the similarly changing block voting of religious groups (called ‘vote banking’) show how there is movement within Indian society. The challenge, however, to Gandhi’s ideal of a secular governing model by communalism is present in State and National elections (the ‘Hindu revival’ and the Muslim political parties are examples of this).

 

Tully, in his conclusion, warns against being too pessimistic or too optimistic about India’s future. Hopeless pessimism leads to fatalism, while shortsighted optimism leads to blindness to faults. Tully says he agrees with Gopalkrishnan, the Tata Director, that the problem is one of governance at all levels, political, civic and corporate and that it is an inevitable part of a maturing democracy and a maturing democratic capitalism.

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