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Realistic Portraits

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Mark Tully is one of the more respected writers and commentators on India, known as he is for his unbiased and non-condescending approach even before we became a dominant emerging market. Non Stop India (Penguin), his latest, is a journey through the country he revisits after almost 20 years. It is a travelogue where he selects a subject and the regions for his investigation and gets the people to speak about it. He makes it clear that it is not his view that is being forward. The book has politics, economics, sociology and ecology embedded, making the story an interesting read. One does get a full-yet-partial view of the state of the country. It is full because it spans a wide canvas in terms of subjects, and partial because it only covers specific regions. It is left to the reader to decide whether or not one can generalise these observations.

There are 10 chapters covered in this Tully experience. It starts with ‘Red India', which is all about the Maoist movement that started off with the tenet that all resources belong to society and should be equally shared. But he points out that over time this ideology has gotten diluted and perverted to becoming an anti-industry crusade that finally has degenerated to terror. The absence of development, however, is the reason for its germination. One is not sure if Tully has deliberately kept this as the first chapter as it makes one stop and think of the real state of progress in India.

He then moves over to caste and its deep-rootedness, where he traces the drudgery of dalits, but points out that things have changed significantly over the years and there is much empowerment even though consciousness has not yet changed. Lower castes are still treated like different beings though they do have some say in education and governance.

The chapter on vote banks is entertaining, though we already know what he says. The way elections are held and the cards political parties play to score votes (such as caste) are quite deep-rooted in our systems. Tully is quite right when he talks of why women such as Mayawati click because dalits see her as an instrument of emancipation for their community. Everything else is really forgiven. The role of the media in elections and the money that passes through are again something familiar. At the same time, Tully appreciates Nitish Kumar's achievements in Bihar. His coverage of the impact of religion through the famous TV serial Ramayana is interesting. He traces the growth of fundamentalism of a different variety, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which is more factual rather than a critique.

He then focuses on the section called ‘Building communities', which is vintage Tully. We get a view on how the development programmes of the government work as he covers rural employment scheme MGNREGA in Rajasthan in detail. He shows that even in the limited geography he has looked at, there is resistance to such schemes. The conundrum is as follows: economists think it is a waste of money, sociologists think it fosters corruption, politicians and bureaucrats are rarely interested in schemes they cannot control. But, generally, it works still, which is encouraging.

The book meanders into farming where the focus is ‘contract farming'. Pepsi's venture into contract farming has been a success story as far as Punjab is concerned even though there are disparate tales heard. Some farmers feel let down with such contracts where their produce is rejected on ground of poor quality when there are surpluses. But the fact that 90 per cent of the farmers are still with them vindicates their own position that they are working with the farmers, says Tully. He praises the spirit of enterprise in India, despite all the bureaucratic delays and corruption. There is a bit of history on how the Birlas and Tatas had to maneuver their ways earlier, but find it easier today, though the recent controversy of lobbying is a reflection of the lacunae that still exists.

Tully's has delivered a book of hope and recognition for the development that has taken place in a country of contradictions. While he does not exactly round up his narrative, the title suggests that he believes that India cannot be stopped if we are willing to tighten the strings.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-06-2012)

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