If a book on the challenges of politics and democracy in a country seems perfectly relevant twenty years after publication- a period in which very little seems to have changed- then it isn’t a sign of timelessness, but indicates that stagnation has set in. Defining progress is difficult because debates on the subject invariably become inextricably tangled at the point where the indicators of development are to be defined in a country like India; you only have to look at the glass-and-concrete symbols of consumerist robustness, and the number of people sleeping under flyovers in winter, to see where the problem comes in.
Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India, published in 1991, is a very honest account of the challenges India faces. It is not a horror-stricken, open-mouthed set of anecdotes of a country’s poverty, but instead a well-crafted description of social and political problems not aimed at appeasing any particular group. In talking of the roots of various issues, Tully realises that the distance of those proposing blanket, quick-fix solutions from the heart of the country is often problematic- a fact that continues to evade television news panellists with several degrees and scholarships to their credit.
Tully‘s topics are interesting. Caste and class (examined through the elite English-speakers nurtured by the British and continuing in the post-colonial era), female oppression (described here through the Deorala sati incident), and religion (the magnificent Kumbh Mela), trappings of any work on India, are recounted without the condescending attitude that is rather fashionable in the country today, they make for fascinating reading. Tully draws on his years as a BBC journalist to describe Operation Black Thunder and communal violence in Ahmedabad, meeting victims to construct a careful account of what they believe are the causes of the upheavals. He visits communist Bengal- and perhaps the only noticeable change from then lies in the election of a new government in Calcutta. He meets a Gond artist in Madhya Pradesh to study the kind of effect urbanisation has had on tribal art.
The book concludes with a chapter on the political career of Digvijay Narain Singh, a Congress MP close to Indira Gandhi, but a follower of Morarji Desai owing to his penchant for Gandhi. These were years of great turmoil at the Centre, and Singh himself lamented that he had to stoop to opportunistic politics at one point. He comes across as a sincere, self-effacing politician, the likes of whom I wonder if my generation has seen at all.
Indian politics has certainly seen some very exciting and turbulent times. In the first few decades following independence, India seems to have been genuinely hopeful and positive. People worked with a vim born of confidence, and perhaps the intention to prove that they could do much better than their colonial masters. Somewhere down the line, we seem to have lost that interest and become complacent. New bilateral relations had to be built and hostilities with neighbours didn’t help. The complex experiments with socialism and a slightly watered-down form of capitalism were not entirely successful. Tully lays a bit of blame on cultural imperialism, which has succeeded physical occupation. But he does not mince words in describing the dynasticism and sycophancy that have become a feature of Indian politics. Look at Rahul Gandhi’s address today, his first after his appointment as Vice-President of the Congress Party. Fawning tributes are already being paid to him, and he is being likened to his father and even to Obama. However, there is no reason for young voters to dream romantically of a government led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The sentimentality and outpouring of sympathy that followed tragic incidents may have stood them in good stead for a while. They need something new and progressive to recommend themselves to voters now.
If Tully were writing his book today, he’d have to make only a few minor changes in his estimate of the future of the country, tweak a few names, replace sati with rape. He would even have a whole stock of new scandals to choose from. Which reminds me, I’m looking forward to elections next year. This will be my first time voting (I missed a previous chance), and I want to use the opportunity well, even if it ends up being an insubstantial drop in a vast, murky ocean.