In a freewheeling chat, Mark Tully talks about his writing, Indian politics and his love for the railways, a the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival
Acclaimed journalist and author, Sir William Mark Tully, is the former Bureau Chief of BBC in New Delhi. Tully, lives in Delhi and is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Something Understood’. A long time observer of Indian politics, his best-known books include Amritsar – Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle (co-authored, 1985), No Full Stops in India (1985) and India’s Unending Journey (2008). Tully is man of wide-ranging interests, apart from politics, he reads on climate change, economics and theology. A huge fan of the Railways, he is also the Vice President of the Indian Steam Railway Society.In a freewheeling chat, he talks about his writing, Indian politics and why he loves the railways.How did you start writing?When I was a radio journalist with the BBC I had to specialise in writing 250 word dispatches in which you have write as much as you can. When the trouble in Punjab came to a head and the Golden temple was attacked (in 1984), my colleague Satish Jacob and I thought, we know a lot about it, we should pluck up our courage and write a book (Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle). Satish did a lot of the research because I wasn’t allowed into Punjab, foreign correspondents were banned there. I used to joke that if I had to write book, after every 250 words I would automatically type ‘Mark Tully, BBC Delhi’, which was we put at the end of a dispatch. In those days, BBC was a wonderfully humane organisation. After a certain number of years, you got a break- three months paid leave. So I thought I’d use that to try and write another book. That’s how I came to write No Full Stops in India.When you started writing books, were there authors or journalists you kept in mind?I’ve always felt that you’ve got to write yourself. Reading too much of other people’s writing with a view to copying (style) or learning from it is rather depressing because I feel my writing is never going to be as good as that. I’m meant to be writing some short stories right now. I’ve written one collection before and thought why don’t I read some Munshi Premchand because I’m trying to write stories on rural India and Premchand of course, is a master of that. I read his Seva Sadan which was about Varanasi, and about halfway into the novel I got terribly depressed. I can never write like Premchand and I haven’t been back to my story since then. So my story is just sitting there and I proved the danger that I had feared to be true. Whether I’ll go back to my short stories, I’m not quite sure!Are there, otherwise, books that are particular favourites? I’m very fond of Victorian novels. In the past I’ve read a lot of Premchand’s stories. I’m very fond that. I like Indian writers of the British Raj and early independence, Manto for instance. Tagore’s Sadhana is like Bible to me. I’m very fond of Kipling as well.So where do your influences come into the picture? Are there any?No, I don’t think there are any directly.I know you’re a fan of the railways. What do you like about them?It’s a much more civilised way of travelling. I think air travel is the most boring way of travelling. The way the airlines treat you like children, making you queue up to do this and that. If you count the number queues you are in, by the time you return to the airport you’ve survived 10 queues. The rush to get off the airplanes is such a horrible experience. Train has a magic about it, if you are in the right spirits. Trains are aesthetic things. I’m quite dedicated to Railways. One of the things I really applaud Narendra Modi for is that modernisation of railways is one of his priorities. But you’ve got to make sure that this doesn’t mean you price them out of the range of most people. Railways is an instrument of mass transport.Before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, you said that Narendra Modi gave the impression of a magician with a wand. What do you make of his government so far?No magic wand. (laughs) I think it’s too early to judge, but I think it’s going to be far more difficult to bring about all the things he talks about. But one of the things that I’ve been keen about and written about in my books is that we must get rid of this colonial system of governance and the colonial attitude of the people who govern. The worst example of it are the police, disgraceful behaviour. They have no hesitation in hitting people, slapping their faces and torture. Everyone knows that torture takes place in police stations. The first thing a babu will tell people when they ask for something is why they can’t have it. Change the attitude. That is a hugely difficult task and I don’t know how Modi plans to achieve that.Good governance is big on his agenda.Yes, but good governance is more than just speedy efficiency. I think electronics will to some extent help good governance. Payments to the government being made without a government servant being involved in it. That will help. But this overall attitude, it was brilliantly described by Inder Malhotra who described it as ‘the abominable India no-man’, if that doesn’t go you’ll never get a government that people are happy about. Public interaction has to be one where the public is on the whole happy about being well treated by someone who wants to help them, and not stand in their way and say ‘main sarkar hoon’.Modi has dismantled the Planning Commission and brought in the NITI ayog. Is that a move in the right direction?I’m in two minds about it. I think there’s a symbolism about it that is dangerous. The symbolism is that ‘we want nothing to do with socialism’ The Planning Commission was seen as a symbol of socialism and I think that what we actually need is a balance between capitalism and socialism. The great questions that socialism tried to answer are not questions that capitalism asks. Questions about poverty, inequality. Of course creating wealth is important. But by abolishing the Planning Commission you’re saying we don’t need any real purpose in what we’re doing. The Planning Commission did stand for the welfare of all, benefit for as many as possible. We don’t want to do away with that sort of thinking. Maybe the new commission will have that in it. But if it signifies forgetting all those questions then that’s a bad thing.BJP has been making headway in states that it did not have a stronghold in previously. It did well in the Kashmir elections and now in Delhi, former AAP leaders are switching to join the party. What do you think we can expect to see in the upcoming Delhi elections?I think it’s clear that bringing in Kiran Bedi indicates BJP is worried and it’s particularly worried because if there is a defeat, it will be seen as a defeat of Modi. Whether Kiran Bedi is the right person to put their worries to rest or not, I’m not sure. And I think we shouldn’t forget that although the AAP didn’t get the seats in the general elections, it got a very large number of votes. So it’s a difficult one to predict.What do you think are the main challenges Modi needs to address, moving forward?I think the main challenge is on two things. One is that when an economist like Jagdish Bhagwati says that your development programme is in danger of being derailed because he is not cracking down on the RSS and the more extreme VHP, then that’s something Modi should pay attention to because Bhagwati is his economic guru. That’s one problem he has to address. I think the other problem is that he has all these promises about development and he has to deliver and that’s not at all an easy task. You have to change the way India is governed.In an earlier interview you seemed to suggest that it is not possible to deliver all that he promises.It’ll take a long time. If you take the Swachch Bharat campaign- that is going to take a whole change in attitude. Building of toilets is hugely important but there is the huge problem of maintaining those toilets and even, in come cases, persuading people to use them. So many cases of toilets built but neglected. These things are complicated and will take time.