An excess of goodwill. Pankaj Mishra is disappointed by a respected writer's journey into bland provincialism

India in Slow Motion

Mark Tully <em>Viking, 302pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0670885584

India is a vast, bewildering place, not just for visitors, but also for the natives. Crammed into the ever-shrinking international news sections of British and American newspapers, it is even less comprehensible. A lot, you feel, has been left out, or simply suppressed. But then, nothing too intellectually rigorous seems to be required of most foreign correspondents in Asia, Africa and Latin America; in their languor, they may be seen to reflect the general self-absorption and lack of curiosity of the societies to which they report back.

Wars and military stand-offs stimulate briefly both foreign correspondents and their audience. Even then, it is a rare journalist who doesn't end up massaging the assumptions dominant within his home country - assumptions of power and superiority that a deeper feeling for, and understanding of, his subject might have diluted, if not eliminated altogether. Much of the mainstream American reportage from Iraq I saw this autumn presented the diverse peoples of Iraq primarily as Saddam Hussein's victims, waiting secretly for their liberator from the west. Regime change, or revolution, in Baghdad seemed almost essential for the personal happiness of the Iraqis.

This may be a correct view to some extent; no doubt, it will soon be con-firmed on our television screens by Iraq's McDonald's-loving middle-class youth as they dance in the devastated streets of Baghdad. But it ignores the rich history and tradition of a very old society that has outlived many political disasters, including those imposed by the west, and whose survival and well-being is fortunately not wholly contingent on Saddam Hussein, or on the puppet warlords that are likely to replace him. Deprived of their complex humanity, the Iraqis came across in the American media - most expediently just before war begins - as an alien, impersonal, even barbaric people, who perhaps have to be bombed into democracy and the free market.

The prejudices and self-deceptions bred by the west's great success, the political revolutions and imperial victories in the past two centuries, are not easy to shed, particularly for the foreign correspondent, who has grown up during a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in post-war Europe and America. But foreign journalists in India are often limited not just by their assumptions but also by the size and complexity of their subject. Most of them set out with little of the training or heightened receptivity that an anthropologist takes to his fieldwork; they then spend a maximum of three to four years in close proximity to the tiny English-speaking elite of Delhi, whose opinions prove much more accessible than the lives of most ordinary Indians.

Mark Tully, who has lived in India for more than a quarter of a century, seems well placed to be one of the few exceptions. Unlike James Cameron or Ian Jack - two of the most distinguished India hands - his audience in India has always been much bigger and more loyal than the audience he has in Britain. His often courageous reporting has given to the BBC in India a moral authority, and a reputation for fairness that no media, foreign or Indian, has ever enjoyed. For many Indians, he possesses to the full the intellectual and personal integrity they find lacking in their own journalists.

In his previous books, No Full Stops in India and The Heart of India, both of which highlight in different ways the little-known sufferings of the rural poor under a callous and corrupt government, Tully seemed to have reciprocated the affection and regard he receives from millions of Indians. It was on their behalf that he challenged the articles of faith of modern India: the elite projects of westernisation and secularisation that Tully thinks are ill suited to the vast majority of Indians.

All this makes India in Slow Motion, Tully's first book in more than a decade, particularly puzzling. Tully attempts to record in it some of the changes in India since its socialist economy was opened up to foreign investment, Kashmir erupted into an anti-India insurgency, and the Hindu nationalist BJP rose to power. Along with his companion, Gillian Wright, he visits the north Indian pilgrim town of Ayodhya, where in 1992 Hindu fanatics tore down a 16th-century mosque. He examines the grand claims of one of India's leading technocrat-politicians who plans to bring computers to villages. He meets the debt-laden farmers in relatively prosperous Karnataka who have been forced to suicide by imports and falling prices. He also glances at the destructive dam projects that Arundhati Roy, among other writers, has tried to bring to the world's attention.

Tully, who left the BBC some years ago, but stayed on in India, seems not to have resisted the temptation, which is much bigger in these days of globalisation, to become a professional "expert" on South Asian politics and economy. Much of his book appears addressed to that new kind of visitor India attracts these days: the foreign investor. Accordingly, it has a thesis: "we argue", Tully writes, "that one of the fundamental problems of India is a peculiarly Indian form of bad governance". But as Richard Nixon once put it, those who complain about India being governed badly should wonder that it is governed at all.

Certainly, the theme of "bad governance" cannot accommodate Tully's interesting discussions of Christianity in Goa, the Sufis of Delhi and a political rivalry in which he played a part: they appear to belong to another, less topical and more intimate, book. Even when talking about bad governance or globalisation, Tully either misses or glosses over many facts. He seems to rely too much on local intermediaries, and then fails, or lacks the ability, to assess correctly the information they provide. He also seems unable to identify themes in, or to provide an overview of, the events he describes. The chapter on the suicidal farmers ends with the deflating sentence, "I have to say if there's one failing Indians do admit to, it's weakness in teamwork." It is as if by making bad governance in India - something so obvious as to be almost a truism - the central theme of his book, Tully couldn't but commit it to a certain banality of perception.

At many places, the theme seems to cover up an uncertainty of tone and vision. Tully's awkward prose adds to an impression of hastily worked-up notes. Books such as his are often held together by the personality of the author, his strong views and prejudices. But Tully rarely tells you anything important about himself, his companion, or his long relationship with India. In place of personality, he offers the famous persona: that of India's well-wisher (the book is dedicated to "all those who are striving for the good of India"). But an excess of goodwill makes for blandness; it can replace active engagement or sympathy. Tully's chapter on Kashmir describes not so much a war-ravaged state and its oppressed population as the itinerary of a celebrated journalist on tour, as he goes around meeting the top people in charge.

He remains passionate about religion, however. In previous books, Tully was sceptical about the prospects for European secular modernity in India, and appeared to share the Gandhian view of religion as the true basis for tolerance. In his new book, he declares his devout Christian sensibility, and his opposition to "overweaning [sic] rationalism". "Spaces," he writes, "are opening up again in which there is room for the possibility of divine intervention."

It is good to have someone like Tully defend religion at a time when secular fundamentalists blame it for all the ills of mankind. But he needs to define more precisely religion - which in India, as he himself shows in the chapter on Sufis, can be both private faith and fundamentalist ideology - as well as its role in Indian politics. As it turns out, Tully's own Christian faith is conservative. In Goa he finds it "easier to worship God in majesty, rather than god the social worker who battles for the poor".

Tully can also appear to be more of an Indian nationalist than the Hindu nationalists when he mentions, without naming anyone, Indian secular intellectuals "who undermined India's pride in its past". His speculations on how India's problems of bad governance might be resolved are equally dubious: "Globalisation, international competition, the WTO," he writes, "are all forcing the netas and the babus (politicians and bureaucrats) to surrender more of their economic powers." In Tully's view, globalisation, or neo-liberalisation, is a cleansing agent in India, something fundamentally opposed to the political class that plundered India's socialist economy. But the neo-liberals and the pseudo-socialists are known to work together; and their effect on the Indian poor so far has been, to say the least, disastrous.

The naive assertions of India in Slow Motion may be of the daily reporter who has been asked to provide not news but hard analysis, and who then finds himself floundering. But the talk of bad governance and unrealised potential and pointy-headed intellectuals reminds one of the impatient letters in the Indian English-language press from upper-caste men with upper-middle-class addresses. Tully doesn't seem much aware of how close he has moved in the past decade to the intellectual positions of a defensive Indian elite. It is hard to understand otherwise the misplaced priorities in the long rambling chapter where he explores the fraught issue of child labour in carpet factories, and seems overly concerned to defend a British expatriate businessman.

Edward, we are told, is a "natural raconteur of the self-deprecatory tradition nurtured in British public schools". Tully describes without self-consciousness a party at Edward's bungalow in the eastern wing of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which lies in one of the most wretched parts of India. He mentions without comment Edward's glamorous guests who feature prominently in the gossip columns of the Delhi papers. He writes:

"White-uniformed, bare-footed servants . . . ensured no glass was empty. Punkahs turned lazily, more to disturb the flight plans of the mosquitoes than to provide relief from the temperature, which was quite comfortable that night. But there was no sign of dinner. I didn't mind, having reached the state when I didn't want dinner to interfere with the drinking. Nor did Edward, who continued his story."

The public-school raconteur, the uniformed bare-footed servants, the lazy punkahs: we seem to be back in the cosy self-enclosed Anglo-India of Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills. But the pointed irony that could show up the self-satisfied narrator never arrives. This is not because the writer has gone native, but because he has gone provincial. India in Slow Motion speaks most vividly not so much of contemporary India in the age of globalisation, but of the foreign journalist as he grows older and relaxes into the expatriate life and its secure complacencies.

Pankaj Mishra is writing a book about Buddha