Sir Mark Tully: ‘So far Modi has done nothing about reforming the administration of India’

Celebrated author and veteran India correspondent Sir Mark Tully is pictured speaking to a gathering of members of the Indian Journalists' Association in London where he spoke about India prime minister Narendra Modi's first two years in office

Celebrated author and veteran India correspondent Sir Mark Tully is pictured speaking to a gathering of members of the Indian Journalists' Association in London where he spoke about India Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first two years in office

Sir Mark Tully: ‘So far Modi has done nothing about reforming the administration of India’

14 July 2016

By Naomi Canton

Narendra Modi has concentrated too much power on himself and this makes him fragile as if his popularity wanes, the BJP party which he is the parliamentary leader of, could be in serious trouble, says Sir Mark Tully KBE.

The celebrated British author and former BBC India correspondent, who was born in India and resides in Delhi, made the remarks in London shortly after the Indian prime minister celebrated two years in power.

“It’s highly significant that the Government made such a big thing about the first two years as if you look back at Modi’s time in office tamasha (spectacle) has been a very important part of his policy,” he told a gathering of members of the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA).

“You can see it in his swearing-in ceremony, foreign trips and in Wembley (when Modi addressed British Asians during his first UK trip as Indian prime minister) which was as big a tamasha in India as in the UK,” Sir Mark said.

“This putting himself through a lot of tamashas and his regular Indian radio programme in which he addresses the people of the nation has been a crucial part of his personality. But that makes him fragile because so much is centred on him and his popularity and so it’s through that that he could be in very serious trouble,” the veteran journalist, considered to be one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters and who was once described as one of the finest journalists ever posted to India, said.

Sir Mark pointed out that the Indian media “allows the tamasha (show) to happen”.

They “wholeheartedly” joined the second anniversary celebrations of his time in office, he said.

He said the Indian press, especially electronic media, had been “very supportive” of the prime minister during his first two years and it was “through them the tamasha reached the people “and that that “raises some questions for us journalists.“

“I remember a journalist saying to him at his second anniversary celebrations ‘Is there anything else you want to say?’ which I was astonished at,” Sir Mark, who is affectionately known as ‘Tully Sahib’, said, implying the BBC would never do this.

Modi won the 2014 general election on two words: change (parivartan) and development (vikas).

“So it is crucial that he brings about visible change,” Sir Mark explained. The next general election in India will be in 2019.

So what visible change has there been so far in Modi’s time in office? Sir Mark said that the Modi-led initiative to open up bank accounts for millions of poor people in India had been a key achievement. The Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s People Money Scheme) has already reached 220 million households.

“There is a feeling in the country that corruption has been reduced and, in the business community, there is a feeling that things have changed too,” he added.

“But none of this amounts to acche din (good times),” Sir Mark said referring to Modi’s slogan achhe din aane waale hain (good days are coming) which was coined as part of his campaign before the 2014 general election.

“The crucial problem is that so far he has done nothing about reforming the administration of the country,” Sir Mark said. Governance is a key issue Sir Mark has addressed time and time again when interviewed about India, often citing it as the root of many of India’s problems.

“One of the problems of rural development in India is corruption of local bureacrats,” he explained.

“Corruption in India goes right down to the panchayat (local administration) level,” he said.

He pointed out that poor people in India’s ability to access welfare services often depended on having a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card.

“There is an enormous amount of corruption in BPL card distribution,” he said.  He recalled visiting a Dalit [members of the lowest caste according to the Hindu caste system] village where not one of them had a BPL card and another village in Rajasthan where the only two people who had the BPL card were the only people in the village who should not have had one.

He said Modi needed to tackle corruption at the grassroots level. “Modi needs to turn his attention to the inadequate, inefficient and, all too often corrupt, local government,” he said.

“I think the whole administrative structure of India has not been sufficiently reformed from the colonial-style of administration,” he added, referring to the British Raj.

Another big bang reform that Modi could highlight as an achievement, Sir Mark said, is the construction of new roads. But Sir Mark pointed out an irony: the driving on these roads “remains abysmal.”

The police force in India was still archaic and unreformed, he said. “You still see policemen at traffic lights stopping scooters for not wearing a helmet when before their very eyes cars are crossing red lights,” he pointed out.

Another feather in Modi’s cap though will be the bullet train project between Ahmedabad and Mumbai – funded largely by Japanese investment, Sir Mark said.

“He is under pressure to complete it by the end of his term or at best have it sufficiently visible so it has an impact,” Sir Mark said.

But there is another irony: the Maharashtra state has so far refused to give land for the building of the Mumbai terminal in Bandra Kurla Complex.

“As prime minister there are limits of power and one of them is the state,” Sir Mark said.

Sir Mark then addressed the much-talked about topic of whether there has been a saffronisation of India [referring to policies of right-wing Hindu nationalists] during Modi’s tenure.

“At certain levels there is a considerable element of it, especially at institutions within India,” he said. “In the civil service people are being promoted where they are known to be supporters of saffronisation. We have to wait and see now whether Modi takes the view that divisive politics on religious lines is part of his electoral policy. If he continues to allow outrageous remarks by some members of the BJP and RSS, then his attempts to promote himself as a successful international statesman will be seriously blemished,” Sir Mark added.


“India can never be saffronised,” Sir Mark Tully KBE told journalists in London

He said “major communal violence” would be a big setback for Modi that would dent his status and his politics. “It will be interesting to see what happens in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh (UP) state elections and to what extent there is an attempt to introduce divisive politics to Uttar Pradesh,” he said.

“One of his problems is controlling and managing this element within his party,” Sir Mark said, explaining that Modi was “riding two horses” [the BJP and the RSS].

“Traditionally the BJP does draw strength from the RSS particularly at times of elections. So in some way or other he has to be visibly saffron but at the same time there is a danger his carefully crafted international image could be undermined by communal riots. At present what he is doing quite skilfully is floating over what’s happening at the grass roots level.  He must not let it get out of control to damage his reputation and that is why the UP elections are so important . It’s a very uncertain situation at present.”

He said that there were also divisions within the BJP regarding the prime minister with some members unhappy at the centralisation of power around Modi. He added: “the RSS does not like personality cults.”

“A large number of people in the BJP will tell you that ‘we have always been a democratic party’,” he said.

“In the long run if vikas and parivartan do not come, and if he starts to lose important elections, then that hostility that exists that may not be openly expressed will get stronger and may start to bubble up. That could be a worry in the longer term for Modi. Modi will remember what happened to Indira Gandhi who concentrated all power on herself,” he said.

But Sir Mark, who has written numerous books on India, said it was his view that “India can never be saffronised.”

“I believe the basic pluralistic culture of India is such that it will always remain a secular country,” he said.

He said one of Modi’s biggest advantages was the virtual obliteration of the Indian National Congress party (known as the Congress party).

“In the last by-election in Uttar Pradesh one newspaper said the Congress party were not in the picture. You could say they were not in the picture on the national scale too,” Sir Mark said.

He continued that its vice-president Rahul Gandhi “had not yet shown a real nose for politics.”

But he said: “I see no sign of any real challenge to the Gandhi leadership. People fear it would split if you took the Gandhis out. In any case they control the purse strings and that’s one reason they are in control. The Congress party has to present a more broad and attractive agenda than simply going on about secularists. In the UPAs (United Progressive Alliance’s) second term there were lots of complaints and not much action but many people say the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was a great piece of legislation and Modi who was against it is now in favour of it,” he pointed out.

He said the aim of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) clampdown earlier in the year, which was headline news in India for weeks, was “to put pressure on left-wing student organisations and to promote the BJP”.

In February protests broke out on the JNU campus after the student union president Kanhaiya Kumara was arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly making anti-India slogans at a cultural event held to protest the hanging of a Kashmiri separatist in 2013. It has since been claimed that the video of the protests was doctored.

“Students are an important factor in politics and so it’s not surprising the BJP is trying to boost its presence in student communities,” Sir Mark speculated. “The JNU has long been regarded as a bastion of the left.”

As for the sudden resignation of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan, who recently announced he would not be seeking  another term and would instead return to academia, Sir Mark said: “It’s highly likely that he felt he was not welcome. I am not saying that is certain. I don’t want to contradict him but it’s significant who he mentioned as the people who had been helpful to him in his resignation letter.” These include Dr. Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Padma Bhushan and Magsaysay award winner Ela Bhatt of the Self Employed Women’s Association.

“BJP MP Subramanian Swamy most wanted him gone but whose job is Swamy after?” he asked.

“It may be that he was put up to make the remarks he did. A lot of the business community were anti Rajan,” he said.

Sir Mark said the business lobby in India had different views to Rajan on monetary policy and interest rates and the fact he was an appointee of the UPA regime “would have been a factor too.”

“We shall just have to see who gets appointed and hope that it is someone who is independent minded,” Tully said. He said it would be dangerous for the Indian economy if the RBI governor was not independent minded and was “controllable.”

He said another key challenge Modi faced in his remaining term was creating jobs for the youth. “One of the sad things about India is that it’s lost out on the alternative cheap manufacturing boom,” Sir Mark said.

He put this down to a mixture of reasons such as regulations, taxation, higher wages and licensing rules, but said manufacturing did not create many jobs nowadays, and nor did FDI.

“One of the things really needed in India is to create jobs in industries that are job creators,” he said.

“The problem with manufacturing is that many jobs are being done away with by mechanisation of all sorts,” he said.

UK-India ties are currently strong, Sir Mark said, reflecting what  British High Commissioner to India Sir Dominic Asquith had also said in an interview with Asia House.

“I still think there is a great affection between Indians and the UK,” he added.

“When David Cameron became UK prime minister his first port of call was India. But I don’t think opportunities materialised as he hoped,” he said.

“Yet Indians still come to London more than any other city in Europe.  India invests a lot in the UK and Britain invests in India. But any pretence of companies here telling India what to do or any kind of post-colonial imperialism is not well received in India,” the octogenerian journalist concluded.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer Peter Popham will be speaking at Asia House on Thursday, 21 July about his new book The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for freedom. For more information click here.

Join us for the launch of new book The Fortunes by Man Booker nominee Peter Ho Davies on Monday, 22 August. Inspired by three figures who lived at pivotal moments of the past, and drawing on his own mixed-race experience, Ho Davies looks at the Chinese-American experience. For more information click here.

To read an exclusive  interview that Sir Mark Tully gave Asia House about Narendra Modi just before the 2014 general election in India click here.