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The Spoils of Indian Democracy | The Nation

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The Spoils of Indian Democracy

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There is a fundamental dissonance between lived experience and analysis that becomes pronounced at certain times, across particular cultures and in relation to certain subjects. Today this is especially true of books that look at people living on the margins of globalization, at groups whose assimilation into the model of neoliberal capitalism is still unfinished, still unpredictable. All too often, a writer crossing the border into other realms of existence chooses to ignore the dissonance, offering an analysis that hardly takes into account the difference between the way things look from the Western centers of neoliberal capitalism and the way life feels in the new capitalist outposts in Asia.

About the Author

Siddhartha Deb
Siddhartha Deb teaches creative writing at the New School.

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Such, at least, seem to be the overwhelming response of the journalists and scholars who have turned their gaze on China and India in the past few years, hoping, apparently, to discover in these two fastest-growing economies in the world some shape of the future. The interest is, on the one hand, perfectly justified. China and India together account for more than 2 billion people; both possess civilizational identities that predate anything in the Western world; and in each case these identities are inflected by the tremendous damage visited upon them by colonial powers. But an inquiry into China and India also serves other, less benign, intentions. As evident from the international business class strolling through the airports of India and China, these countries represent a success story for Western capitalism, a phenomenon that comes as a relief from the crisis in the imperial center, the quagmire in the Middle East and the dominoes toppling quietly but effectively in Latin America.

Even more than China, India seems to have emerged as a case study in effective Western indoctrination, leaving behind the reputation for chaos that once prompted John Kenneth Galbraith to describe it as "a functioning anarchy." As unabashedly capitalist as China, its cities similarly filled with new elites flaunting their wealth, India also possesses two attributes guaranteed to disarm the itinerant Western observer: democracy among the masses and fluent English among the elite. More than any other factors, these characteristics seem to explain the recent rhapsodies about India, from Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat to the cover stories last year in Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, Time and The Economist.

For Western observers like Friedman democracy in India is like air-conditioning in a building. Once they know it's there, they don't have to think further about it. It is possible for them to settle down and enjoy the fact that most people in the building, including the service staff, speak English. This is what Friedman did in his whirlwind tour through the office parks of Bangalore, and what he discovered was that India is more or less like Kansas. The world is flat.

Yet experience suggests otherwise. Although the Indian metropolises and new suburbs display a runaway consumerism boosted by rising incomes and easy credit, this is an incomplete and superficial picture. The upper and middle classes benefiting from the new flows of capital, when examined closely, appear both self-centered and riven by paradoxes, seeking validation for their lives from Hindu evangelist gurus even as they acquire the latest consumer gadgets. The call-center and technology workers Friedman calls "zippies" no doubt manifest a Darwinian drive to earn more money, but they are equally likely to question the nature of their work; they are contradictory people capable of expressing chauvinist ideas about their foreign clients and empathy for the Western workers they are replacing. And these are only the upper layers of Indian society, their numbers remarkably small compared with the 350 million people who still live on less than a dollar a day.

In a provincial city like Bhopal, which is relatively untouched by globalization, Indians can appear far more complex than is suggested by reports in the foreign and national press. When one talks to the displaced peasants, slum dwellers and small entrepreneurs there, they express both frustration at their marginalization by the new economy and a healthy skepticism about the benefits it promises. Unlike most members of the English-speaking elite, who dismiss references to the colonial past as a hang-up of the left, for unprivileged and often uneducated Indians the point of comparison for multinational corporations remains the East India Company.

Some of this complexity of the Indian experience was captured well in an article written two years ago by Financial Times journalist Edward Luce. Oxford-educated and a former speechwriter to Lawrence Summers during the latter's term as Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary--as the jacket informs us--Luce nevertheless demonstrated a remarkably firm grasp of the contradictions of India's rise as a superpower. Reporting from Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb that has gone from farmland to elite enclave in a decade, Luce described an encounter with a former army colonel who manages the suburb's first shopping mall:

I ask him why everything in Gurgaon has a Californian name. The apartment high-rises are called Beverly Hills, Belvedere Towers, Silver Oaks, Windsor Court and West End Heights. The office blocks are called Royalton Towers, Icon Pinnacle, Plaza Tower and Gateway Tower. And the malls are prefixed by Metropolis, or Mega or Super or City. Which way is it to India? I joke.
 "We offer a total experience for the full family entertainment," says Bhutani, as we sip our cafe lattes. "It is a total all-round experience. You don't have to haggle in the retail outlets, the prices are fixed. You don't have to watch rats scurry across the floor in the cinema or worry the power supply will go. And afterwards you can eat in a restaurant with a clean kitchen and guaranteed quality."

The colonel's automaton speech is a revealing example of the Newspeak that passes for public discourse among India's elite, far more representative than the gnomic pronouncements of Friedman's zippies. And unlike Friedman, whose faith in liberal capitalism is shared by Luce, the latter is a good enough reporter to note that Gurgaon is a fantasy, a Sim City in concrete and glass that appears bewildering to most Indians.

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