Mover over, Maruti

In the belly of a city,
Where there are roads all over,
It's even more difficult,
To remember the goal.
– Binod Kumar in a Hindostani gazal

In the land of arguably some of the most argumentative people in the world, manufactured consent has edged out all contestations from the public sphere. Instead of debating the crises of food, water and energy; rampant ignorance and illiteracy; the unchecked rise of communalism; the accelerating marginalisation of the poor; continuing caste discrimination; the alarming democratic deficit or pitiful public squalor even in metropolitan cities – the Indian media is regularly full of celebratory stories of concern to a miniscule section of its middle class.

With apparent relish, the press offers the antics of Bombay cine actors, the exploits of cyber coolies of Bangalore, the shenanigans of cricket stars of Bengal, the outlandish ways of the entertainment tsars of Madras, the machinations of media moguls of New Delhi, and the mega-deals of Gujaratis and Marwaris propounded as achievements of an ascendant nation. Manmohan Singh once gloated, "There is no better way of assuring oneself that all is well with the world, than seeing your newspaper at your doorstep every morning." The tone of today's television reports must certainly make him feel that everything is indeed still getting better.

This leap year began with India leapfrogging into a bigger league. The initial public offer (IPO) of Reliance Power was subscribed to twice over within 58 seconds of its opening, attracting five million applicants and USD 190 billion before its closing. The Ambanis had started small a few decades ago, they started thinking big, doing bigger and delivering astounding numbers. The Tatas have been around for decades, but these days they seal gigantic deals abroad – Tetley Tea, Corus Steel and Jaguar Cars are not for desis. For the home market, it has now unveiled a motorcar with an ex-factory price-tag of a hundred-thousand rupees, the cheapest passenger car in the world.

The media din over the wonders of the Nano car's one-lakh asking price eclipsed another record-setting figure. India's National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector announced that nearly 78 percent of the country's population – slightly more than 830 million people – were earning just 20 rupees or less a day. Presumably, after the daily daal-roti, they do not have much left over to invest in share-bazaar or to buy a micro-car.

Owner's pride
Nobody knows what the Nano's future holds. It is yet to be tested on the crowded, potholed city streets or the bumpy rural roads. Despite the hype about Ratan Tata coming to the rescue of an archetypal middle-class Indian family – the husband, wife and two children precariously perched on a rickety two-wheeler, braving rain, sun and wind – the bulk of Nano buyers are likely to be the ones who already drive around in better cars. In other words, it is not the poor who will rise to ride the Nano, but the rich who will stoop to add to their stock of four-wheelers.

The comfortable classes will probably buy Nanos as birthday gifts for their adolescent progenies. For the middle-class urbanites, the ones who begin to shop around for cars as soon as they acquire creditworthy status, the one-lakh price-tag is undoubtedly tempting. But for street vendors and government clerks who brave the elements with their families on two-wheelers out of compulsion, a Nano still costs five or six times the price of an average scooter or entry-level motorcycle. All those allusions to a car for the Aam Aadmi of Bharat are obviously overstated.

In fact, there is no pressing need to exaggerate the genuine concerns about congestion on the narrow streets of small towns, or the worsening air quality of metropolitan cities: the 'no Nano' scenario is unlikely to make commuting or living in urban India any better. The ones with access to credit will still be buying enough Marutis and Indicas to make life a nightmare for pedestrians. Zillions of diesel generators clanking away to power 'affordable' air conditioners add as much to pollution as does any overloaded Tata truck belching black smoke. However, as a potent symbol of unrepentant capitalism, Tata's micro-car signifies much more than a revolution on the roads. It is the clearest statement yet that the era of 'planned economy', which emphasised cheap public transport and taxed luxurious private mobility, is finally over. Indeed, there is more to Ratan Tata's famous quip – "Cars make roads for themselves" – than meets the eye.

The Maruti heralded the age of the 'me-too' generation – toiling to keep up with the Joneses, as every trader aspired to get into the import-export businesses, with the help of an Uncleji in Dilli or a Bhai in Dubai. Yet even as they indulged in underhand exchanges, members of that generation looked over their shoulders and feared being caught red-handed. The post-liberalisation 'me-only' generation has no such compunctions. The glorification of greed has become so commonplace that nobody pays any attention to the misery of the masses anymore, as a select few amass fortunes by pandering to the fantasies of the upwardly mobile.

As nannies of super-rich families begin to drive their Nanos, they will not notice that close to a third of Indian children are below average weight at birth – a figure that says more about women and children than just about anything else. Granted, the situation was not much better during the socialist era of Jawaharlal Nehru, but back then no one could boast of increasing his wealth by "roughly 40 lakh rupees every single minute" without attracting commensurately punitive taxes. At this rate, the Nano will likely soon become the icon of the 'me-only' generation, with neither time nor inclination to think about anyone or anything other than themselves.

Neighbours envy
Perception is to politics as evidence is to the physical sciences, or logic is to the humanities. A concerted effort to portray India as a country on the path to peace through the power of prosperity has beguiled its intelligentsia into a pitiable complacency. The Calcutta literati find solace in the condescending comments of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, that "India's navy has an aircraft-carrier force; its air force has the latest Sukhoi and MiG aircraft; its army is among the best trained and equipped in Asia." When Lahore commentator Masood Hasan rues that "The four richest Indians can buy up all the goods and services produced over a year by 169 million Pakistanis, and still be left with $60 billion to spare!", the chest of the Amritsari swells with pride. Meanwhile, a locksmith in Aligarh probably wonders, "Wow, are those four Indians really one of us?" In the end, the inevitable conflict between the confident bourgeoisie and the bewildered masses will determine the stability of the largest democracy of the world.

The clash between the consuming classes and the deprived citizens of Southasia will be completely different from anything the world has seen till now. The experience of the Maoist insurgency and continuing turmoil in Nepal offers a preview of the chaos that can ensue if a majority begin to feel that they have little, if any, stake in the stability of the state. But by then, the upper crust will have decamped with their booty, and taken shelter in safer locations. Buying one's way to Non-Resident Indian status, after all, has never been easier.

Once the confrontation begins to engulf the country, the beleaguered government in New Delhi will be prevailed upon to test the efficacy of Tank-Ex – the new top-secret tank that will be proudly paraded through the streets on Republic Day this year – against its own citizens. It has happened often enough in various parts of Africa and South America, where the order of priority for private investment follows the pattern of cars, vacations, housing and then education. For decades, Indians saved for their children's education, dreamt of owning their own home and considered the purchase of a car a gratification that could easily be delayed indefinitely. But throughout human history, relative mobility – think of faster runners among our hunter-gatherer ancestors – has always been one of the most significant causes of jealousy. Buyers of the Nano today may well be forced to replace their shattered windshields more than once in the days to come.

~ C K Lal is a columist for this magazine and for the Neplai times.

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