Wake up India! It is time to break the fast with Kellogs cornflakes, toast made from Premium Harvest Gold Bread spread with Suncrest Margarine and Good Earth Marmalade, and wash it all down with Dabur Orange Juice. Then step into your designer wear and Woodland shoes, take a Tata Sierra, Daewoo Cielo, Esteem or even an India-assembled Mercedes Benz into your centrally air-conditioned office tower where a stunning woman executive wafts by turning heads with her brand name soap or perfume, and the boss appreciates you for using an upmarket nasal decongestant. Then return home to a happily Life-Insured smiling wife and kids, a healthy meal cooked in Sunflower oil, a Sleepwell mattress and contour pillow and, not to forget, sweet-smelling mosquito mat. Sit back, relax, and watch commercials advertising all of the above on your domestic cable system.
Trite, banal, but true. This is the 250 million-strong Indian middle class and its conspicuous consumption as promoted by television, which is received in 70 percent of households nationally. The new post-liberalisation mantra coined for the Indian middle class says: “Consume, consume, consumer According to a recent economic report, the middle classes ate an annual 38,000 tonnes of potato chips countrywide, dusted themselves with 15,100 tonnes of talcum powder, drank 2880 million bottles of soft drinks, and flew 10 million times a year. They are even buying themselves watches which cost between INR 20,000 to INR 100,000.
Earnings have been going up for both the upper and lower middle-income groups. Successive good monsoons and supportive government policies have led to an 11 percent growth rate among rural lower middle income groups while liberalisation policies and revised salary structures after the opening up of the economy in the 1990s has led to a whopping 18 percent growth rate among upper middle income groups.
There is a rush to acquire status, which is ensured only by material possessions and costly services. The new lust for top-notch brand names and other necessary accessories of status have international companies rushing in where they earlier feared to tread. Pierre Cardin, Sony, Omega, Reebok, Adidas are all positioning themselves in the knowledge that this is just the beginning.
And if you have trouble keeping up with the Jains and do not have ready cash to support your position in society by buying more than your neighbour or going for a Goa vacation, there are the hire-purchase schemes and the ubiquitous credit card. Today, even a criminal like the notorious Acid Raja of Bangalore (who earned fame for throwing nitric acid on policemen and sex workers) prefers Monte Carlo sweaters and sleek designer jeans.
A young well-bred adolescent commits murder in Delhi to get money to finance a holiday. Others steal cars, stereos, video sets, mountain bikes and motorcycles. Young offenders between the ages of 16 and 21 form the bulk of those listed by the National Crime Records Bureau. At least 91.8 percent of the total crimes committed in the country in 1993 were the handiwork of young new offenders driven by the wish for immediate advertising-driven gratification. A leading criminologist says this is something new in India—young people led to crime by the desire to have more glamour, a more flaunting lifestyle.
This leaves behind those whose lives are constantly exposed to riches without having any access to them—domestic staff, office peons, construction workers, earning barely enough to keep the family fed. Gruesome murders take place in the elitist colonies of South Delhi and the wealthy here and in other cities have put up high walls and hired security personnel with killer dogs on leash.
The picture is of a society divided against itself, and the middle class—which unlike the super rich still comes into contact with the poor—is increasingly ill at ease. There is just a hint of guilt underlying the new consumerist credo, whether it has to do with ill-gotten wealth, the exploitation of lower income groups, or the vague reminder of asectic traditions of old, or the austere ideals espoused by M.K. Gandhi.
But the twinge of guilt is momentary, and it passes. For if the gung-ho middle class can bribe its way through life then probably the gods too can be bought. Places of worship are packed to overflowing and people are constantly going on shotgun pilgrimages to faraway dhams, brought within easy reach by the highway or helicopter. Even here, there are stampedes and panic due to desperate bids to seek precedence over others: the rich can buy easier access to the gods and cut queues.
Somewhere in the legitimate pursuit of material welfare, all within the course of less than a decade, consumer culture has become an end in itself. Pausing between whiffs of a smuggled Havana Cigar, the social analyst expansively says it all has to do with a loss of the sense of proportion. Will a 5000-year-old civilisation, then, succumb to the first gale of this post-liberalisation phenomenon? No, says a social scientist, this one wearing khadi. The desire to consume will burn itself out, and green chic will take over.