How the fastest growing democracy is transforming America and the world
by Mira Kamdar
In 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance went before the electorate with the motto, ‘India Shining’. The BJP probably lost the election for a host of other reasons, but the sheer absurdity of the slogan highlighted the party’s callousness. ‘India Shining’ rang false to hundreds of millions of Indians in the throes of a prolonged agrarian crisis, and to untold others ‘retrenched’ from their industrial and bureaucratic jobs. Pratap Suthan, the advertising expert who designed the phrase, later reflected that it “is all about pride. It gives us brown-skinned Indians a huge sense of achievement. Look at the middle class, and they tell the story of a resurgent India.” The truth is encapsulated in the last sentence: the middle class is the subject that shines, and its self-image drives the hype about India, Inc.
New York-based Mira Kamdar’s new book both mirrors that middle-class bravado, and gently questions it. There is the familiar litany: India is the planet’s fourth-largest economy; its growth rate is very high; its cities spawn supermalls as fast as they can be built. Bangalore’s information technology sector makes an early appearance, and its entrepreneurs act as the philosophers of our time (Infosys’s Nandan Nilekani, after all, gave New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman the title for his 2005 bestseller, The World Is Flat). Kamdar rightly points to the role of the Indian diaspora, to those Internet and finance kingpins from California’s Silicon Valley whose children have now emerged as culture-makers in their own right – producing documentaries, films and comics, most of which are now created in Bangalore and Bombay for a global market. “Buoyed by strong economic growth and a new smorgasbord of consumer goods and entertainment options,” Kamdar writes, “India’s youth is filled with fresh confidence, fueled by high expectations. They believe the future belongs to them.” But who qualifies as ‘youth’? Almost 550 million Indians are below the age of 25. Many of them see their confidence shattered before they attain maturity.
Kamdar is aware of this. As soon as the reader of her book gets complacent about the opportunities, she steps in with a few statistics to dampen their enthusiasm. Farmer suicides, malnutrition, illiteracy and the shabbiness of infrastructure litter the text as signposts of other Indias – ‘Bharat’, or what have you. The ills are familiar, but they are often airbrushed from the India, Inc story. The push is on to brand India – the job of the public-private India Brand Equity Foundation established in 2003. This branding “is done by taking part of the story,” Kamdar tells us,
the story of a richer, smarter, and more powerful India becoming more like the West – and turning it into the whole story. The result is a cosmetically enhanced image of India where the less attractive realities of endemic poverty, a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic, environmental catastrophe, and collapsing urban infrastructure are conveniently glossed over, if not completely ignored.
The gurus of the New Economy (another branding device of the plutocracy) are generous enough to recognise that their enclaves do not represent the country. Infosys’s other guru, N R Narayan Murthy, yearns for a “compassionate capitalism”, a system that reaches out to the millions who have been left out of India, Inc’s framework. At least these new gurus are better than the bulk of the elite, whose members, as Kamdar points out, “are impatient with the poor”.
But liberal concern is insufficient. Nilekani proposes that, “Globalization is in our favor. Innovation is not a problem,” and so suggests that the way to create “ten to twelve million new jobs” is by “scaling it up”, or increasing the scale of the successes that he attributes to globalisation. India’s IT sector has so far produced about 1.3 million jobs, and no one really has the answer to how the technology revolution will draw in more millions. The expectation that the IT sector will produce more jobs, it seems, is more virtual than real, more marketing than sociology.
Brand experts tell us that India’s ‘middle class’ numbers about 240 million, just about the total population of the United States. This hype serves their clients. Provisional but more-scientific studies, such as those done by the geographer Jan Nijman, show us that those who are now ‘middle class’ might have always been so. Upward mobility is not the mark of this epoch. What we have here are people who no longer defer gratification, but who are able to buy homes and cars at a younger age than their parents were. Cheap money encourages people not to ‘wait for the promotion’. So far, job creation is not on the agenda. Rather, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, said in 2005, “China has a large manufacturing base. I believe it is the world’s factory. And India, with its development in software and other areas, I feel is the world’s office.” More jobs are created in the factory than in the office. Neither Planet India nor the IT gurus say much about this, although they are aware of IT’s inability to create jobs in bulk. The Bangalore companies continue to expand in India, but they too have outsourced production to China.
Kamdar’s book raises many problems, but offers few solutions. Rohini Nilekani, Nandan Nilekani’s wife, tells Kamdar: “Many of us try to dissect this animal called poverty. It has many avatars. In India, three hundred million people are living with less than they need to eat. Anything can happen … We are working in the trenches to deepen democracy.” This is pabulum in a context in which corporate power (Infosys included), however compassionate, overwhelms the state and the citizenry. What is nevertheless prescient in Rohini Nilekani’s comment is that “anything can happen”. As growth rates rise and produce an increasing gap between India’s rich and poor, the tinder is dry. What the Nilekani couple
Planet India introduces readers to a range of interesting people from the worlds of business, media, advocacy, academia, entertainment and government. But Kamdar neglects to talk to the political left, both organised and informal. While some ‘grassroots’ people make an appearance, by and large they are executive directors of NGOs with substantial funding bases. There are few barefoot activists or communists, trade unionists or Kisan Sabha organisers. Indeed, Kamdar’s knowledge of the left is revealingly limited: for her, the Maoists came out of the Communist Party of India, when in fact most of those who became Naxalites came out of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Kamdar points out that when George W Bush visited India in 2006, Delhi “was paralyzed by demonstrations”. But the politics of the demonstrators remain out of her consideration; they seemingly do not belong on Planet India. Were we to hear from them, however, we would find a different story – one that might see Washington, DC less as a partner (Kamdar repeats the tired reference to India and the US as “two of the world’s great democracies”) than as the engine of planetary suffering. Neither does the author offer any analysis of the baleful role played by finance capital, whose unfettered power since the 1960s has smothered the ability of sovereign states to enact their own destiny. Global finance has long been empowered by the Group of Seven (G-7) countries, the de facto leader of which is the US president. Kamdar’s evocation of democracy is formal and nostalgic: she looks back to the revolutionary era of the 18th century and the US Constitution, but not to their failures, nor to the undemocratic international polity husbanded by the G-7, together with corporations housed in the global North.
The future, Kamdar notes at the close of Planet India, rests in how India answers its challenges. But the future is also being lived out in Latin America, where left-leaning social movements and their political parties have seized capital by the throat. Now the rest of the world watches to see what those Latin American fingers are capable of.