|Image: The Hindu|
The paradoxes that abound in a rich country with poor people are legion, and the Indian condition is no exception. The yawning chasm between the cruel realities on the ground for the majority and the rarefied heights in which the thriving classes luxuriate was aptly illustrated at the recent Aero India 2007 show. The premier – and only – air show of Southasia had apparently ‘arrived’. Taking place 7-11 February at the Indian Air Force base in Bangalore, Aero India 2007 presented some of the most advanced machines currently available to men and states – from luxurious private jets, to fighters, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, light combat helicopters and Multirole Transport Aircraft. The Americans, expectedly, showed up in full force, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Ironically, today the market for the mighty machines for the air is in the countries of the global South. While there was military hardware aplenty, Aero India was less about militarism than about objects of desire, made available to those classes that see their own development as particularly removed from the process of attending to the concerns of the great unwashed masses.
The atmospherics emanating from the breathless Indian national media could not have been better. Lakshmi Mittal had recently bought up Arcelor Steel, Tata had just taken over the Anglo-Dutch Corus, and K M Birla’s Hindalco was soon to follow with an all-cash buyout of the American Novelis. Greeted as a unique hero at Aero India, Ratan Tata, at 69, became the oldest man in the world to fly an F-16, and his sortie received blanket coverage. Although no price was too high in Tata’s takeover of Corus, the headline- and caption-writer forgot to mention his reluctance to pay fair compensation for the land his multinational had acquired in Singur. This dual approach to economic acquisition by the state-supported corporate class typifies the Shining India culture that was the undoing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2004 general election. Evidently, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance under Manmohan Singh has not yet learned the lesson either: that chasing the stars in the firmament of an illusory Still Shining India can bring grief to both the ruling party and the populace at large.
The wages of inflation
While the aircraft were conducting their acrobatics in Bangalore, in the Indian mandis the price of onions was soaring, as was that of wheat, pulses and vegetables. Inflation is at 6.5 percent and rising, which mocks the much-vaunted nine percent growth rate, and puts in the shade the rising stock-market indices. Long before the BJP coined the slogan ‘Shining India’, it had stars in its eyes. The party presumed that a rising stock market, high growth rate, the nuclear muscle acquired with Pokharan-II, and the opening of the Indian economy to Western goodies would keep it in power. This blinded the party to the reality of how inflation bites. In 1998, the rising price of onions dealt it a resounding defeat in assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
The BJP refused to see the real India’s impoverishment because (thanks to the Kargil conflict) in 1999 it returned to office, proceeding to project the feel-good factor right through to 2004. Although the Congress party benefited in the ballot from the BJP’s blindness, it is now confronted with an acute economic crisis of its own. Inflation, like death and taxes, spares no one. While some sections may capitalise during instances of significant inflation, nobody is unaffected by the all-around increase in prices. The poor no doubt take the worst beating, which can become calamitous in a climate in which the government is acquiring land for private business ventures. Suicides by farmers are now reported in a few states, but continued neglect may turn a seasonal crisis of migration into a perennial, large-scale problem.
The choices are stark. Either the elected elite and their privileged props in the economic driving seat (along with the media) can wallow gleefully in the global acquisitions of the Tatas and Birlas, and celebrate Shilpa Shetty’s winning of 100,000 pounds on the Big Brother show. Or, they can pay a little more attention to the likes of Amartya Sen, who has continually reiterated the case for involving the poor in development by providing them access to basic nutrition, immunisation and education. Thanks to Sen, there are now other Nobel Prize winners – Joseph Stiglitz, Martha Nussbaum, Mohammad Yunus – who are taking a lot more interest in where India should be headed. A little more attention to the words of these ‘worriers’ and a little less preoccupation with the ‘celebrating classes’ may not change the economic climate, but it could at least send a different signal about the political direction India is taking.