on a Billion - 3
The idea of India in the era of globalisation
The new Indian middle class
Among the more striking economic and social effects of the opening of the Indian economy since 1991 are increased growth rates — reaching 6-7 per cent in the mid-1990s, and touching 8 per cent in 2004. This has driven rising prosperity, visible in the great metropolises as well as in India’s smaller towns, and it has helped to create what is termed ‘the new Indian middle class’. Though hard to quantify in precise figures, it is large in absolute terms, encompassing some 150 million or more Indians. At most, it forms some 15 per cent of the entire population, but it is economically powerful. In fact, its economic origins go further back — the result of affluence created by increasing agricultural productivity (the ‘Green Revolution’) in northern India, a ‘White Revolution’ in dairy farming in the western regions, and in the southern states, remittances from emigrants. This new class is resident mainly in India’s many provincial cities (India has more than 200 cities with a population of over 100,000): it wishes aggressively to participate in the patterns of consumption enjoyed by its richer counterparts in the big cities — New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras — but to do so on its own, vernacular terms, to bring the consumption opportunities of the big cities back to the provincial ones. The politics emerging from these cities, associated with this class, is fuelling a new, more chauvinistic nationalism, as well as feeding a sharper caste politics.
Growth has generally been to the benefit of India’s urban residents. It has also been partial and uneven in various ways. Certain sectors have done remarkably well over the past decade: most notably India’s software industry, which has seen phenomenal growth and created virtual, offshore cities like Bangalore — which has become for many a beacon of a new Indian modernity, but which in fact offers a rather bleached version of the nationalist cosmopolitanism associated with the original idea of India. Regionally too, the distribution of growth and investment for future growth is markedly uneven. It is important to note the scale of India’s regional states: the largest, Uttar Pradesh, has a population of around 160 million, and India also has seven states whose population is over fifty-five million. Most of these states are now in active competition as they seek foreign investment. Between 1991 and 1996, the three most successful states in securing foreign direct investment were Delhi, Maharashtra and Gujarat: with 15 per cent of India’s population, they received 40 per cent of FDI. On the other hand, the three least successful (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) with 32 per cent of the population, received just 3.5 per cent. Finally, while the percentage of those living below the poverty line is declining, there are still several hundred million who find themselves in this category, and social inequality appears to be rising.
Despite this mixed picture of the effects produced by the recent surge in growth, there is a broad consensus among the Indian elite that the process of opening up must continue. Opposition to it can still be found among certain groups on the left, among Hindu nationalists of the extreme right, and sectors of organised labour, as well as some elements of big business who have benefited from the protectionist policies of the past. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led India’s governing coalition until last summer, reversed its earlier opposition to liberalisation — not least because many of its funders are in favour of liberalisation or are members of India’s prosperous diaspora resident abroad, who seek more favourable investment conditions in India. Other parties of the BJP coalition, drawn from the regional states, and the Congress Party, which is now in office, are also in favour of liberalisation.
Such trends and developments will, however, pose considerable challenges for the Indian state. Advocates of liberalisation are correct to highlight areas in which the Indian state has shown an inclination to do too much, but that is only half the story, for the state has also done too little. Although the state is withdrawing from many areas of the regulation of economic life and giving up the levers and instruments which allowed it to play this regulatory role, liberalisation is unlikely to free the state from demands being made. On the contrary, demands, often contradictory, will increase. They will take the form of pressures for and against redistribution to groups and regions; for and against the control of internal migration; for access to scarce resources such as river waters; for control of environmental hazards; and for the regulation of financial institutions and practices. Yet, despite this foreseeable range of responsibilities, the Indian state finds itself both without agreed principles and mechanisms to adjudicate such claims, and without resources. The state will need to establish effective mechanisms that can allow growth to be ‘aimed’ at particular goals: which include improving the structures of opportunity for India’s poor. It will also need to find ways of maintaining macroeconomic stability, which will involve regaining a grip on public finances and pushing forward with fiscal reform.
The erotics of identity
India is today in the throes of questions about what is Indian: public debate is afflicted by what some, writing of parallel soul-searchings in Ireland, have diagnosed as an ‘over-identity crisis’ — a fascination with self-definition that verges on the erotic. What lies behind this Indian erotics of identity, why has it come about? There are two broad processes, unevenly matched and actually in contradiction with one another, that are driving this. The first is a political movement, represented by the BJP, devoted to completing what it sees as the unfinished project of creating an Indian state in the image of a Western one. It wishes to connect one particular and exclusive story of what India is with the coercive powers of the state. The leaders and ideologues of this movement cultivate a voice that moves across various registers: it basks in the pleasures of victimhood and exploits opportunities for resentment, while demanding vengeance for past injuries. This is the aggressive nationalism associated with Hindu chauvinists, who wish to rid India of what they see as its ‘soft state’, and replace it with one that looks more Western. It expresses a yearning to conjure a culturally and ethnically cleansed, homogenous community, one that possesses a singular Indian selfhood, defended to death by a state with nuclear warheads.
The second process is harder to capture in words: the pressures of the market, both global and local, produce what one might call a commodification of Indianness. The workings of the market are creating a pan-Indian class of consumers who wish to have diversity packaged and served up to them. The new taste for unfamiliar food from all parts of the country (the invention of ‘regional cuisines’ for a national market is one of the fascinating developments of recent decades), as well as for ethnic fashion, remote holiday destinations, astrology and vaastu are all signs of this new hunger on the part of this rising middle class for consuming India. It is a strategy of internal eroticisation and domestication.
The current situation has its own deep ironies. Today we are in the era of free-market economics, yet the pressures are towards a command culture — Indians are enjoined to obey the diktats of the state and of the corporate world. But the tensions between these processes are unlikely to be sustainable: for if choice is an axiom of the market, it is hard to see how it can be excluded from the realm of culture and identity. There are also practical obstacles to the homogenising urges, and developments in the cultural and political realms that are likely to expand the range of choice in the matter of identity. Two such are of particular importance. The rising consciousness and voice of India’s Dalits, increasingly prominent in public life, are sharply opposed to the Hindu chauvinism of the BJP and other groups, which they see as the ideology of upper caste, Brahminical India. Second, the deepening of regional identity, in forms which are not secessionist but which seek to remain active members of the Indian Union while extracting better terms of membership, is also likely to change the shape and content of Indian identity in the years to come.
One might take a pessimistic view of such developments. One could argue that the idea of a bicultural, layered Indian identity, the idea that animated the nationalist movement, is fragmenting into distinct cultural segments: a small but powerful anglicised metropolitan elite; a loose, huge group of Hindi-speaking urban middle classes, attracted to the religious nationalism of the BJP, the politically active movements of the Dalits and the dispossessed, and the vernacular regional cultures. But one might also argue that from this a new image of Indianness may well disclose itself, for what is striking after more than fifty years of political freedom is the depth and commitment, across the country, to some idea of India. The main reason to be hopeful about this latter possibility is the operation of India’s democratic institutions: theoretically ramshackle and creaky as they often are, they have so far successfully enabled new ideas of India to emerge, to be debated, and to be either accepted or rejected by democratic means. Thus, there is reason to expect them to continue to be effective, in the face of the ever-increasing challenges, both domestic and global, that India will no doubt face in the years ahead.
Sunil Khilnani, Professor and Director of South Asian Studies, Johns Hopkins University, is the author of
‘The Idea of India’ (1997). He lives in Baltimore, USAi