Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Neo-rich of the 21st century
Novelist and writer based in New Delhi.
Slowly, but surely, in the year 2000, India is beginning to erase the Nehruvian social contract that created the public sector and bound the employees to a corporate unit and the corporate unit to the nation. In the age of restructuring and re-engineering that this has ushered, employees are no longer valued resources but expendable commodities. And likewise, the employers are no longer demi-gods and fuedal lords in one. They are going to become one with a mind-boggling scenario of a private sector, where the growing manager with the corporate experience of a lifetime might suddenly be written off as hopelessly old fashioned; and replaced with a young nerd, who along with, maybe the new owner's driver, will be sitting on a stack of stock-options valued in millions.
Amr Vastra Kosh
Clearly it is time to think seriously about wealth and what it means to be wealthy in India today.
The last time Indians thought self-cautiously about being rich through joint holdings with non blacks, was in the 19th Century when the East India Company revealed to the worldly wise Indians occupying crucial positions within the system, the plunder-potential of their land. They got busy right away. This continued for almost a century till historic events triggered off a freedom struggle under Gandhi over the equitable distribution and domestication of India's wealth. The idealism lasted barely two decades.
Political debates then were all about the baneful influence of capitalism and money. It was okay to generate jobs but not great wealth which could corrupt our most sacred institutions. Slowly some crusading investigative journalists and economists followed this logic and began to glean disturbing facts about the trumpeters of this brand of Hindu socialism. They made dark revelations repeatedly about questionable personal behaviour and financial chicanery that they had discovered among various political groups in power. It was all very entertaining they reported, but none of it fundamentally changed the corporate scene. Campaign after campaign raised the issue: who wants to elect a candidate funded by corporate multi millionaires? But most significant aspirants and major political parties conceded upon probing that big-time politics in India of the Nineties was a career path all but closed to the merely prosperous; and no serious candidate can finance his own campaign. So in 2000, we have come to a point where the public seems to have become desensitised to the issue of campaign finance. Even coverage of the aftermath of the recent Rajya Sabha elections in U.P., West Bengal and Maharashtra focused on how many votes certain winners were able to buy for themselves and how they had raised the funds necessary to effect the cross-voting.
So the emphasis now, by the new public leaders, is naturally, more and more on overstepping the BPL (Below Poverty Line) masses, and networking with the beneficiaries of the economic revolution in international cyberspace. The last a compassionate rhetoric about subsidising the lives of the poor won someone (like say NTR) an election, was in 1991. Chandrababu has since then removed Prohibition and cut back on subsidised rice and cloth, but has been doing quite well. People do not wish to share poverty but wealth.
There is another force that makes 2000, the year when the rich and the few made the majority poor, invisible to their class. It is obvious by now that as geographic, occupational and social barriers that segregate the cyber space grow, the prosperous in India are becoming more and more ghettoised and introverted and reluctant to share their prized turf.
The computer-financial complexes of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta, Bangalore and Hyderabad are today both the main source and symbol of the new e-wealth. And though only a handful from among our billion strong population may work in this area, the young tech-wealthy are trotting the globe and investing in remarkable portfolios and joint-ventures. They care very little that they still hold the citizenship of a country, where farmers are drinking pesticides to kill themselves, where impoverished fathers are killing whole families before hanging themselves. Theirs is a world where money alone is a market, and all comparisons are with counterparts in the developed western world. It is very hard for them to understand people for whom a forty per cent hike in PDS wheat prices means disaster, or for whom Rs. 10.000 is a fortune, beyond imagination. They perhaps do not know any people who are not comfortably off. Their closest friends are work-mates, who belong to a mixed international "Biradari" (brotherhood) of professionals from Europe, Asia and the U.S.
Another noteworthy fact that marks the rich Indians of the 21st Century, is that they all inhabit a world that doesn't give a damn (not much anyway) for India's caste politics or indeed the whole new political paradigm. As a post-caste meritocracy they feel happy that they can opt out of the caste, class and gender divides of Indian society, whenever they like. So although most of them do not cast their votes, they swap many crude Laloo-Mayavati and Sardar-Akali jokes on the world wide web. Then they all laugh madly across the space with their NRI mates as though the decay of India's villages is happening in some faraway land.
The new rich lack the ability to imagine the grief of an ever larger number of people being laid off and made redundant by the very same new technology that has made them rich even beyond their own dreams. Nor do they have an instinctive understanding of how the negative effects of such rich-poor divides would ultimately ripple through the entire society. The idea that there is an Indian society, seems fast to be receding into the mists of time. The only issues that stir some strings of the insulated rich of India are those connected with environment degradation. A software engineer or a manager owning stock options in a multinational company worth millions of U.S. dollars, cannot be bothered about being laid off. Their nightmares relate to the heating up of the globe and the disappearance of forests or the rise of AIDS that will put paid to all those lovely vacations and safaris they and their family were planning in the Third World. If they lose sleep, it is not over the poor migrant labour, but the fear of those unauthorised squatters putting up their plastic tents in the lovely park across the road.
It is still comparatively easy to get people with old style professions (teachers, steel and cement industry workers, civil engineers and small farmers) to talk avidly about wealth and poverty alleviation. This class can still imagine economic ruin and the disastrous consequences of caste and communal clashes. It fears the rise of xenophobia and fundamentalism in a multi-cultural society. They do not yet have the oh-yes-now-that you-speak-of the-poor-let-me-tell-you arrogance of the very rich and the very privileged. They still know what it means to seek a job, to be interviewed and rejected to miss the proverbial bus. But the rich have mostly copped out.
Still more disturbingly, underneath all this, one sees a shift in the basic conception of what elected governments and nationhood means for the rich. If we look back to the Fifties, all those public undertakings now on the auction block, were then a conscious part of nation-building. Nehru spoke of them as temples of the new India. Government undertook to formulate a body of regulatory laws to control private capital and effects of great wealth in the name of national interested and national community welfare. The rhetoric is all but gone today. And the beneficiaries of its disappearance do not seem particularly bothered about helping a national industrial base grow in the private sector. Their work and the capital it generates, is only incidentally located here. In reality the wealth of the rich Indians today mostly does not reflect the entrepreneurial spirit of the new cyber economy. It comes from a clever alliance with business lobbyists and politically well connected persons who funnel millions in new outfits and the courses they feed. Their lifestyle blue-prints are rooted and receive their creative juices from the rich, developed world. When they do speak of poverty, inequality, water-resource management or women's empowerment on TV as star celebrities, for them these are mere topics for debate. The poor to them, are only images that surface in smart English news bulletins on prime time cable TV. They do not know the name of that child from Orissa, the one with the runny nose, eating a piece of bread, all covered with flies. They do not want to know.
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