Jawed Anwar, The Statesman, New Delhi.
The middle class has created its own world where people go to identical jobs, wear branded clothes, eat at familiar restaurants and live assured in their safety and prosperity. Beyond that, who cares? JAVED ANWAR on globalisation and its aftermath
An obviously ill rickshaw puller with the scorching sun venting its fury overhead and tarred roads burning like molten lava beneath his feet is a poignant sight, able to move even the most apathetic. But this is an age of extremes, of bulls going crazy and bears hunching shoulders in frustration; an age of dream-eaters who sip the juices of liberalisation through the straws of the mass media. These are new times for India ~ an India metamorphosed by the sublime touch of globalisation. Pity and that ugly hag called morality are dead. Buried for good, just like the Mahatma. They are not “chic” anymore. No wonder then, pity was the last thing on the minds of a leading bank’s advertisement gurus when they decided to use the image of a rickshaw puller to sell the bank’s credit cards.
The advertisement speaks volumes of the kind of change that has swept over Indian society in the last 15 years. It opens with a man, visibly thirsty and hungry, pulling a rickshaw. Then it depicts the man turning on a tap only to find it dry. He toils at a quarry, injures his foot and in the last scene gnaws at a dry roti. This is followed by a few lines on the screen identifying the man as an “ex-pickpocket” and a voice announces: “welcome to a cashless world”. Apparently, the point stressed by the advertisement is that once the man was a pickpocket and used to have a lot of money, but with the introduction of the bank’s new credit card ~ an extremely affordable option ~ people simply began to carry the card. It put pickpockets like Bholu ~ the man in the advertisement ~ out of work. They are forced to work hard now.
Not very long ago, it was not so difficult being poor. Though being a helpless wretch on the margins of society and struggling to live with dignity has never been easy, the poor were not so out of “fashion” as they are now. They were despised and even hated at times but were never mocked, until now. As India marks the 15th year of its open economy era, with the winds of liberalisation ~ as claimed by mass media ~ sweeping across the country, there is very little realisation of the changes that globalisation has brought into the country and society. While the socio-economic indicators may capture the changing digits in the statistical parameters of the country, the impact of new economic policies and globalisation on society is not as visible as the figures on spreadsheets. Yet, as the juices of the new economic policy seep into various quarters of Indian society and the ranks of the middle class continue to swell, some definite changes can be seen casting their shadows on socio-cultural relations and the way in which we think and conduct our affairs.
The apathy and a visibly stiff upper lip towards the downtrodden and socially disadvantaged is one such sign. So is the proactive judiciary which cares about one and all, asks authorities to remove cows and bulls, and arrests all those who weave cock and bull stories. Then, there are socialites-in-arms ~ candle-bearers who gather at India Gate to chant “let there be light,” and make headlines. Last but not the least, there is DJ (the protagonist of Rang De Basanti) getting a lot of admiration for playing out the role of a media-savvy, conscientious murderer.
It is tough understanding this change. More so, when there is very little historical precedence for it. But gradually, people are turning their attention to it and watching the transformation that globalisation has brought. In 2002, in an interview, Gunter Grass, almost prophetically, delved on this aspect. What he said at that time is relevant for understanding the changes that are appearing within Indian society. He said: “After the fall of socialism, capitalism is left without a rival. And in this extraordinary situation, it has emerged as an avaricious, above all, suicidal force, bent on destroying itself. It thinks that it can get away with any and everything.”
A situation that is apparent in India now. There is broad consensus among the decision-makers that the only way to move ahead is to give capitalism an unchecked rein, even at the cost of destroying vital resources and opening the country’s strategic interests to market forces. The policy marches in tune with the flow of capital. If there is capital for dams they have to be built; if a steel company wants to put up a plant in a tribal belt, it has to be given the go-ahead: displaced farmers, tribals, fishermen, artisans can be damned. Only those who have capital count.
While Grass focuses on the big picture in his analysis, another writer, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, explains the micro picture. Just a few days before he was to appear for a trial over his views on Armenian genocide, an essay written by Pamuk appeared in The New York Times. Though most of it was devoted to Turkey’s society and the nature of persecution that he was facing at the hands of nationalists in his country, he touched briefly upon globalisation in India and China and the changes it was bringing in their societies. He implied that globalisation is creating “new elites” who “feel compelled to follow two separate and seemingly incompatible lines of action in order to legitimise their newly acquired wealth and power.” He wrote: “First, they must justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West; having created a demand for such knowledge, they then take it upon themselves to tutor their countrymen. When the people berate them for ignoring tradition, they respond by brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism… On the one hand, there is the rush to join the global economy; on the other, the angry nationalism that sees true democracy and freedom of thought as Western inventions.”
The redefined roles of bureaucracy, a rejuvenated judiciary and police are thus self-explanatory in “new India”. We have a government ~ it does not matter who is in power ~ that cozies up to anything corporate but never hesitates to break unarmed protests with brutal force. It owns the right to arrest a woman on hunger strike and slap a case of suicide against her, while willfully ignoring the cause that made that lady sit on strike. Police often lathicharge at will, at times even shoot at protestors, that too at will, and are rarely held accountable. Civic authorities move heaven and earth to remove garbage and the homeless from the city’s glittering spots and raze shantytowns in the dead of night with impunity, but no one asks them to house the destitute. The most worrisome aspect of this new India is that the persecution of the underprivileged takes place amid “thunderous applause” from the middle class. The Indian middle class gives two hoots for anything that happens outside urban centres, often accuses the victims of state of being anti-national elements and then gets on with its work ~ unless, of course, it is Jessica Lall we are talking about.
The middle class has made its own world ~ an India within India where people go to identical jobs, wear branded clothes, go to familiar restaurants, and live assured in their safety and prosperity. But they do not realise the change that has forced them to create their virtual realities. They do not realise that one day the “golden age” may come to an end. This is what Grass has to say: “This system could collapse one day. We don’t have an alternative now (to all-pervasive capitalism) nor do we know if we’ll have one in the near future. In a state of a big, depressing vacuum, we may have to experience a new form of fascism, whose face we are not able to envisage now. We can
see traces though.” And, remember, Grass is widely known for his brilliant analysis of the growth of Nazism in 20th century Germany.
(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, New Delhi.)