October 4, 2009

Enough austerity. How about some consumerism?

Popular cinema in general, and the Indian film industry in particular, is frequently accused of caricature. The critics are not wrong: with its song and dance routine; muddled story lines; and escapist fare, popular cinema of which Bollywood fantasy dramas represent an apogee frequently bear little semblance to reality.

Unrealistic and simplistic as Bollywood may be, its exaggerations are still reflective of the prevailing social norms. The evolution of Amitabh Bachchan, easily the tallest Bollywood star over the last few decades, reflects the changing milieu of Hindi cinema, which, in turn, draws inspiration from how the Indian society has evolved.

In a typical potboiler of the 1970’s, Mr Bachchan, the “angry young man”, frequently played characters, who, despite being poor, were generally happy; mouthed the best dialogues; and wooed the prettiest heroines. Satisfied with their station in life, their angst was directed against the archetypical ‘system’ which denied them the happiness their poverty provided. In contrast, the rich industrialist might live in chandeliered houses, and drive opulent cars, but was left alone, broken and lonely, till he realised the error of his ways. A visitor from outer space could be forgiven for thinking that poverty was a blessing in disguise, while being moneyed was an unmitigated disaster.

Mr Bachchan, the aged superstar, has travelled a fair distance from those apocalyptic days. Now in movies expressly made for the nostalgic Non-resident Indians (NRIs), he plays the stern patriarch, presiding over joint families who despite the riches have not forsaken their Indian roots and traditions. Money is no longer a matter of scorn or derision but of admiration.

The two extremes of Mr Bachchan’s oeuvre capture the distance India has travelled: From a extremely poor, cynical, and angry country to the post-liberalisation India, which, despite its poverty, has acquired a sense of confidence and self-worth and indeed, perhaps even cockiness.

But despite its celebration of entrepreneurship and wealth creation, there remains a hesitancy—particularly among the political and intellectual elite—to openly embrace the idea of a consumerist culture. A romanticised vision places self-denial—howsoever hypocritical and meaningless—at a higher pedestal vis-à-vis those find nothing abhorrent about individuals who choose to spend their wealth as they deem fit. Perhaps, the angst stems from India’s traditional ethos which has always  eulogised the idea of abnegation. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that India remains an extremely poor country—as the critics ask: In a country where millions go hungry, should ‘vulgar’ displays of wealth be condoned?

It would be useful to examine the recent public debate on the UPA government’s austerity drive in this light. While the government has argued that its emphasis on austerity merely reaffirms its pro-poor credentials, the critics have dismissed it as a symbolic exercise—after all, the savings accrued from ministers traveling in economy class are hardly substantial enough to deserve the brouhaha. Others have pointed out that the government’s stand is hypocritical: Shashi Tharoor and SM Krishna were virtually hounded out of five star hotels when the entire cost was reportedly being borne by the aforementioned ministers while government denizens continue to live in  regal bungalows in Lutyens Delhi at the taxpayers’ expense.

While valid, these criticisms miss the larger point. The Indian government can hardly be accused of efficiency; the opulent ministerial houses are merely a small manifestation of it. And as  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, has pointed out, symbolism has its own value in polity and in shaping of public opinion—after all, even the grand 26th January parade is only a symbolic celebration of the Indian Republic.

The fundamental problem with the austerity drive and its glorification in certain quarters is that like  Mr Bachchan’s movies from the 1970’s, it legitimises poverty. The clarion calls for return to days of Gandhian socialism might be mere sloganeering but it still represents the idea that poverty is an elevated state of consciousness attaching to it an ill-deserved moralistic value. Now that large swathes of India are enveloped in the darkness of poverty is undeniable. Whether couched in terms of “inclusive growth” or “growth with human face”, Indian growth story needs to embrace hundreds of millions who continue to live in poverty.

But an essential pre-requisite for a successful war against poverty is its recognition as a debilitating and dehumanising experience for those who are really poor. As long the Indian society remains comfortable with the idea of poverty, the policy prescriptions will remain statist in nature designed not to pull people permanently out of poverty but to make their stay in their pre-ordained state a little more comfortable: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), currently the flavour of the season after the UPA government’s spectacular electoral victory in the 2009 general elections, is a classic example of this muddled thinking. Unsurprisingly, the representative of this regressive line of thought, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi tells  David Miliband, the visiting British foreign secretary, that the rural hinterlands of Amethi represent the “real India”, willy-nilly arguing that those with access to comforts which money provides are not part of the republic.

Admittedly, the nouveau riche can be frequently be crass and offensive to aesthetic sensibilities; others may find Epicurean lifestyles morally troubling. But ultimately what constitutes excessive consumption and what is merely meeting the basic necessities of life is a subjective judgment best left to the individual. Moral outrage which is necessarily the function of idiosyncratic attitudes and experiences should not guide public policy. In any case, is not lack of class preferable to deification of poverty? Or to borrow from Shiv Vishwanathan’s idiom, is not conspicuous consumerism better than debilitating poverty?

Those naturally inclined to prefer a simple lifestyle—Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, for instance—can continue to do so. The operative word here is a naturally. The celebration of austerity merely insults the  poor. After all, what comfort is to a poor struggling man in a remote village if the marriages in New Delhi are less ostentatious? Or if Sonia Gandhi flies economy class and the young Gandhi scion takes the train? Indeed, much more column space and television sound bytes have been devoted to these spectacles vis-à-vis the tragedy of the drought-hit Indian farmer.

Yes, as already conceded, symbolism is an important part of public life. But it is merely means to an end; it should not become the end itself for that results in feel-good policies which do little except provide succour to some ‘concerned’ souls.  The former American ambassador to India, JK Galbraith, once described Nehruvian commitment to public enterprise as “post-office socialism for it operated at no profit, hopefully no loss, with no particular efficiency and with no other clear purpose in mind.” Replace public enterprise with austerity and Galbraith’s pity comment wonderfully captures the import of the austerity drive: a meaningless, self-serving and ultimately dangerous exercise.

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