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Republic of delusions

The middle-class is in danger of slipping into an illusory world of well-being; a world in which growth is measured only by soaring Sensex and poverty hinders our ability to dream, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:03 IST

Is it my imagination or did India barely bother to look up and smile when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came visiting? Sure, there was a feeble frisson at the thought of ‘Sir’ Sachin, but even knighthood for the country’s most loved batsman didn’t quite cut it, with many arguing against the need for such “colonial” endorsements. Other than that, we didn’t even seem to notice. It was an ironical reversal of the years in which India would measure her self worth in how many miles of newsprint the White World spent on us.

We will probably show a little more interest in French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but that’s much more to do with salacious curiosity about a playboy President and his provocative partner, than any real engagement with the French view on the European Union or Iraq.

In the fifty-ninth year of the Republic, we could pitch this as a mark of self-confidence — the evolution of a country that has finally learnt to love what it sees in the mirror. Or, we could pause and wonder about the perilously thin line between confidence and cockiness and wonder which side of the divide we may be walking on. Perhaps never before have Indians (at least Indians of a certain class) been as self-absorbed and insular as they are today. It’s almost as if we believe if it’s not about us, it doesn’t need our attention (no surprise then that world news has pretty much faded from our papers and television broadcasts.)

We don’t have to look too far to see how a country that zips straight ahead on the rollercoaster to power, without looking left or right, can quite simply, crash and burn. The United States — aspiring India’s favourite country — had to learn the hard way that you ignore the world outside your door at great cost to your own survival.

Moreover, is India’s sense of self today being determined entirely by a minority?

India’s 300-million strong middle-class (that’s most of us reading this) has often been hailed as the most economically dynamic group anywhere in the world. Why else would luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Rolls Royce and BMW set up shop in a country where another, very different set of 300 million people still live on less than one dollar a day? According to the Indian National Council of Applied Economic Research, ten million Indians can buy the world's most expensive brands, another 50 million can make a bid for the cheapest in a range and a staggering 140 million Indians can realistically own a pair of Levi’s or a Swatch watch.

No wonder then that the Great Indian Middle Class — proficient in English, schooled mostly in an education system borrowed from the liberal West and brimming with ambition, has come to believe in its own myth. ‘Purchasing power’ is the cliché most often used to describe our class, and economics has come to define the basis of our relationship with both the State and the world at large.

In other words, while we remain as passionately committed to a larger role for India on the global stage, unlike our parents’ generation, we base our claim for recognition on our innate skills in areas like software and finance. We have bought blindly into the notion of globalisation superseding nationhood and genuinely believe that economics will equalise the world order.

Our paradox is this: we, the middle-class have a strong sense of national identity, but a weakening, almost vanishing relationship with the Indian State. We are so convinced of our own daily struggle for economic betterment that we treat our privileges as an entitlement. Equally, we think India’s new status in the global hierarchy was simply a long overdue recognition and having found it, we are now impatient to get on with other things, like how the Nifty may kill the Sensex. And as far as we are concerned, India’s poor may as well be a separate country.

It’s not as if we aren’t proud of our democracy. Despite the odd lazy lament for how the chaos of India would be quelled if only we had the Army ruling us for a while, we are actually quite proud of how egalitarian the vote is. In fact, even those among us who couldn’t be bothered to step out and vote will tell anyone who cares to listen that our democracy is what distinguishes us from China and elevates us to a philosophical level can’t be measured only in growth rates.

And yet, in the same breath, we see no contradiction in wearing our contempt for the political process like a badge of honour.

We may animatedly debate the aftermath of an election, but very few of us feel like stakeholders in the political process. Our assiduous apathy makes us strangely ignorant of our contradictions. And we never pause to remember that we too may actually be creatures of the Indian State.

So, for instance, we will boast freely about how India’s IITs and IIMs compare with the best in the world and will argue that Indian graduates now draw salaries that can compete with the top business schools in America. But ask us to explain why a third of the country is still illiterate, and we will look at you in impatient bewilderment. Worse, we will think of the economic stragglers as people who hold India back. In many ways it is similar to our attitude to slum settlements in our cities. We feel we are more than entitled to break municipal laws and build storey upon storey, after all, we wonder, how are we to create space otherwise? But catch our domestic help applying the same logic in their tenements, and we will bemoan the collapse of infrastructure.

India’s middle-class is in serious danger of slipping into an illusory world of well-being; a world in which growth is measured only by a soaring Sensex and poverty, farmer suicides, social inequality and caste prejudices are otherworldly infringements on our ability to dream.

But if we don’t learn to bring down the artificial divide between our India and the rest of India, the lie will catch up with us, sooner than we think.

And maybe then, we will stand up and take notice.

Barkha Dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7.