It is somehow fitting that a book that describes India as “two countries in one: an India of Light and an India of Darkness”, should have just won the Booker. We also saw the strange, but inevitable, blurring of that Light and Darkness this week when sacked airline employees took to the roads in protest almost at the exact same time that two flamboyant and influential aviation barons were declaring an unlikely business alliance. The turbulence had broken out in an industry that was once fuelled by the entrepreneurial energy and aspirations of what we have come to call New India.
When private airlines first burst on to the scene with their gleaming new aircraft and their glamorous crew, we would buckle up in the new swish seats and feel that that the ‘Cows and Snake Charmers’ postcard from India would finally be junked. Our airlines, we would argue, were so much better than those cheapskate liners in the West that made you cough up $5 just for a glass of water and a fistful of peanuts. Many of the girls in their short blue skirts and tightly pulled back hair were not city slickers but came from mofussil towns carrying only their ambitions for a better life with them.
We were quite happy to crown these enterprising businessmen as kings of their empires as long as we all got to take part in the good times. Yes, we were also aware that the glitz encircled a heart of darkness. In the hinterland, farmers were dying or, worse, killing themselves, and the gulf between those with money and those without was widening every day. But, even so, we told ourselves that if Meerut and Moradabad could now have the same dreams as Delhi and Bombay, India was slowly heading towards a greater equality. After all, even the sabziwallah had a cellphone now; this was the age of the possible.
But suddenly, we don’t know what to believe anymore. Our intuitive understanding of modernity is being challenged like never before.
Capitalism has been pronounced terminally ill by some and the obituaries written before death can be declared. The Market and Marx may have always been at war. But if the free market was once labelled a tyrant, it’s now being branded as the pathetic little school bully who has had to go down on his knees and grovel for help. In America, the clash between Main Street and Wall Street has already won Barack Obama the election. As a resigned advisor to John McCain told me, “Obama now has to do nothing but stand up there and say I am not George Bush.”
And in India, ‘vices’ are being elevated into virtues. They now tell us that the red tape that was holding off economic reforms may have been a good thing after all. Regulation is no longer a bad word; it’s apparently what’s kept India from free-falling into the abyss.
We are also being forced to confront the kind of hypocrisies that make us so uncomfortable. Last year, when this government announced a Rs 65,000 crore package to write off farmers’ loans, there was outrage in Corporate India and a general consensus that politics had murdered economics yet again. Where is that outrage today when the private sector and the markets look toward the government for concessions and help? If pink slips and sacking employees is the inevitable, flip side of a market economy, shouldn’t industries in danger of going bust be treated with the same cold matter-of-factness?
We know that the government jumped into the Jet Airways imbroglio precisely because it’s an election year and the images of protesting airline employees weren’t quite a vote-catcher. Strictly speaking, the government probably has no business meddling in the hire-and-fire policies of private companies. And it can hardly afford to occupy the high moral ground when the huge losses of State-owned airlines are effectively underwritten by the tax-paying middle class — that’s you and me. But if we object to the protectionist ballooning of Air-India, by the same measure, we can’t expect the government to bring out the parachute for the other players.
On the other side, an aggressive moralising has kicked in. How people spend their money is back to being measured by an ethical code. Conspicuous consumption may not be a value you and I subscribe to. Ostentatiousness may well be culturally offensive and insensitive, especially in these troubled times.
But here’s the problem: how do you mark the line that should not be crossed? How much is too much money to spend on a shirt or a handbag? In a country where wealth creation is one of the indices of a strong economy, can we really huff and puff about how that wealth is spent? If so, won’t we have to stop getting all excited about how many Indians make it to the Forbes list of billionaires and millionaires?
Balram Halwai, the protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning novel The White Tiger, would have once represented the unbridled optimism of New India. A typical rags-to-riches story, he goes from being the son of a poor rickshaw-puller to a cavernous businessman in Bangalore. In a series of letters to Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao, Balram writes about the two Indias he straddles: “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then, an egg will crack open — a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road — and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.”
If there’s anything that the financial crisis has taught us it is this: the egg may not be resealed quite so neatly any more. The light has definite shades of darkness.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV