Sushma Swaraj can control my mind. Listening to her speak during Tuesday’s Lok Sabha debate on the government’s plan to remove the cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail, my pliable mind wafted back to 1996 when m’lady was Union minister for information and broadcasting. In her 13 days in office, Swaraj had ‘advised’ Doordarshan’s news anchors to wear more ‘modestly cut’ blouses. Since then, my eyes have been fixed on the blouses of anchors whenever I watch news television.
But Sushma-ji’s mind control over me was at its strongest last week when she described with Marxist-Leninist fervor how FDI in retail will spread pestilence and devastation across the land with “crores out of work and dark homes and shiny malls” appearing from the rubble. Arguing that FDI in retail will create a Godzilla-like monopoly that will stomp on all other human enterprise, she added while making a ‘jhhanaath’ sound with the bunch of keys tied to her pallu-end, “We women go shopping and know that small shopkeepers give us a good deal, we don’t get cheated. Big monopolies cheat.”
This, I know, is bunkum. The kirana shop next to my house as well as the kiosk next to my office where I go to buy cigarettes almost always try to charge me R2 extra citing that the cigarette company has ‘just upped the price’ (untrue) or that they don’t have change (not my problem). My wife — one of Sushma-ji’s ‘We women’ — buys vegetables from the local roadside market (‘better quality and variety’) and the Mother Dairy outlet opposite our house (‘more convenient and cheaper’). If there is a bigger establishment that combines quality, price and convenience (read: distance), she would buy her veggies from there regardless of whether it’s a ‘small shopkeeper’ or a ‘big monopoly’ selling.
In any case, if what Sushma-ji is saying is true about small shopkeepers being hardwired to be wonderful and big monopolies being dyed-in-the-wool cheats, why on earth would people shop at big retail stores? Going back to a store that swindles you is, to my mind, a very stupid thing.
The truth is that Sushma-ji’s antipathy towards FDI in retail comes from a deeper anxiety: that of rapacious foreigners. Considering that she didn’t have to shave her head against the “foreign rule” of a prime minister Sonia Gandhi, our Rani of Vidisha has found a new ‘Quit India’ battle to wage. When she conjured up the image of “ships heaped with potatoes sailing into our ports” to supply McDonald’s, Pepsi and other nefarious multi-nationals alien aloo, Sushma-ji sounded as if she was quoting from Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which “the strange arrival of the derelict in the storm last night” describes the landing of a ship bearing a malevolent, foreign entity bent on sucking the life-blood out of unsuspecting locals. “We know how to sell dal and rice. Our people built a network where a man from Rajasthan sells rice in Arunachal Pradesh,” she finger-jabbed in Parliament, making me wonder whether, with all those Hondas, Audis and Hyundais on our roads, we don’t know how to sell cars.
With her incredible powers of suggestion, Sushma-ji almost convinced me that the entry into India of KFC in 1995 and McDonald’s in 1996 led to the shutdown of dhabas and local snack joints, ultimately leading to the extinction of the tandoori chicken.
But Sushma-ji’s X-Men-like grip on my mind is broken each time I stop listening to her. Which makes me vulnerable to the idea that Big Retail may end up co-existing with the more enterprising (and less hostile) local shops. In any case, with the decision to give the go-ahead to Big Retail resting on individual states, I suspect many people in non-Big Retail cities will travel to places where the state government is keen to have big supermarkets. Remember, it’s not just veggies and meat and milk, but also mattresses and crockery and furniture that these places will sell at competitive prices. So watch out for a domestic ‘Duty Free’ shopping phenomenon where families from anti-FDI Kolkata fly back home with goodies after hyper-shopping at a Delhi supermarket.
What I am curious to know, though, is which scenario will ultimately unfold once these low-price, customer-seducing market spaces open their doors to the public. Will urban Indians from all sections of society — from the driver to his maalkin, and the autowalla to his passenger — visit these supermarkets to shop for the different items on their different shopping lists that should all be on the shelves of these big stores?
Or will those below the ‘middle-class’ (drivers, maids, guards etc), or even with a ‘below middle-class’ mentality that many from the middle-class hold on to, look at the shiny, giant retail stores and incorrectly conclude that the goods being sold inside are not for them and too expensive? The way Sushma-ji wants to brainwash all of us into thinking that shopping at a kirana shop is cheaper than at a supermarket and is a less trying experience.