Diary

Pankaj Mishra

As I write, India is about to have its third prime minister in less than eleven months, but such apparent instability seems to concern New Delhi’s chattering classes only in so far as they worry about what the rest of the world might think. Evidently, or so the popular belief goes, in this 50th year of independence, the world’s eyes are trained on India. Accordingly, we must do nothing that shows the country in ‘a bad light’. The suggestion that if the world does spare a glance at India, it may notice some not very attractive features, is deeply resented. But then the self-esteem of the metropolitan bourgeoisie is a fragile thing. ‘Don’t talk to me about poverty and all that, please,’ the bright young trainee at the Indian Express admonishes me. ‘Every country has that. After all, India has survived as a democracy. Isn’t that great? Even Time magazine said so.’

It would, wouldn’t it? There hasn’t been a great deal of talk in the English-language press this year about India’s poor majority; horror stories about deaths from starvation, epidemics, caste killings, dowry murders and police brutality have been relegated to the inside pages. A bad light, obviously. You do find a lot of desperate attempts at metropolitan suavity in the Bombay and Delhi papers. The events with which they are besotted – new discothèques, French food festivals, literary readings by glamorous smut-peddlers, all-night gigs by long-forgotten rock musicians from the West, absurdly highbrow seminars – have taken firm precedence in this 50th year over the rather nasty and constantly deteriorating physical and social environment in the hinterland. Editorial writers prefer to work themselves up into a lather over whether Inder Kumar Gujral is the right Prime Minister for India or would there be a midterm poll soon, and if yes, can the country afford it? The general attitude outside Delhi is predictably one of déjà vu and indifference. Coalition governments come, and coalition governments go; their constituent members are interchangeable, here today, there tomorrow: it is no big deal. Any anxiety over the Government’s fate concerns itself almost exclusively with the Union Budget, which was still awaiting ratification by the Parliament when the Congress withdrew its support for the ruling United Front. And one can’t possibly worry too much about that. The Budget, after all, was drawn up by a member of the previous Congress Government, and was hardly different in substance from the Budgets of the previous five years, which ‘liberalised’ the economy, making it attractive to both foreign and local investors.

The most remarkable fact about India in the last five years is the relative stability it has achieved despite the rapid turnover of governments and political formations. The Hindu nationalist movement, the cause of such dark fears just a few years ago, lies deflated; the insurgencies in the North-Bast are under control; Punjab, after a long bout of separatist agitation, is back to its peaceable self; even Kashmir seems to have been lulled back to normalcy. You still hear a lot of talk about instability and its dangers from relics of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But it’s only a kind of nostalgia for the days when the state and the bureaucracy wielded significantly more power, and was the chief guarantor of political stability. Other factors determine this stability now, and none is more important than the professional class that has come into being in the last decade or so, whose growing affluence and cohesion makes it the single most powerful force in Indian society today.

No one quite knows how large this class is. The figure usually dangled as bait for foreign investors is 200 million, but that seems impossibly high. There is, however, little doubt about its impact, which extends to every aspect of contemporary Indian life. Among other things, it must be credited with the extraordinary political consensus created around the previously contentious issue of economic reforms. That these should continue is now an article of faith few people are prepared publicly to doubt. The presence of Communist Party members in the United Front Government did not prevent the previous finance minister from further decentralising the economy. The Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, has been, if anything, too keen to assure Indian industrialists of its support for the process of economic liberalisation. Kanshi Ram, the leader of the lower-caste BSP, has displayed a similar willingness to go along with them. With this potentially divisive issue sorted out, the stage is set for coalition governments. And we have seen some bizarre ones recently: in Punjab, where former Sikh secessionists have joined hands with Hindu nationalists to form a government; and in Uttar Pradesh, where the BSP agreed to share power with their arch-enemies in the BJP, thus providing the unlikely spectacle of an upper-caste/lower-caste alliance. None of these coalitions is expected to last; none will last. Even more unlikely coalitions may well take their place. But would that matter? It seems not. The focus has shifted from the stability of political alliances to the continuity of economic reform.

And once again the credit for that must go to the new class, to the subtle but strong pressures exerted by salaried professionals in the service sector, office workers, executives and the independent entrepreneurs spawned by the liberalised economy. Members of the older middle class – government employees, self-employed engineers, doctors and lawyers – also belong to the new interest group. Some of its recruits can be found in the political parties, where they form the second string of leadership and are the keenest exponents of the politics of compromise. In fact, many of the coalition governments have been engineered by young politicians. As children of independent India, the members of the new class have none of the complexes and inhibitions of the previous generation. They want to attain the lifestyle of the European middle classes as fully as possible, while at the same time seeing India as a bold counterplayer to the modern West, in much the same way as Malaysia, Singapore and Japan. They have welcomed the new prime minister because he, unlike his rustic predecessor, is expected to present a ‘modern’, ‘smart’ but ‘tough’ image of India to the West.

The new class, conspicuously present as it is right across India, has also given a semblance of cultural uniformity to what has been for the most part a chaotically diverse society. Certain of their vague cultural preferences have now been refined and elaborated into a distinct aesthetic by the fashion and entertainment industry. But staid newspapers like the Times of India were the first to switch to an aggressive sexiness. Three years ago, the management forced most of its senior editorial staff to leave (they left en masse and set up a literary review, a brave enterprise in these times). The new editors were given precise instructions for a complete changeover. The new generation of readers, it was felt, did not have much time to think, much less read. Michael Jackson’s antics are now accorded front-page prominence; the books page has been replaced by full-colour spreads on fashion and celebrity lifestyles. Other newspapers, struggling to hold their own against the visual media, have imitated the Times’s upmarket tabloid style with perceptible success. More recently, the fashion industry, previously a preserve of upper-class dandies, had radically expanded its market after discovering that a member of the new class in a small town is prepared to pay anything for a slice of metropolitan glamour – up to £10,000 for a pair of salwar-kameez. Arrow, Lacoste, Levis, have all arrived in Indian cities in the last two years. Cosmopolitan and Elle have launched Indian editions. The pavement sellers in Delhi have been swamped by glossies, whose titles (Gentleman, Society, Verve, Oomph, New Woman) make clear their ambitions. The number of TV channels has gone up from one to 30 in just under six years.

These developments do oddly little, however, to bolster the cultural confidence of the new class, which displays a predilection for the discarded leftovers of popular Western culture. National newspapers drum up patriotic fervour over Indian participants at international beauty and modelling contests; the fleeting appearance of an Indian model on a Paris catwalk merits several columns of newsprint. The approbation of those the new class seeks to imitate is still eagerly sought and cherished. ‘Isn’t India the flavour of the season in your country?’ the journalist hopefully asks of the visiting novelist from America. Senior politicians and bureaucrats recently lined up like shy schoolboys to shake hands with Bill Gates and quizzed him earnestly about his plans for India. As it turned out, he had none – there was much disappointed talk of his stinginess after he left. A lightweight like Steven Seagal, the star of violent Hollywood films, is forced to confess his love for India in interview after interview.

It is all a bit strange and unsettling for old-timers. For the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had bequeathed a slightly snobbish high Anglican-Brahmin ethos to the culture of the ruling classes – at its best, a kind of distinguished philistinism. For over four decades, the state jibbed at supporting any cultural activity which did not conform to certain genteel-bourgeois standards. Not anymore: the ruling class not only backs, but also shares, the cultural aspirations of the new class, and does so in symbiotic alliances with media and business interests. A case in point is the controversial Miss World contest in Bangalore last year, where the central and state governments did not hesitate for long before calling out the Army and Air Force, ostensibly to protect the organisers and participants, but in reality to threaten protesters into silence. The Government faithfully echoed all of the organisers’ justifications for the contest, the most puerile and mendacious of which was that it was meant to showcase the glories of Indian culture before the larger world. In their turn, the media, especially the powerful newspaper group which was one of the sponsors, worked up a campaign of scorn and ridicule against the hapless protesters. A few months ago, the Hindu militant organisation in Bombay, the Shiv Sena, which is also the ruling party in the state of Maharastra, came to be unofficial sponsors of Michael Jackson’s first Indian tour. The scourge of Indian Muslims, self-appointed upholder of Hindu culture, and admirer of Adolf Hitler, Bal Thackeray, received the ludicrous rock star at his house in Bombay, and then sought to establish a permanent link with tinselly glamour by claiming afterwards that Jackson had used his lavatory.

There is ample scope here for both satirists and serious critics. But a bland acquiescence is more often the rule among cultural commentators. There is still plenty of intelligent comment to be found in small circulation magazines like the left-wing Economic and Political Weekly and the feminist Manushi, or the southern-based Frontline, but little of it reaches the larger public. The intellectual Left, though impressive in size and quality, is rarely heard. Like other Third World intelligentsias, it was always too damagingly parasitic on state patronage. After the drastic reduction of state subsidies to education, it is now a rather sullen, disgruntled community, and when not seeking shelter in Anglo-American academia survives, precariously, on the fringes of the larger cultural world. Here and there it emits a few furious blasts: a recent one was against Granta’s Indian issue, which was widely denounced as tainted with white-Orientalist ideologies, wholly inappropriate to the Golden Jubilee Celebrations. But then no one quite knows what would be appropriate ways to celebrate the anniversary. The bright ideas proposed by the Government resemble alarmingly those put forward by General Stumm von Bordwehr to the Collateral Committee in The Man without Qualities. Interestingly, the more confident and clear ideas seem to come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has arranged, among other things, for the Royal Shakespeare Company to tour, followed by the Queen later this year.

Come to think of it, these may be appropriate guests for the distasteful orgy of self-congratulation we must put up with for the next few months. The modernising Indian classes, the fans of Shakespeare, the readers of Time, and their counterparts in Britain, are ever eager for opportunities to put another layer of gloss over the still somewhat embarrassing fact of colonialism.