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December 22, 2018

Incredible India

Opinion

December 22, 2018

India is a land of contradictions. It is the world’s largest democracy but stubbornly denies the right to self-determination to Kashmiris and treats them to pellet guns. It is a bastion of secularism but people are put to death on the slightest suspicion of eating beef.

Among the world’s fastest growing economies, India is also home to the globe’s largest number of people living in poverty, squalor and misery. It is on the cusp of becoming an information technology powerhouse but an enormous section of its society remains mired in superstitions and continues to be ripped off by spiritual cons masquerading as babas, pirs, swamis, rishis and gurus.

Likewise, India’s soft power – the entertainment industry, yoga and meditation – holds worldwide sway but the society it projects doesn’t exist. Yoga and meditation are no longer a way of life in India, having been reduced to foppish, money-spinning stress-exfoliating techniques.

Hence, for all its glamour and voluptuousness, India’s tremendous soft power can’t conceal the excrescence that exists in the shape of slums and shanty towns in metropolises. Here is a society that in recent years has seen a mushroom growth of the nouveaux riches but where farmers commit suicide in the face of bad crops and girls can’t marry because their parents fail to arrange dowry or meet other marriage expenses. All this makes India so incredible a country.

Recently, the entire world saw a glimpse of incredible India when the daughter of the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, got married to the son of another billionaire. The high point of the sumptuous pageantry and ostentatious festivities, which marked what has been billed as the world’s most extravagant wedding ever, was the occasion when two former US secretaries of state and presidential contenders whirled on the dance floor with Bollywood heartthrobs. By all accounts, super wealthy Indians can blow anyone’s socks off.

The lavish expenditure on the matrimonial event of the decade has been defended on two grounds: that it’s for the Ambanis, who pay millions in taxes, to decide how to fork out their enormous but hard-earned fortune; and that hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs were created in the course of the expensive festivities. Such arguments, however, scratch only the surface of the criticism.

It was the economist Thorstein Veblen who coined the term conspicuous consumption to illustrate the consumption pattern observed in the latter half of the 19th century, undergirded by the wealth generation caused by the Industrial Revolution. As Veblen argues, consumption not only satisfies physical or physiological needs; it also helps meet social aspirations. A vehicle, for instance, enables us to move conveniently from one place to another. At the same time, it is also a means to show off our wealth. While any four-wheeler can serve the physical purpose; only a top-of-the-line brand can be regarded as a status symbol.

The trend-setting affluent segment, which Veblen calls the leisure class, is always bursting to inspire awe among the rest of society. Therefore, it sees little point in consumption for the sake of it. Of what use a house is if it doesn’t leave neighbours and passers-by – and in the case of the Ambanis, who own arguably the world’s most expensive private residence, an international audience – stunned in amazement?

There are unmistakable signs that a society’s scarce resources are being grossly misallocated when ostentatious appearance is deemed to be more important than utility; the manufacturer’s or designer’ logo is preferred to product performance; goods and services are bought not to satisfy genuine needs but to avoid the stigma of being labelled tasteless; purchase decisions are governed by the desire to leave others spellbound; acquisitive instinct is allowed to run amok in the name of the right to choose; or when a 45-minute concert costs three million dollars in a country where the per capita income is less than $2000 a year. The result is tremendous social waste, which is out of kilter with avowedly the strongest feature of a capitalist society – optimal resource allocation.

Conspicuous consumption also gives rise to social emulation, as those living at the bottom and middle of the economic heap seek to ape the lifestyle of the upper class, even if it entails living beyond their means. This is normally done either by using scaled-down versions of the products used by the upper class or by running into debt. The inevitable result is frustration. That’s what makes conspicuous consumption the kiss of death for those who don’t afford it.

Cultural characteristics of societies like India and Pakistan, make them highly susceptible to conspicuous consumption. Such societies are characterised by a high propensity to consume, high need affiliation (the desire to please others), and high need dependency (feeling inferior to others, who are wealthier). In such societies, prestige takes precedence over utility in determining the value of a commodity. The rich make a parade of their wealth and the less affluent are desperate to avoid the stigma of being branded as an underclass.

The traditional land-owning Indian elite – the rajas and the princes – displayed their enormous wealth in three principal ways: a panoply of grand palaces, castles and chateaus; a collection of pricey and ostentatious ornaments; and a fleet of well-bred horses and, in some cases, awe-inspiring elephants. Industrialists like the Tatas and the Birlas, though rich, were culturally subdued. Businessmen were not yet a role model. The era of socialism in post-Independence India sounded the death-knell for the landed gentry. The chateaus were turned into tourist resorts.

In the early 1990s, in line with the winds of change blowing across the globe, India began to open up its economy and tread the capitalist path. Thus emerged a new corps of the sky-is-the-limit industrialists, who were destined to be the trendsetters in the 21st century India. Though the new elite earned their wealth from capital and were harbingers of a new India, they retained, with slight changes, the stately lifestyle of the land-owning class – including its love for imposing residential structures. Whereas the princes of yore could impress only their visitors and acquaintances, the IT revolution has enabled the new leisure class to have unlimited followers. The current wave of conspicuous consumption and its impact know no bounds.

If wealth creation is the basis of development, India is on the cusp of graduating into a developed economy. But development is not synonymous with capital accumulation: building factories, upgrading infrastructure and creating wealth. Just as science is not merely a body of knowledge but also a way of thinking and an outlook on life, economic development is not essentially a game of numbers but a cultural problem. In the course of development, the biggest challenge a society faces is to evolve supportive social values.

In the case of India, only a small class has been the driver, and the major beneficiary, of economic growth, while the rest of society has been largely excluded from both the process and its outcome. Hence, India has all the characteristics of economic and sociological dualism. As culture underpins development, India is likely to remain a backward society for decades. The Ambanis have lent credence to this argument.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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