The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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This is an India that is comfortably close...
- ... and changing fast, under Manmohan Singh or anyone else

Enslaved by gratification and opulence, the soul is lost

Worldly wisdom cannot pave the path to salvation.

(Shloka 44, IInd chapter, Gita)

Pay your taxes, hold your head high

Buy whatever you want.

(Modern-day Krishna with a little help from I-T Dept)

And there’s no need to hide the E-Class Mercedes Benz.

From the Gita to Gandhi was but a natural step. From Gandhi’s loincloth to Jawaharlal Nehru’s temples of modern India ' he meant dams but he was also a dreamer ' was a giant leap.

Today’s India also builds temples, of steel and glass. From dams that store water to malls that hold stores, the walk may be long but the step is still natural.

Quizmaster Derek ’Brien says: “My philosophy is simple.” He pays his taxes, holds his head high ' as the income-tax department suggested in a slogan ' and buys what he wants.

He drives to work in a Mercedes Benz, adorns his garden with Mexican grass and his home with expensive paintings and vacations on luxury cruises.

He is the Emperor Consumer ' don’t they teach in business schools consumer is king' And he’s just been handed some extra money by P. Chidambaram, who rejigged the income-tax structure in the budget lowering the burden.

In China, they are called Little Emperors. Sons or relatives of party leaders, they have amassed fortunes from business or other means. As an affluent society emerges from centuries of poverty, state-controlled Chinese media are extolling the virtues of modest living while shooting consumption drives growth beyond 10 per cent.

Chinese culture apparently discourages show of wealth. The Chinese have proverbs like “a prominent bird gets shot”, “a blossoming tree will eventually be destroyed”.

So in India, in Hindu scriptures. Or in Christianity where the poor are worshipped, but whose followers are history’s original consumers.

“Though Indian history is loaded with examples of kings flaunting their wealth, our tradition has always been against excessive self-indulgence and flaunting,” says Ved Vyas, an expert on the shastras and chairman of the Rajasthan Sahitya Academy.

Kings with 100 wives and one great romance ' the very expensive and beautiful Taj Mahal ' lie deep in the pages of history. Legends of self-indulgence, spoken of with great admiration by most, were legion in the time the British were creating babus, which was not so far ago. Suits, tailored in London, were sent to Paris for a wash from Calcutta.

Now, London and Paris have come to town. Bentley and Louis Vuitton. Not to speak of the Porsche, which at Rs 64 lakh is cheap. The Maybach, which a gutka giant gifted to his 20-something daughter on her birthday, stands at Rs 5 crore.

The Gita worries about the soul. India, growing at between 6.9 per cent projected this year and 8.5 the year before, has found the heart that pumps blood into its veins. Consume more and grow faster.

In the nineties, particularly in its second half, large increases took place in consumption by the relatively rich. Government data (NSS) says between 1993 and 2001, consumption of the top 20 per cent of the urban population ' or of some 50 million people ' spurted by an eye-popping 40 per cent.

Figures for the rural rich are no different.

That it began in the nineties is no surprise as India decided to pay obeisance to a new temple in 1991 under a converted priest, Manmohan Singh. “We want to free the animal spirit in every Indian.”

Chastity belts fell, foreign products that used to be smuggled in swept into the market. Coca-Cola made news yesterday with its re-entry. Today, a Cartier may not draw a second quizzical glance.

“Supply does lead to demand. It helps articulation and expression of fundamental human desires and imagination,” says market strategy consultant Rama Bijapurkar.

Why phoren alone' By the way, when was this word last seen or heard' Phoren is dead, long live foreign. But why foreign alone' Made-in-India products that no one had ever thought possible filled up shop shelves.

If there were three car models pre-1991, less than 15 years later the number races towards 100.

India may have driven up to a point where the US did half a century ago. By the middle of the 20th century, the US market saw a sudden spurt in demand for consumer goods, automobiles, household appliances, radio and television sets, readymade clothing and prepared food.

At the height of the post-war boom, consumer debt (excluding real estate loans) soared from $27.4 billion to $41.7 billion in the four years between 1952 and 1956. Half the families in the middle-income group carried instalment payments.

It was the time of the growing years of the Baby Boomers ' Bill Clinton was one. Those were also the growing years of India’s Midnight’s Children. Their children are now India’s Boomyear Babies.

If World War II’s end was the watershed in the US, the end of the Cold War and after “my God died young” and 1991 ' all tossed together in the mixer-grinder ' formed India’s point of departure.

As in America, so in India ' retail lending is galloping at a faster rate than loans to the corporate sector. Borrow now, sorrow later has been replaced by “buy now, pay later”.

Tomorrow does not conjure up worries about the soul, but embodies confidence about the future. “India’s consumer confidence remains higher than the global average,” says Sarang Panchal, executive director of AC Nielson-ORG Marg, the survey specialists.

The future is about equated monthly instalments. “Comfort with consumption and methodical EMI-based borrowing will continue,” adds Bijapurkar.

Does “comfort with consumption” mean consumption has become an end in itself in a world arguably without ideology' I am because I consume'

“The important thing in our generation is we don’t have any baggage from the past,” says Karan Paul, the young chairman of the Apeejay Surrendra Group.

“I lead my life in a luxurious way because I enjoy that,” adds Paul, 35, sipping red wine after a hard day’s work.

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