A "Piece of Real Estate Known as India": Ashok Mitra's 1989 Column on How India's Rich Shed their Guilt and Fear

Former finance minister of West Bengal and Trustee of the Sameeksha Trust that brings out the Economic and Political Weekly, Ashok Mitra passed away on 1 May 2018. Below, we republish an article from "Calcutta Diary" which was published on 18 March 1989. Read a compilation of Mitra's other writings here

Should one apologise for returning to the same theme, over and over again? But when cliche is the reality, cliche it has to be.

They are the top of the heap. In their scheme of things, only the top, in fact, exists, the heap does not. One happens to pick one of those slick publications which deal, exclusively, with the perambulations of this set. It is gushingly informative India, it confides to you, has finally arrived; at long last, what a relief, it is the year of the designer. The influence of the designer, one is told with authority, permeates every—yes, every— sphere of Indian life; our compatriots, each and every one of them, have ceased simply to buy clothes, they now insist on buying labels. The labels of course have their price-tag, but, in civilised society, who does not know, it is not the in thing to mention prices.

Classy writing, classy name-dropping. Sons and daughters of the very, very rich design apparel for each other. They buy from each other. They create wealth, and exchange that wealth, within the fold. It is a self-contained arrangement, where the offspring of the affluent concern themselves with fashions and designs and such other foppery intended for themselves alone. They compliment each other for their creativity; one or two amongst them sit down to write learned-sounding discourses on what they have created. Foppery, they take it for granted, is substitutable with culture. Somebody from within their set they designate as the country's 'premier culture person'; taking the long view, they even name his or her successor. It is such a cosy world of unending in-dulgence, as if those advertisements in the New Yorker magazine have suddenly come to life, eleven thousand miles away, along Indian shores.

These precious children have a new con-fidence in their voice. It is not merely that money-making for them is an extraordinarily easy proposition. It was always so for those who had the connections. What is however special is the assurance with which they now-a-days, almost absentmindedly, flaunt the fact of their holding money, interminable lots of it, which they are going to spend with a carefree abandon. Not a flicker of hesitation passes across their mind. They own the piece of real estate known as India. It is to them axiomatic that they are to enjoy the high life this ownership entitles them to. The pages of the slick journals they patronise; and which subsist on their patronage, are a revelation. It is a closed-circuit ambience. None is to be permitted to suspect that India happens to be one of the poorest nations on earth, beset by hunger, pestilence and squalor. The exclusive talk is around fashions and designs, you will only expose yourself as a silly old goat were you to try to chip in with that awkward bit of statistics about per capita consumption of cloth in the country today being even less than what it was at the time of independence.

This is then the qualitative change which has come about in the past decade, more so in the past five years. The filthy rich of yesteryears have shed both their guilt com-plex and their fear complex. It is no longer shameful, they have come to acquire the knowledge, to parade their affluence. That the wealth of some of them has been amass-ed through roundabout means is no ground for apprehension either. A transformation has taken place in the perception of moral principles. Appellations such as Ill-gotten' have gone into disuse The possession of money alone matters, the modality of how one came by it is a foot notish detail which must not spoil the fun. There is a way of putting it; as the fascinated urban sociologists would say, Indians, meaning the Indian rich, have finally succeeded in getting rid of their hang-ups.

To offer the comment that the specimens being described subsist in an unreal world, and then move on, is hardly adequate Rest assured, their new-found confidence is not unreal. For the first time since socialism dawned in the country, they do not feel the need to hide their money under the bushel. For, for the first time; their holding of wealth has a major supportive advantage: it is backed by their direct holding of political power. Not that they were exactly lacking in political support in the past. But that was in the nature of patronage, dispensed by the powers-that-be for their own reasons. Such intermediaries have disappeared; the rich can now claim political power on the strength of their own credentials, and use that power with the same nonchalance with which they use the other perquisites of life.

This political strength the offspring of the rich have amassed is a concrete phenomenon. They do not have to operate any more through lobbyists for wangling an import or industrial licence or for getting a certain import or excise duty waived or reduced. They themselves have the clout to effect changes in public policy. Not that all of them participate with equal gusto in the direct political process. Sometimes the husband is involved, the wife is not Sometimes and-sister act, the sister is the political number, the brother is in designs. All told, they have not done at all badly. Some of them actually contested the elections and won thumpingly. True, a certain historical circumstance helped them to chalk up those victories. The fact nonetheless remains that they won. Also the fact that electoral triumph effected the most sweeping changes in the political arena. They have been quick learners. The legal and constitutional arrangements in the country they have in-herited are such that a division of responsibilities is called for. They have accepted the fact with grace that a handful amongst them have to perform the dirty parliamentary chores, such as going through the motions of chanting socialism and placing on record from time to time words of filial sympathy for the poverty-stricken millions. These are minor irritants. Altogether, it is still a heady feeling: no bloody counter-revolution, no messy coup d'etat, it has been an amazingly swift—and incident-free—transition: the rich have inherited, in one whole lot, the duchy of India. There is nothing ersatz about it; it is a genuine seizure of power. They can behead you if they want to. They can, at the shortest notice, despatch troops to rescue pals abroad who, either accidentally or by design, get themselves embroiled in trouble. They can strike an after-hours deal with the concerned multinational corporation and sign away the interests of the thousands who were felled by the gas leak at Bhopal. They can sign away the sovereign-ty of the country. Power grows, they have proved, out of straightforward inheritance, and, once that happens, they can quite believe that they might even control the power that grows out of the barrel of the gun.

True, the foppery they are indulging in has a fragility of its own. It is dependent fop-pery, sustained by the country's huge foreign debt already comfortably exceeding fifty billion American dollars, and promising to rise further at an impressively exponential rate in the course of the next few years. But so what? Those offering funds from overseas have every reason to keep up the act; India, they have satisfied themselves, is an eminently trappable tract, and the decision-makers here have classy credentials. It will perhaps take us still some while to catch up with Brazil and Mexico, but both Argentina and Indonesia are within reachable distance. Give or take a couple of years, we are bound to enter the big league of external in-debtedness, and will constitute one of the eminent threesome. The offspring of the rich, worrying their heads off over motifs and designs, need not entertain fears of any nuisarfte of a distraction. Their foppery is heavily import-using, imports will however for the present be duly taken care of. Even the compensation from Union Carbide, in gleaming foreign exchange, will be put to good use.

They therefore exude health. They do not feel any moral pressure, the squalidness afflicting the rest of the nation does not touch them. In any event, closed-circuit travel from air-conditioned boutiques to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned restaurants to air-conditioned penthouses can instil a great deal of other worldliness. Their friends from New York or San Franscisco are of course impressed at the swiftness with which the Union Carbide was offered the helping hand: After this, there ought to be not one doubting Thomas to allege that India is not safe for foreign in-vestments. While their satellite links with the west are thus unsnappable, even the winds blowing from the direction of the socialist countries are equally propitious. Those wont to sing the Internationale, on the other side of the assumed ideological divide, could not have stumbled on their perestroika at a more appropriate time. They and the children of our rich are, it seems, on an identical wave-length. Could it be the consequence of Cher-nobyl, could it be because these are charac-ters in search of a place where they could dump their spare sets of atomic power plants? Be that as it may, it is a kind of . global hook-up: whether it is Budapest or Moscow or Beijing or New York or Los Angeles or London, there is just one message: now is for now, live it up, live it up for yourselves, you are not your neighbour's keeper.

Notwithstanding such earthshaking developments, there is that other objective correlate: the poor will not go away from these shores, they add up to millions and millions, and their number is growing; one of these days, they will learn to mobilise; one of these days, just for the fun of it, they will turn to organised mayhem; one of these days, for the heck of it, they will, suddenly, burst into the genteel tranquillity of air-conditioned salons and make a bonfire of motifs and designs. That will be some bother, which is why it is found necessary to set aside funds in the budget for distributing saris, gratis, to destitute women. And there is just an outside chance that the general elections due toward the end of the year could provide a jolt to the offspring of the affluent. A few amongst them perhaps have occasion to glance at the opinion polls the slick magazines they patronise have fallen into the habit of organising every now and then; stray motifs and designs are hid-den there too. Whether the rich have inheri-ted the earth for ever therefore remains an open-ended issue. Some designs may still turn out to be non-acceptable, whatever the, 'leading culture persons of the country* may say.


Read a compilation of Mitra's other writings here. You can find articles from the Calcutta Diary here, and other articles by Ashok Mitra here.


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