Till even a couple of years ago, one of the words most frequently used in connection with the mood of the Indian nation was “aspiration”. From the top of the pyramid to the very bottom, commentators informed us, everyone aspired to be more, better, richer, happier. Top industrialists flexed their muscles on the global stage, acquiring Western firms (A pan masala ad featured a man buying The East India Company); “wealth creation” became a catchphrase among the upper-middle and middle class; a vast number of people were said to be rising up the income chain, because they now believed that the futures they aspired to were within their grasp if they worked hard enough and took the right risks.
Malls and multiplexes sprouting all over the country were supposed to be providing vast new white- and light-blue-collar employment opportunities, and novel gilted avenues of consumption as entertainment, and entertainment as consumption. And the IT boom was a story that would be speeding along till the end of time. In international conferences, the high and mighty used adjectives like “confident” and “surging” when referring to India. We ourselves gloated over the massive “demographic dividend” we were about to reap: more than 600 million people below the age of 25. Everyone seemed to know—without any doubt—that India was the next “superpower”.
We don’t hear many of those terms any more, do we? Aspiration, wealth creation, confident, surging, superpower…Forget cocktail conversations, even the economic papers don’t talk about China much nowadays.
Of course, the whole world today bears a much battered look than it did in 2008. But the changes in India, in my opinion, do not have to do to a significant extent with the shape of the world economy.
Traditionally, except for brief flashes, Indian voters generally accepted their lot and blamed it on karma. It is only post-economic reforms that Indian politicians have been scared of voters for any length of time. But the nature of that scare has changed dramatically in the last few years. Earlier, the fear was that the aspirations of voters were rising so fast that no democratically elected government could fulfil them in the four or five years time it had. That was why, said the politicians, very few governments (at Centre or state level) were able to hang on to power for more than one term. More than two terms was a miracle.
But today, our politicians may be scared of a different phenomenon, a different upsurge of feeling. Very large chunks of voters today believe, not that their aspirations are not being met fast enough, but that their hopes and dreams were being played around with. It’s not the speed of the race that is in question any more, it is whether the race was ever for real—and if it was real, whether the owners of the tracks ever wanted the race to go on beyond a point.
The Prime Minister speaks bitterly of the compulsions of coalition politics, but the voter may just see it as sheer indecision. Add the twist of high-profile corruption to coalition arithmetic, and all that our formerly-aspiration-driven masses see today is a race track dug up for miles. In a recent column in The Indian Express, the paper’s editor Shekhar Gupta pointed out that hardly ever have so many ministers abdicated from their duties and left everything in the hands of bureaucrats. This is frightening, since politicians face elections, and have to, by definition, prove to the people that they have been working and have achieved something, Bureaucrats, however, essentially love the status quo. They are answerable to almost no one, and most of them, I would imagine, would be contemptuous of both politicians and common voters.
For some years, a very large number of Indians—up and down the pyramid—lived a dream. For the last two years, it seems to have been confirmed to them steadily and repeatedly on—as the bureaucratese goes—the highest authority, that they had been fooled.
No wonder those words and phrases are no longer heard any more in any public discourse.