Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
The India syndrome


KOLKATA- Someplace Else is among the fanciest addresses in east India's biggest city. The pub at Park Hotel is teeming with people on Saturday night. A live band is playing; the bartender is pulling pints of beer.

It is difficult to imagine there is a recession on, or that Mumbai was under attack less than a month ago. India seems to be not just shining, but swinging here.

But that is only an appearance. Beneath the surface, despite the indulgence of a few, the simplistic binary of the elite-subaltern does not hold. Indians are confused, insecure and struggling to comprehend the world around them.

The economic meltdown is gradually affecting the young professionals. Many of them began their working lives with annual salaries up to IRs1.5 million-earning more than their parents ever did, making India's per capita income look like a poor joke, and driving the economy with their relentless consumption.

Today, a business analyst who has to pay monthly installments for his apartment finds his plans go awry without the expected promotion and bonus. A friend at Goldman Sachs is relieved his job is still intact as colleagues are laid off. "At least we have not gone the Lehman way," he says.

A Chandigarh entrepreneur who had branched off on his own to start a gift-order firm for corporates finds orders drying up as companies cut costs. A dairy owner is worried about how the international milk prices and market will affect his margin. Those doing MBAs after paying up lakhs, and being assured of placements, suddenly find that recruitments are frozen.

A Mumbai-based Nepali professional (there are many who went to good colleges in India and availed of the boom) is wondering whether he can hold on to his entertainment industry job. A Nepali journalist in Delhi sees the Indian media shrink and new opportunities more difficult to come by: "Maybe I should come back for the Nepali media boom."

India's growth story has not ended, the country will still fare better than most emerging economies. But the belt is being tightened across sectors. The share market will no longer swing wildly with little correspondence to the economy on the ground. Job cuts will affect all sections, from the educated MBA to the unskilled construction worker.

The Mumbai attacks have also shaken the confidence that many Indians had in their own government and left them struggling for responses. In a hotel restaurant, a group of middle aged Punjabis react to the attacks in a typically brash way. "We must show it to them this time. These f****** Pakis. The problem is our government is a cowardly. We need an Advani or Modi."

The media-induced hysteria, orchestrated campaigns against the political class, the projection of the security forces as sole heroes, the simplistic portrayal of all of Pakistan as villainous and the fact that their social class has been targeted is feeding into raw and chauvinistic middle class nationalism. And despite recent state assembly elections where Congress did surprisingly well, the far right is all set to benefit from the anger in the medium term.

On a train from Gaya to Patna, in an overcrowded general compartment with people fighting for space to stand in front of stinking toilets, the conversation is about Mumbai. A Muslim lower divisional clerk says hauntingly, "We get killed in the process. I hope there is no war. Muslims will again be seen suspiciously."

The cacophony of voices always makes it difficult, and hazardous, to generalise about India. The events of the last few months have provoked reactions ranging from quiet introspection to anger. It is certain though that Indian confidence has suffered a setback. What remains is a deep fear of the future.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)