July 17, 2014

Capital by Rana Dasgupta

Capital by Rana Dasgupta

[Story of the India’s capital (New Delhi) and the boom following the opening up of India’s economy plunged Delhi into a tumult of destruction and creation: slims and markets were ripped down, and shopping malls and apartment blocks erupted from the ruins - corrupt, violent and traumatized city growing so fast it is almost unrecognizable to its own inhabitants]

Nehru had studied at Cambridge University - as too, did his opposite numbers in the independence struggle: the king -emperor George VI and the viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Nehru was the only one of these three to complete his degree).

His 1972 visit to USSR, where he attended the 10th anniversary celebration of the revolution, filled him with hope and excitement.

July 1991 the prevailing system was in tatters and there was indeed, no other choice and the economy had reached a fatal crisis. Perennially unable to export enough to pay for what it imported, despite the old rhetoric of self-sufficiency, India’s foreign exchange reserves dropped in the middle of that year to just over half a billion dollars - enough to pay  for about three weeks of essential imports. In order to get through the situation, the government negotiated an emergency loan of $2 billion from the IMF. This loan came at a price. Pure gold, first of all: the government was forced to secure the loan by pledging 67 tones of its gold reserve as collateral; 47 tones were airlifted immediately to the Bank of England and 20 to the Union bank of Switzerland. The other condition of the loan was immediate free-market reforms.

Manmohan Singh had been appointed finance minister precisely because he had been calling for such reforms for  many years, even when they were an anti-Indian taboo and he seemed to be the person best equipped to implement them.

Victor Hugo once said, “no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”. I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India has a major economic power in the world happens to be on such idea. Let the whole world hear it loud and clear, India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.

“you like this table? I designed it myself. Brilliant white. If anyone comes in to the room unexpectedly they will never be able to spot the cocaine on it” - Delhi millionaire.

In wealthy neighborhoods, gates and security guards prevent unauthorized movement across the dividing lines. Social life is no different. Delhi is not like Mumbai, whose citizens readily strike up conversations with strangers in bars and restaurants; here, introductions are necessary. People want to know who you are before they will let you in, which is why name and address dropping are so much part of social conversation: people must advertise their connections and allegiances if they are to enjoy a proper social existence. Not even the snaking Delhi metro can bring everyone together: though it provides 2.3 million rides a day, it is neglected by both the poorest and richest slices of society. So it is on heaving, honking, and smoking traffic arteries such that everyone is forced to move with other vehicles passengers.

People drive as if everyone is against them, and in fact it is true: any space or opportunity they do not seize with all the speed and bulk of their vehicle is immediately usurped by someone else. You can see it here, at a red light, where everyone is looking around to make sure no one else is scheming to take their advantage away. Waiting at a traffic light is not empty time. On the contrary, it is in this ceasefire that they anxiety of the battlefield suddenly erupts. Drivers are racked with apprehension. They light cigarettes, curse, tap the steering wheel, and honk impotently. The wait is intense and unbearable. Finally, the lights turn to green. And at this point, the engines of the cars out front, rearing, straining, and irrepressible - stall.

A furious wail of horns start up behind them - the light is green, the promise made us is denied, it is too awful, we always knew the world would turn out to be a swindle.... until the dead engines are cranked into life once more, and the swarm moves off. This is like survival mode - a slave behavior.

Delhi’s fantasies are feudal. Even those who have rather little social power respect the privileges of those who have a lot - perhaps hoping that one day they will enjoy for themselves their same exemption from law and custom. The scramble for driving opportunity is not equal. The status of people hidden behind tinted car window which is overwritten previous, more indecipherable, forms of status with the single catch-all of cost, advantages accrue, quite simply, to the most expensive cars. Mercedes flash Maruti's to let them through the throng, and Maruti's obediently move aside. BMW limousines are so well insulated that passengers don’t even hear the unflinching horn with which chauffeurs disperse everything in their pitch.

At the beginning of the decade, it had still been possible for the middle classes to imagine buying property in Delhi. But by the end, the formula had become impenetrable even to very successful corporate employees. Newly built 3-bedroom apartments in south Delhi, even relatively ordinary ones, cost half-a-million dollars, which was out of all proportion to all but the highest salaries. Not only this but, considering the fact that poor-quality construction, power-cuts and water shortages - this seemed dismal value for money compared to what that money could buy in London or New York.

In practice, the beginning of the 21st century saw a substantial hand-over of India’s capital from those who had acquired property after 1947 to a new black money elite and it was this group that increasingly set the tone for everyone else.

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