In a mood of the nation survey reported last week, the government and the top leadership secured record high ratings. Over 77% of the respondents are happy with the government. Ratings on the government’s handling of key issues — coronavirus, China, Ram temple, Article 370 — are excellent.
Many experts were left scratching their heads about what exactly is going on. At a time when an already weak economy is in a tailspin due to Covid-19, there isn’t even a ripple of dissatisfaction, at least according to this survey. So what happened to the theory that people ultimately want jobs and growth?
Many experts attribute the survey results to an almost a cult-like, blind following of Modi. That is not true. All the experts are missing a crucial point. That is, we are simply not that economically aspirational anymore. The assumption that Indians ultimately want jobs and growth is massively flawed. The truth is that we do need jobs and growth, but we care about other things a lot more. How is that possible? How can a society not want growth, a better standard of living and more money?
To understand why this is the case, let’s go back to the 1980s. Per capita incomes then were around $300, translating to less than $1/day. Life becomes a dread at that low level of income. Even food security becomes an issue. In 1991, we liberalised the economy to get a bailout from the IMF. At that time, India had aspirations, as we were really poor. What followed was a period of massive growth for the next 25 years. Per capita incomes shot up to $2,000, translating to $5.5/day. It’s still not a lot of money (the developed world is at $60,000 annual per capita, or $165/day. China is at $27/day). However, $5.5/day is a lot more than $1/day, which is how Indians used to live. $5.5/day means good food is no longer an issue. Local Indian food, whichever region you are in, is affordable and seriously delicious. A plate of chhole bhature in the north, or ghee dosas in the south cost much less than a dollar. Ditto for vada pav in Maharashtra and kachoris in Rajasthan.
Another cheap item is 4G data. Almost every Indian can afford several gigabytes a month, opening up a magical world on people’s phones for just a few cents a day. From WhatsApp groups to online shopping to porn to video games to movies, data for Indians is frankly ecstasy. $5.5/day also means you can buy clothes, have the occasional outing and even have a roof on your head. What is the need for growth, really?
The Indian social structure and culture also puts relatively low pressure for people to keep rising higher and higher. Yes, people want a job, but a ‘choti-moti naukri’ is okay. Buy a car? Well, it would be nice, but autos are also okay, right?
Indians have also culturally shunned materialism. Staying content, living with less is appreciated. The Chinese and Americans, for example, have far more hunger to rise up in life and make more money. I am not judging which lifestyle is better, but to grow, you need a population which has a fire in its belly. We, frankly, don’t. We are quite happy — and who is to judge?
Indians may want jobs, but it is okay if your bhaiyya has a job and you don’t – because bhaiya will support us. Indians don’t ask kids to leave home at 18, in fact, staying with your parents at 28 or even 48 is okay, maybe even encouraged. Where is the need for more then?
Indians aspired and achieved per capita income growth, and then suddenly shifted priorities. Things became comfortable, and now Indians want to focus on other important issues. Ensuring past Hindu injustices get sorted, solving Bollywood cases, making temples, nationalism — we think these things are far more important than growth. What’s more, we have a government that’s so responsive to exactly these priorities. What’s not to love about it?
Where will all this lead us? Like I said, who are we to judge, if people don’t want growth? If people are happy with $5.5/day, or don’t mind going to $4/day but have some social agendas sorted, then it’s their choice. However, there will be some issues. Current income levels are not enough for good healthcare, education and infrastructure.
Countries like Australia and Sweden aren’t exactly super aspirational or growth hungry. However, they are already at a high income level. They have excellent health, education and infrastructure. Without growth, we will never have that. Our standard of living also won’t rise further. Our youth will remain in low-end jobs. We will become a nation of clerks, support staff and low-level employees.
However, we will always have chhole bhature. Try them with freshly cut onions, lemon and pickle. You will forget economic woes, I promise.