Looking back upon everyday urban middle-class life in India before 1991 –that is the only kind of life I can write about from personal experience – the first words that come to mind are scarcity and frugality. These words carry negative connotations in this age of consumerist plenty, especially as we recall the bad old days when we had to wait months and years for everything from telephonesand gas connections to cars and scooters.
I do not wish to romanticize life before 1991 as some kind of golden age, but for me the qualities of frugality and simplicity that defined that period have an enduring nostalgic appeal because they say something about the moral sense of that age that we seem to have completely lost now.
When I went to study at Oxford University in 1979, I had to apply to the Reserve Bank of India for foreign exchange, as my scholarship would only become available once I arrived there. Foreign exchange was strictly rationed and students could apply for an allowance for books and another for warm clothes. After a considerable amount of paperwork, I left the country with the princely sum of GBP 135 in my wallet!
The most rationed commodity in India was of course food. In the 1970s, India’s dependence upon wheat imports led to Guest Control orders in many states. In Delhi, the number of guests at weddings was restricted to a maximum of 50; only a limited number of dishes could be served, with cereals absolutely prohibited. Young people today could be forgiven for viewing such restraints on consumption as a sad reflection of scarcity, but they were also a way of signaling that it was bad form to flaunt one’s wealth, showing insensitivity in a society overwhelmingly populated by the poor. Ostentation was a social embarrassment, rather than a social requirement. It is interesting that extravagant weddings in the last couple of years have actually provoked suggestions for reviving Guest Control.
Curiously, while consumer goods were scarce, and middle-class people typically implored relatives visiting from the US or the UK to bring them food processors and music systems, there were enough cultural imports that were easily available. Books, for instance, were a part of the Open General License list, though Hollywood movies took years to arrive. Through the 1980s, the World Book Fair and the International Film Festival were the most eagerly awaited events in Delhi. The rest of the year, it was at the Shakuntalam theatre in Pragati Maidan that the best of world cinema would be screened, and there would be long queues for highbrow art films by Latin American and European directors. People were respected for the books they read, the music they heard and the films they watched, rather than for the car they drove (the choice was between the equally uncool Ambassador and Fiat, anyway!) or their designer clothes, shoes and bags (there were none).For a socially conscious 20-something person, frugality was a Gandhi-meets-Marx thing, as aesthetic as handloom and Hindustani classical music.
Restraints on consumption were certainly not voluntary, and it was obviously not uncommon for officials to be bribed to facilitate violations of guest control orders or customs duties. But there was a guilty furtiveness about it and an awareness of social disapprobation.
The pervasive sense of entitlement and the naked greed that we witness all around us today suggests an erosion of that ability to feel moral discomfort. Also missing, sadly, is the capacity for moral empathy with the multitudes of our fellow-citizens who, even in 2016, experience more extreme forms of scarcity than we ever did in the pre-1991 phase.
There is no denying that sections of our society have benefited from the new opportunities for social mobility provided by economic liberalization. But there is also a small section for which the post-1991 period has made possible a lifestyle that marries advanced capitalist levels of consumer satisfaction with entouragesof retainers and personal security officers on a feudal scale. This lifestyle has created the illusion that the wealthy inhabit some Special Social Economic Zone, rather than a tiny island of affluence in a vast ocean of deprivation, where the moral compass tends to lose its bearings.
Also, I think it’s important to remember that many of the changes that we associate with the watershed moment of 1991 are not the product of liberalization, but of the Information Technology revolution. I think it’s a mistake to confuse the one for the other, as many people tend to do. Even though this was the period that brought India on to the global stage as an innovator and supplier of IT services, all the conveniences of the internet society cannot be credited to economic liberalization per se.
Life before 1991 was also life before the Mandal agitation of 1990 and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The economic reforms of 1991 weresandwiched between these events, which have been as consequential in the remaking of India in the last two decades as the economic reforms. Together, these three events have yielded a much more fractured society, in which differences of caste, class and religious identity have become more pronounced than ever before.