Friday, October 4, 2013

Poverty in a Shining India

When Mahatma Gandhi wrote “The worst form of violence is poverty,” he sowed the seeds for imagining an India that would one day be free from poverty, where the large numbers of the poor in the country would have access to the basic capabilities of life.

More than seven decades after Indian independence, Gandhi’s dream continues to be a far-fetched illusion. The bottom-half of the country continues to struggle with lack of access to basic infrastructures of food, health, and shelter.

This is the picture of poverty that is uncomfortable to the likes of Narendra Modi, whose image of “Shining India” is disrupted by the accounts of poverty in India.

When Mr. Modi recently remarked that “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is marketing India’s poverty,” what he actually demonstrates is his own adeptness at marketing. Framing talk about poverty as the marketing of poverty is itself a powerful marketing move.

It’s a strategy that on one hand, seeks to market India as a brand, and on the other hand, markets Modi as the protector of the “India” brand.

Poverty gets in the way of brand India that Mr. Modi wants to project to the world. He implicitly then speaks to the nationalistic instincts of Indians, suggesting that he would be a better global ambassador for brand India abroad than the ruling party.

That poverty in postcolonial India should be hidden in the national narrative is part of a larger story of a fast growing India where the glamour of the malls and the cash flows generated by the IT sector are the real stories to be marketed.

In this larger effort at branding vibrant India, there is little place for talks about poverty, for engaging with questions of poverty, or for seriously debating the underlying structural issues that constitute poverty.

Perhaps, the picture of poverty in India is too inconvenient an image for Modi to grapple with. Or perhaps more so, in his accounting of brand India, portrayals of poverty disrupt the positive spin on economic growth and economic efficiency that Mr. Modi seeks to deliver.

Modi’s adeptness at spinning a story is well evident in his story of success of Gujarat as an economic powerhouse. In this branding strategy that has paraded the narrative of economic growth, we don’t hear about the poverty rates in Gujarat during the same period of economic growth. We are not privy to the data that demonstrate that in spite of the high growth rates exceeding nine percent a year over the decade in the 1990s, poverty in many villages in the Northeastern part of the state has hardly changed at all. We don’t hear the stories or the voices of the poor as we are regaled with the narratives of business success.

If the Mahatma were to return to Modi’s Gujarat, what questions would he ask about the stories of economic growth? Would he ask Indians to take a close look at the poverty in Gujarat even as they are drawn to the promises of economic growth? Would he ask Indians to consider the violence of poverty as they spin stories about malls, call centers, the telecom sector, and IT hubs?

Mahatma Gandhi’s lessons continue to be relevant in the imaginations of a vibrant India.

In these imaginations, the stories of poverty are just as important as the stories of success and economic growth.

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