Nation of small strivings

This sensibility is not just a holdover from the Gandhian fascination with the small. It has historically been the character of Indian civil society that it has resisted ordering by the state. But post-liberalisation also, the real pathway to mobility was not your canonical wage job. It was, instead, the proliferation of small acts of entrepreneurship. Mobility for a driver, for instance, was often not a form of driving that paid higher wages; it was owning your car even when returns were not that high. The desired pathway out of wage labour, for those who could manage it, was owning a business of your own, no matter how precarious that ownership. One thing, perhaps, that saved India from so many of its economic follies was that, even for the poor, some pathway of self organisation was open. It could be something as simple as a hawker's stall or a small shop or informal enterprise. This existence was often very vulnerable, hostage to an arbitrary state. But it was a small sliver of self-assertion — working for oneself — wrested from an otherwise brutal world. Change may offer more efficiency and security in the abstract, but it also seems to close off this inchoately expressed desire to be independent.

The other consequence of small, self-organised informality was that India was, in income terms, relatively equal: lots of people squeezed into a narrow income band. Business was low level, but widely diffused. While people value the efficiencies new forms of organisation might bring, there is also great apprehension that the tolerance for the self-organised, small-scale form is diminishing. It is perhaps apt that the petit bourgeois resist FDI in retail. It is only the petit bourgeois who pull off the feat of combining the rugged instrumentalism of the modern world with a desire to resist incorporation into a large hierarchy. We may not be rich or efficient, but by god, we want to hold onto the illusion that we run our own lives. Long live the petit bourgeoisie.

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