- The Pleasures of Excess
The groom was Lalit Tanwar, son of a leading New Delhi-based Congress Party politician, Kanwar Singh Tanwar. The bride was Yogita Jaunapuria, daughter of Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria, a former member of the Legislative Assembly. The Indian news media estimated that between 18,000 and 30,000 guests attended the March 2011 wedding, including a Who's Who of India's Bollywood stars, leading industrialists, and some senior politicians—up to and including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The groom's arrival in a new BMW was beamed on giant television screens to the assembled thousands. In addition to their daughter's hand in marriage, the bride's family also bestowed on her husband a new Bell 429 helicopter, which sells for upwards of $5 million. The full price tag for the nuptials was estimated variously at between $22 million and $55 million.
It was, according to the groom's father, "a simple wedding." [End Page 15]
This brazen display of throwaway wealth—from the long list of country cuisines offered to guests, to the gifts of sterling silver coins, cash and clothing—provoked howls of outrage in a country where 40 percent of the world's malnourished children reside and where runaway inflation has sent food prices soaring. K.V. Thomas, India's minister of food, recently announced the formation of a panel to consider whether to limit by law the number of people who can be invited to weddings and the number of dishes they can be served. The Congress Party-led government, whose members gleefully indulged in the Tanwar wedding revelry, made fresh calls for more sober public behavior from its members.
In 2006, with India's economy going into overdrive, Prime Minister Singh made a similar appeal to the country's newly wealthy, calling on them to tone down conspicuous consumption. His plea was understandably met with derision. After all, then and now, Singh has been known for trumpeting the emergence of India as a consumer society. Under his government's tenure, the construction of shopping malls and multiplex movie theatres has thundered forward at a breakneck pace. Advertising has boomed in a country that enjoys one of the highest levels of television penetration in the world. Via satellite, hundreds of channels offer a full range of reality and game shows, soap operas and crime series, 24/7 news shows, and market ticker updates in real time—all broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers.
In an economy that will enjoy a growth rate of more than 8 percent in 2011, the spending frenzy is on. India is a country obsessed with social status. Flaunting expensive cars, houses, and clothing has become a way for people to assert their giddy ascendance. The majority of Indians remain poor by any measure, and the wealth gap has grown, not shrunk, in the wake of rapid economic growth. All the more reason, it seems, for those who can to show off what they've got—and to do so with abandon.
Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to India, nor is it particularly new. In recent decades, emerging economies the world over have produced wealthy elites whose lifestyles stand in stark contrast to the poverty of those beneath them in the socioeconomic hierarchy. What is different today, however, is that countries like India and China are now home to burgeoning middle classes, eager for a taste of the "good life"—and with the means to purchase a piece of it for themselves. The income gap between haves and have-nots may be growing. But the aspiration gap between the "have-lots" and the "have-somes" is shrinking.
The emergence of Western-style consumer culture in places like India comes just as environmentalists and sustainability advocates, many based in the West, are calling for the adoption of less consumption-driven lifestyles and economies. To judge from the enthusiasm with which many Indians have embraced consumerism, it's going to be a tough sell. [End Page 16]
Not Quite Cricket
Every Indian who now can spend conspicuously, it seems, does—those who can't be damned. While hundreds of thousands of distressed farmers commit...