This year, the Government of India awarded the Padma Vibhushan to thirteen people. Of these, four are businessmen - L N Mittal, N R Narayana Murthy, P R S Oberoi and Ratan Tata. In comparison, in all the years between 1954 and 1998, only two of the 135 Padma Vibhushans awarded went to the 'trade and industry' category: to J R D Tata in 1954 and G D Birla in 1957.
The stock of Indian business has risen rapidly in the nation-state's imagination, with the BSE, which passed 21,000 before it fell due to defaulting homeowners in Kansas and Michigan. Indian capital has done remarkably well in the post liberalisation years. The economic reasons for the success of large Indian corporate houses are well-known. But, as the Padma Vibhushan's show, it is not only that Indian business is successful, it is also respectable among the educated classes that influence award giving.
How did middle class psychology change so quickly that businesspeople went from being rich pariahs to the idols of a new India? Even the staid New York Times gushes about the new spirit of entrepreneurship in India, with Tom Friedman making yearly visits to Bangalore.
Nation-state parent to corporate child
We can define the Indian middle class psychologically as much as economically: it is the group of Indians who act as translators between tradition and modernity. I believe the change in middle class psychology reflects the evolution of India's encounter with modernity. If the nation-state was the primary locus of Indian modernity in the twentieth century, then business is central to India's recent interactions with the modern world. The world itself has changed; nation-states are arguably irrelevant in a world where economic globalisation is the most dominant mode of engagement across borders and peoples. Instead, the disembedded, transnational corporation has a good claim to being the ruling idea of the twenty-first century.
And it is a sign of India's increasing comfort with modernity that it took only a decade and a half of liberalisation to create our own multinationals, which now represent the ambitions of a growing and powerful segment of the Indian population.
But as we know, the prudence of the 60s generation was no guarantee against the prevailing winds. The Indian nation was bankrupt by the early 90s partially because it tried to be modern without understanding the changing character of modernity. Now their children go to work for Infosys - and I mean that in the literal sense. My colleagues Carol Upadhya and A R Vasavi and their collaborators conducted an extensive survey of Information Technology (IT) workers. Their data show that IT workers are likely to be children of public sector employees, government servants, teaching professionals and other classes tied to the Indian state.
The shift from the nation-state builder parent to the corporate-sector child is neither accidental nor just a matter of economic transition. These two are successive avatars in the evolution of the modern Indian mind. Both avatars meet the same deeply felt need, the need to engage with modernity to the greatest possible extent while maintaining a link with an older stratum of values and beliefs.
The nation-state met that need for many decades since it kept the rest of the world at a manageable distance, allowing Indians a degree of autonomy in their process of modernisation. However, once the economic autonomy of the nation-state was compromised by the processes of globalisation, middle class Indians made an unconscious shift to the one sector that demonstrated its capacity to understand the new trends. The most important post-liberalisation development is the Indian multinational such as Infosys, Reliance and Tata; in these companies one sees a close match between the aspirations of the new middle class and the companies' business ambitions.
Creoles of development
But while there is a direct line to be traced between the two avatars, there is an important difference between them - which stems from their relative fluency in the language of modernity. While the parents struggled to speak a modern tongue and needed the nation-state to protect their space from being swamped by external forces, the children are far more comfortable with modernity, and willing to confront it directly.
Perhaps the best model for the generational shift in the familiarity with the modern world, as well as its limitations, comes from the Caribbean islands, the islands that became known as the West Indies. In the 17th century, slaves from various locations in Africa were shipped to plantations spread over the Caribbean. The slaves found themselves toiling for Spanish, English or French speaking masters but they didn't know any of those languages. Even worse, since the slaves were randomly selected from a pool spread over various African communities, they rarely spoke the same language as their fellow slaves.
The first generation of such slaves cobbled together a makeshift means of communication which was far from a true language. However, their children, who were born in the plantations (as opposed to their parents, who were in Africa until early adulthood) quickly stitched together working languages that we now term creoles. Creoles are almost full-fledged languages, with a grammar and vocabulary unlike their parents' efforts at communication, which were haphazard.
Despite their linguistic coherence, however, creoles have not become vehicles of a rich culture. Their social status remains low. While Creole-speaking communities are more likely now to use creoles in writing or media, creole literature is poor at best. The reasons for the lack of literary development are debatable, but it seems clear there is a glass ceiling for the further development of creole cultures.
I think that India's 'language of modernity' is similar to the creation of creoles. Indians in the colonial and early postindependence eras were like the first generation of slaves in the Caribbean. Modernity was like a distant master whose language they barely understood. Meanwhile different groups of Indians were aware of small bits and pieces of the modern world - some spoke a language peppered with scientific terms, some spoke a language infused with political terms and yet others with an economic vocabulary. Until the 80s, few Indians knew enough about the modern world to speak a language that encompassed all of these features. The only unifying modern theme in 70s and 80s India was the nation-state.
The current generation of Indians is different from the earlier one. Its members do speak a reasonably coherent modern dialect, but in their dialect, business has a value hugely out of proportion to its importance in the larger modern world. As it often happens in adopted lingua, features that were obscure or less important in the language being aped are inflated beyond recognition in the emerging copy. Value inflation happens because the inflated feature meets a core psychological demand of the community. Business meets an essential need of middle class Indian culture - its wish to understand modernity and to achieve a measure of dignity in that space.
The vocabulary of acquisition
In business, we have found a vocabulary of acquisition and consumption as fluent as any in the West. All of us applaud when Mittal takes over Arcelor. Hollywood blockbusters are now released in India on the same day as the first world. In the age of globalisation, India's commercial success abroad and the prospect of a large internal market have given the consuming classes of India a front seat in economic modernity. Even if we are still subordinate to the American imperium, we are no longer a backwater. Indian workers are sought everywhere. The software programmer or BPO worker is the primary link between India and the globalised modern world. Is it surprising that we have built an elaborate iconography around them?
As a result of its demonstrated capacity for 'economic success,' Indian business is unique amongst its modern competitors. Is there any other modern sector of our society with a similar record of winning global competitions the way Indian businesses now do? That other obsession of the middle class - cricket - doesn't go half as far in meeting our need for success in a modern arena; our cricketers lose depressingly often to countries with populations less than that of Mumbai and Delhi put together. But business suffers no such reversals; the Tata group has finished with Tetley and Corus, and is getting ready to buy Jaguar and Land Rover.
For a class of people thirsting for recognition in the modern world, the rosy narrative of business is far more seductive than anything else our culture has to offer. In return for this narrative of success, they are willing to look the other way when wrongs happen alongside, or in the name of development. The seizure of rural land in Nandigram is the most recent case in point; the fact that a communist government is willing to kick out rural Bengalis - traditionally its core voters - in order to attract industry and do it without even a touch of irony suggests that we have all made a mental shift. The consequences of this shift will follow soon enough.