In today's India, status comes with four wheels
Updated: 2005-12-05 12:02
A Shifting Value System
India's state-run rail network may have been built by the British, but it
came to represent a certain egalitarianism. Powerful and voiceless, rich and
poor - all navigated the same chaotic, crowded stations and rode the same
jam-packed trains, if not in the same class.
Cars, in contrast, reflect the atomization prosperity brings.
This is a far bigger change for Indian society than it was for America, which
in many ways was founded around the notion of the individual. Indian society has
always been more about duty, or dharma, than drive, more about responsibility to
others than the realization of individual desire.
That ethos is changing. "Twenty years back one car was an achievement," said
Maj. Gen. B. C. Khanduri, who as minister of roads from 2000 to 2004 helped
shepherd the new highway into being. "Now every child needs their own car."
To him and others who grew up in a different society, that change bespeaks a
larger, and troubling, shift. "The value system is finishing now," he said. "We
are gradually increasing everyone for himself."
Luxuries are now necessities, he said, and children are focused more on
earning for themselves than on caring for their parents. Indians have always
been critical of what they see as American selfishness, the way children
relegate parents to retirement homes so they can pursue their own lives. Now,
suddenly, they are hearing such stories among themselves.
Spreading affluence also has brought new competitive anxiety. Where once
everyone in a neighborhood had an Ambassador or a Fiat, the hierarchy of
livelihoods, of success, now can be parsed easily through cars.
P. V. J. Mohanrao, 48, an assistant college professor, who came to the Toyota
showroom to look at the Innova, could afford only cheaper cars: the Indian-made
Maruti and Tata Sumo.
A neighbor who was with him, P. Srinivas, 41, a businessman dealing in glass,
could afford larger monthly installments, and thus the more luxurious Chevrolet
Another neighbor, a software entrepreneur who, Mr. Mohanrao pointed out, had
"spent time in the United States," outclassed them both: at any given time, he
had three or four cars, none of them cheap.
"He has booked this car, I heard," Mr. Mohanrao said of his neighbor and the
The car fever here is in part a triumph of marketing to people who did not
grow up being marketed to. Advertising in India has succeeded in making, as Mr.
Khanduri said, luxuries into necessities, in portraying persuasion as knowledge.
The Toyota salesmen here market aggressively, singling out beach walkers and
mall shoppers. They aim at people who bought cars in 2002 and convince them they
already need an upgrade. Helped by record-low car-loan rates, they have learned
to manufacture desire. "If that fellow has a burning zeal we will add to the
fire, we will tempt him," said Mr. Prakky, the sales manager.