It appears that you cannot win an election for sure even if the economy grows in double digits. However you can lose one when inflation rises even fractionally. That is the hypothesis on which the current anxiety about galloping inflation rates seems to be based. The idea is counter intuitive – one would expect that in a poor country like ours, where so many promises of prosperity have turned out to be hollow, actual delivered growth would be a guaranteed vote-catcher. After years of marginal growth, we are accelerating into something approaching speed. Shouldn’t this be a good time for us to live with a little inflation?
The problem is that progress as a statistical measure is very different from the one that is experienced on everyday life. The economy in any case is an imagined idea. Shapes have been given to very abstract idea by a barrage of measurement dices. The nation becomes the economy and, in turn the economy becomes us. Progress is inferred from the numbers that are thrown at us; without these most of us would be unable to state experientially as to how fast we are growing.
In actual fact, progress is inferred not from abstract numbers but from our lives in reality. Malls, highways, souped-up petrol pumps and flyovers are our indices of progress. We experience Progress when our airports improve and the power goes out less frequently. When these signs of progress are within grasp, they serve as powerful divers of aspiration. But inflation reverses this sense of access for those who were close to these and for the poor, communicate the opposite; they advertise with neon glee the widening distance between themselves and the others. Inflation is the economic index that is experienced more vividly by more often than any other. It is the most democratic of all economic indices and thus has the greatest power.
Psychologically inflation defeats the sense of progress for those on the margins of consumptions. It changes the rules of the game even as it is in progress. It induces an exhausting sense of having forever to accelerate in order to merely keep up. It negates the notion of better tomorrow by changing its definition. Doing better is now not necessarily good enough. One is defeated by time: money comes without warning evaporates or shrinks. The context of overall growth serves merely to underline the cruelty of inflation. Growth is what happens to others, inflation is what happens to me, is the feeling. In some perverse way, the poor end up paying for someone else’s progress.
Nothing is worse than having something finally and then having to forego it. Consumption is the sand that slips away from the right fists of those emerging from penury. We are all more risk averse when we put something we already have at stake than when we gamble on a future event. We can afford not to get what we don’t have but to lose what we own induces extreme anxiety. Growth is vague future promise inflation an all-too tangible reality. Inflation is a dying bird in hand whereas growth is a rustle of feathers in the bushes.
Inflation does not merely dampen our outlook towards the future. It subverts the very idea of a future. It reinforces the traditional notion of the future as something inherently treacherous and binds us to a today that needs to be coped up with. It is a hope against hope and a warning against its futility. At a time when India is stirring itself into action after decades of stagnant lethargy, it serves to undermine the gathering energy of the emerging class.
In a larger sense prices evoke eras. Petrol was Rs 5 a liter and Rs 50 bought a whole bagful of groceries. Lower prices evoke simpler times when the pressures of coping were less insistent. Prices are the pitch at which we lead our lives. As they rise, our lives become shriller. For the affluent the feeling is tangible but can be seen as an acceptable part of progress. For those without this luxury it is sound of the ground disappearing from under their feet.