One always looks forward to travelling to London when you are sure you won’t bump into many tourists especially from India: considering one spends a whole year avoiding them, the last thing you want to do is make polite conversation in Hyde Park. This trip however, has been more of a revelation than most!
If we think being saddled with a doddering Arjun Singh is bad enough, then think again. All of England is up in arms against Gordon Brown and never has a British Prime Minister been so reviled and so rallied against as Brown has. London is a ghost town. The high streets are empty and stores are on a permanent discount. One would have thought it would be a good time to buy but then where’s the money? The scourge of investment bankers on the whole monetary system has made them pariahs and no longer are the Zumas and the Nobus filled with the arrogance-laced swagger of investment bankers and their expensive lifestyles. On last count, some 500,000 jobs in The City had disappeared and along with that their expense budgets. The fall of avarice and greed has never been more telling or as enduring as this one.
As Amartya Sen rightly said, this is not just a bad economy, what’s worse is there is a perpetual crisis of confidence and unless one repairs that, it seems the doomsdays shall never end and this exactly what one sees in London. The Jet flight from Delhi to London was like a ghost flight and one knew that times are tough but never did I imagine they’d be as dark as they are. Westend shows are going a begging and it is no longer a nightmare trying to get tickets for some of the finest theatre if one wishes to. On my part, I am looking forward to seeing the much acclaimed Boys Deserve a Favour and On the Waterfront. The political scene is much like what we have in India: the choice between David Cameron of the Tories and Gordon Brown of Labour is so feeble that you might as well continue with Gordon himself and add to that the socialist colour that England is bathed in and you have a lethal concoction which no one ever imagined.
In the good old days one made money the old-fashioned way: one earned it. It was then replaced by the heady world of derivatives and hedge funds and today the world is shivering with fear and uncertainty. Even the venerable Economist has announced the end of its honeymoon with Barack Obama. So where does this leave the world as it were. Given that the Indian stimulus packages are but an apology, I believe we are in for the toughest times ever. Advertising and marketing spends have plummeted and in consumerist economies such as England, these are telling signals which do not augur well for at least the next 18 months. London, for the longest time, has survived on tourism and non-domiciled successes and all of those are falling by the wayside. The Lakshmi Mittals are no longer the Holy Grail they once were and rich lists are being seeing with greater anger and suspicion.
But are there lessons to be learnt from this crisis of confidence? I believe there are. For one, we have to realise, much like in India, the stock market can never be an accurate barometer of either development or real-time success. It is but a bubble, which will burst once, the realities of the real world kick in and this is what we are seeing across the globe. It would not be far-fetched to say, most of the Western economies are bankrupt today waiting for Government handouts like never before. The banking system in England is a mess and I won’t be surprised if in the coming days, we see more banks going under. We also have to ensure that the divide between the rich and the poor is bridged with active intervention from those whose job is to govern and to provide a sense of equality. The fact that Hugo Chavez won another referendum in Venezuela suggests that democracy as a political form is meaningless without real opportunities for real people and unless that realisation dawns on our political masters, this crisis will not end in a hurry.
The state of contemporary England sends out a chilling message not only to the developed world but equally to the world where we come from. In all this grandstanding of SEZs and real-estate development, somewhere we have forgotten that people value food on the table and a steady job. In this rush towards a gold mine, we somehow forget that the world is waiting for not just a price correction but also indeed a correction in our values and what we see as real development. In many ways, the state of England sends a message to the world, that riches are transitional but it is the creation of wealth from the bottom of the pyramid that must seize not just our attention but also our energies. That perhaps is the only way forward as we begin to hunker down for the troubled times ahead!