Last week, as India's TV anchors and columnists worked themselves up into a moralistic frenzy about a measure of poverty proposed by the planning commission (40p a day per person), I visited the new outlet for Tommy Hilfiger in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Press coverage about the opening, and accounts of the new Hermès store in Mumbai, which will sell saris for £6,000, seemed to make debates about India's poverty line look irrelevant. Himachal, too, seemed to be taking a giant step towards becoming a consumer of western brand names.
The shop was empty, the salesmen sunk into torpor. There were no likely customers in sight when I passed it a few days later. Obviously, there are few takers for the reassuringly expensive preppy look in one of India's predominantly rural states. But the wisdom of financial elites and their mouthpieces in the media rarely brushes against actuality. In any case, appearances are everything in the age of globalisation.
Along with Tommy Hilfiger, several new private "universities" have also opened up recently in Himachal. According to a local daily, the Tribune, one of these institutions enrolled students and started offering courses even before it came into legal existence. You might put down this haste to the high demand for quality education among India's overwhelmingly youthful population. But as the Tribune described in a series of reports, the universities not only lack faculties, laboratories and libraries; a few do not meet the criteria for acquiring property in the state.
In other words, private universities have become a pretext for real estate speculators to acquire expensive land from the government: another example of the collusion between state and private business manifested recently in some of India's biggest corruption scandals. These sweetheart deals would be somewhat excusable if, unlike most Indian institutions of learning, the private universities offered an education rather than degrees. But they are only interested in extracting steep tuition fees from parents anxious for their children to join India's new economy. Not surprisingly, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, 75% of technical graduates and more than 85% of general graduates in India are unemployable.
The professionalisation of education has taken a toll of even the country's elite Indian Institutes of Technology. Last week Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, India's premier software company, said "coaching classes" that help aspiring engineers cram for the IIT entrance exams have caused a sharp deterioration in the quality of students.
But for those making money while the sun shines there is no compelling reason to worry about the future. There is enough beguiling fantasy in the form of cloud-cuckoo-land projections (as much loved by globalised free marketeers as the central-planning communists of old): that India has a "demographic dividend" in the form of its young population, which is all set to out-produce and out-consume every other nation in the world in the next 30 years.
It is this unexamined ideological conceit that David Cameron echoes when he exhorts Britons to summon up the "energy, hunger and drive" of an emerging economy like India. It is also what the Economist magazine amplifies when, in an embarrassingly upbeat report on the Indian economy last year, it exulted that "remarkably, in rural areas more than 20% of Indian students, most of them poor, attend private schools. The literacy rate is rising fast".
So it is, on paper, along with the number of private schools and universities. But last month a study of schools in the biggest states found India's peers in adult literacy are Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea. Many children were unable to read even after three years of schooling. One of the report's researchers, the eminent economist Jean Dreze, told the Financial Times, "after 20 years of meteoric economic growth, there's been so little improvement in terms of the living standards of the people".
Writing on the recent contretemps about poverty lines in the Hindu, Utsa Patnaik, one of India's most respected economists, pointed out: "Per head energy and protein intake has been falling for the last two decades as the majority of the population is unable to afford enough food." Delinked from "nutrition standards", especially in a time of high food inflation that has put cereals and vegetables out of reach for most Indians, the government's poverty line measures destitution rather than poverty.
So how do falsehoods turn into truths in our enlightened democratic societies, which are presumably immune to crude propaganda of the kind churned out by totalitarian regimes? Patnaik explains that "hundreds of economists are closely imprecated within a vast global poverty-estimating structure with the World Bank at its apex, producing increasingly misleading estimates every year in glossy reports". CEO-struck writers and journalists – the "useful idiots" of the rich and powerful – hold up another end of what the economist Ha-Joon Chang calls the "financial-intellectual complex".
It is refreshing when these masters of the universe drop the pretence that they are working so very hard to lift all those hundreds of millions out of poverty. In a remarkable recent interview, Shankar Sharma, an equity trader much loved by India's business periodicals for his apparent omniscience about "market behaviour", denounced India's recent anti-corruption movement as a "lynch mob". Apparently, it had destroyed India's image among foreign investors, thereby "eroding corporate profitability".
Speaking to the Economic Times, Sharma offered a stern lesson in the ways of the world: "Remember, fairly won public contracts rarely have any profitability. It's almost always sweetheart deals that carry supernormal profits."
Sharma may sound a bit too cynical. But he differs only in tone and style from India's most prestigious businessmen, such as Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal. For them, Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister accused of complicity in the murder of more than 2,000 Muslims in 2002 (and still barred from travel to the US), is a great visionary for opening up his state's ample resources to businessmen.
"Markets are not there for morality," Sharma helpfully pointed out. But are they at least there for the sake of national economies? It is nice to think, as the Economist recently claimed, that the "whole of India" got a "big confidence boost" out of Tata's acquisitions of such prominent European brands as Jaguar and Corus. But Tata, like Ambani and Mittal, is putting the bulk of his investments abroad, looking, like so many globalised corporates, for an investment climate and tax regime conducive to more corporate profitability; and the UK chancellor, George Osborne, is only too happy to oblige.
This is the brave new world of globalisation in which nothing is what it seems. And it bears more than a passing resemblance to another promised utopia: an alternate reality in which statistics were shamelessly manipulated, and a tiny privileged elite dominating both political and economic life lorded it over the rest, while propaganda machinery manned by a conformist media and assorted "useful idiots" stood ever ready to deceive the restless masses with loud proclamations of a new dawn for humanity. One day, of course, its bluff was called; and we may not have to wait too long before the Potemkin villages of our own time (Himachal's Tommy Hillfiger and private universities being the least of them) come crashing down.