Beginning September 19, this year, many roads and public spaces in the city of Mumbai will change hands. They always do, every year. They will move from car owners to car drivers, from apartment residents to apartment cleaners, from pavement walkers to pavement dwellers. Those who travel in cars and dominate the city roads all year round, unmindful of the many more who don’t, will cede their dominance for the ten days of the Ganesh Festival to the unprivileged classes. For those ten days, the boisterous pandals and processions will push the carwallahs firmly down in the city’s priority. The festival marquees are constructed on public spaces, the attendant decorations are placed on the self-same roads, and processions to felicitate the arrival and departure of the deity meander down busy thoroughfares while car-owners look on helplessly, and have their quiet precincts invaded by decibel levels that could easily be declared illegal in another land. And we all know, this isn’t restricted to Ganpati. In different localities, on different days, this same power switch happens during the Mount Mary Fair, the holy month of Ramzan or the Govinda festival day in Mumbai. All parts of the country witness the phenomenon in some form during Durga Puja, Onam, Dussera, Ambedkar Jayanti, Holi and the hundreds of festivals that India celebrates every year.
Till a couple of decades back, most of these public festivals were led and shaped by the middle class ‘bhadralok’. In the bad old socialist era, when everyone was poor, and the poor were desperately poor, only a few could claim access to public spaces. Marketing companies had no time for the really poor, who had no purchasing power. Festivals, therefore, had none of today’s larger than life pomp and circumstance, which is fuelled by gigantic promotion budgets by marketing companies. As prosperity grew, and the poor started becoming part of the consuming classes, they, too, entered the arena of public festivals, and gradually edged out the smaller middle class.
Public festivals have now been conclusively claimed by the less privileged class – the India Two. India Two is economically weaker than its counterpart in India One, the car people. However, the power of India Two lies in the collective. Their numbers are overwhelming, and they use this as a strength to overcome their economic weakness. Moreover, they are time-rich, tenacity-rich and never short on day-to-day enterprise. Though they reside in tenements and slums, they are also participants in the urban growth phenomena. Their incomes are growing and there is a corresponding increase in awareness and aspirations. The new sense of awareness and the power of the collective best manifests itself during the festivals of the community and the grand festival of democracy – the elections. On both these occasions, the collective India Two looks the cities and their privileged classes in the eye, and the haves assume a secondary role, even if temporarily.
Across the world and increasingly in India, for the new aspiring classes, the modern temples where growing prosperity is celebrated, are the large stores and malls. All those with purchasing power find their shopping nirvana in these new temples. These places are normally dominated by classes with higher spending power. But on certain days that dominance disappears. In the United States, for instance, the regular shoppers – the haves – are crowded out in the malls and the stores on the Thanksgiving weekend in November particularly, and to some extent on the national holiday on 4th July, or during the Labour Day weekend. During these days all retail stores across the US run a deep discount sale. It is on these days that the less well-off people – immigrants, students, frugal Asians and Latinos – win hands down in the race for the best priced goods, defeating the regular shoppers. And their competition gear? The same as India Two – time, tenacity and enterprise. Families work together, they scour the ads for the best deals, youngsters queue up at the store gate overnight, buying in the store is done collectively. Hunting and gathering tasks are divided up by sections of the store. They grab the best goods before the stocks run out. They win, with the power of the collective. Stores win, too. It is a fact that many stores sell more on Black Friday than the rest of the year put together.
Back home in India too, such consumption festivals are taking shape on public holidays like the Republic Day and the Independence Day. There are stores like Big Bazaar and some home-grown retailers that arouse a response from their customers similar to the public festivals. You need a good three to four hours of time investment and tenacity to weave through the swelling crowds for any meaningful win at these consumption festivals. The time and effort needed serve as an effective entry barrier for the usual shoppers of these stores. The India Two, equipped with the life skills required from the very manner in which they go through their normal day, walk away with the largest share of the super deals on offer. They are used to doing things the hard way, they have no qualms about pushing their way through, and they are accustomed to the absence of any infrastructure to make life easy for them. For a change, they are offered an environment where these are the very skills that are needed for success. Naturally, at any large sale, where deep discounts are on offer, it is India Two that will make a killing. They will edge out the haves, those who enjoy the huge infrastructure of the stores for the rest of the year.
Those who understand and tap into this collective mindset will have queues in front of their stores on certain days of the year, queues that might even outweigh the sales in the rest of the year for the competition.
Disclosure: Damodar Mall is Director, Food Strategy at Future Group which owns the Big Bazaar chain of stores mentioned in this blog.