Scene 1

I am sitting in the newly constructed three-story house of Ram Kumar (not his real name). The house is located on about an acre of land in a village at the edge of the privately developed “new” Gurugram (earlier Gurgaon) in Haryana. Just behind the house is an enclosed plot of land that shines bright yellow even in the weak winter sun. It is a mustard field. It is comically small to be of any economic use. Ram Kumar tells me that it is a hobby farm, owned by “someone who lives in a hill station”.

Just to the right of the mustard plot – like a film-set installed for nostalgic, passing, cadastral amusement – is an under-construction skyscraper. A gigantic neon sign, on the still see-through 15th floor, says “Trump Towers”. Looking north, towards Delhi, there is an undulating outline of other residential and commercial buildings – the Google headquarters is not too far away – like an outstretched finger irrevocably etching urban markings on rural topographies.

Ram Kumar talks enthusiastically about the new buildings, and recent sales of previously agricultural land to private developers by local Gujjar families like his own. The sudden and spectacular gains in wealth have propelled a previously impoverished agro-pastoral caste – it owned small numbers of cattle and its farming lands were both of poor quality and small size – to a position of great economic comfort. There is relief that their farming and herding days are behind them.

The talk now is mostly about how to ensure that inaccurate land records in the local revenue office – overseen by patwaris [government officials of land records] who are detested, feared and humoured – are converted to reliable family assets in order to benefit from future rises in the price of unsold land.

The Haryana government has been implementing the Digital India Land Record Modernisation Project that seeks to make both ownership and land transactions “transparent”. But, on the ground, things are different and money is needed for “fixing” ownership claims. Land sales generate funds for securing the future through paying off various officials who deal with land records.

Labourers work in front of high-rise residential colonies in Gurgaon in this June 2006 photograph. Credit: Reuters.

However, as we talk about his family’s changing fortunes, Ram Kumar is just as keen to discuss how new wealth should be used to change “the Gujjar mindset”, as he puts it. “Most of our families who have made money through land sales,” he tells me, “have either become real estate agents or live off rental income from tenement housing constructed for migrant construction and other workers.”

He adds that if this does not change, “we will never escape the stigma of being backward … even the Ahirs [another low-income agro-pastoral community] think we are a backward samaj [community]”. We walk around his new house and he explains that he has taken particular steps to address the issue of “backwardness” in his own family. “One of my daughters now works as an online consultant for a computer company and my son is in the Merchant Navy,” he says. And unlike so many other families of the Gujjar samaj, he continues, neither “has been married off at a young age”.

The Kumar dwelling is an impressive structure with multiple balconies and a lift-well. “When the house was first built,” he tells me, “we didn’t pay much attention to the kitchen. However, last year, when my son returned from one of his overseas trips, he said that we needed a “modular” kitchen. So, we got rid of the old kitchen and installed this new one.”

As I try out the drawers and cupboards, Ram Kumar adds that kitchens like his are important if the Gujjar samaj is to shake off the taint of backwardness.

Scene 2

In a half-constructed building on the outskirts of the small town of Chandwa, in India’s northeastern state of Jharkhand, a teacher leads a class called “Direct and Door-to-Door Selling”.

The course, sponsored by the Ministry of Rural Development, is part of the central government’s ambitious “Skill India” programme, launched in 2015. Also known as Roshni (“light”), the program targets youth in 24 officially designated “Left Wing Extremist Affected Districts” across the country.

Jharkhand is home to a violent and long-running Maoist movement and Chandwa is located in the district of Latehar, one of the most significantly affected areas.

The teacher talks about the importance of “attitude”, “etiquette”, “positivity”, “time management”, and “looking professional”. He plays an American video clip from YouTube in which a man in a suit discusses “ideal” selling techniques.

The students are primarily from one of Jharkhand’s several Adivasi communities. Their families are mainly landless farmers and forest- gatherers. For many, this is their first trip out of remote rural environments. The class stares blankly at the screen and then at the teacher. “Is there anything in the video you did not understand?” he asks. “No, sir, we’ve understood everything,” the students respond as one. They are keen to continue with the lesson.

Employees at a coffee shop in Mumbai in 2012. Credit: Reuters.

Modular kitchens, modern personalities

Ram Kumar’s modular kitchen and the “Skill India” programme are part of a history of concerns – stretching over almost a century – about self-improvement and becoming “cosmopolitan”.

Varying contexts of modernity – including caste consciousness, urbanisation, the changing nature of work and educational disparities – have generated different strategies (and anxieties) of self-improvement. During the colonial period, a strong body of British opinion held that it was difficult to educate a colonised population in the ways of Western modernity and work habits.

Others, such as the founders of the elite Doon School (established in 1935), sought to address this “problem” by establishing English-style boarding schools. For the leaders of the imperial industrial system, a key task was to transform unskilled labour into factory workers and machinists.

Colonial administrators often complained about children of poor backgrounds, that “[t]heir primary education is that of the streets …. They get from it a certain superficial sharpness, but little knowledge that is to be of service in the business of life and less than no discipline”, as quoted in historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar’s work.

During the post-colonial period (since 1947), even as the state set about establishing industrial training institutes and polytechnics, educationists fretted over whether the parents’ “mentality” would still handicap their children’s capacity for modern work. Further, it became widely accepted that a decrepit educational system mainly produced “incomplete” and “provincial” citizens, ill equipped for new economic opportunities.

These concerns have sharpened since the early 1990s, when the Indian government implemented economic liberalisation policies. The task of producing “suitable” workers for jobs in a changed economic environment has become a key aspect of public policy and popular discussions in India.

Beyond official concerns, the post-colonial period also witnessed a number of commercial initiatives that addressed the “problem” of Indian personality. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the Rapidex English Speaking Course, first published as a book by Delhi’s Pustak Mahal publishing house in 1976 and institutionalised in public memory in advertisements featuring cricketer Kapil Dev.

Rapidex’s publications contain instructions on both language as well as demeanour. The story of Rapidex and Kapil Dev concerns the possibilities of rapid transformation of the “provincial” male self into a metropolitan being. The Rapidex “model” has spawned training institutes and “coaching” centres where “young people in PDE [personality development and enhancement] programmes strive to learn to effortlessly perform the practices that constitute and communicate an enterprising, cosmopolitan, professional self”.

Prospective flight attendants at an etiquette training course in Gurgaon on in November 2014. Credit: Reuters.

Neo-liberal selves?

In the decades since Rapidex was launched, the provincial female body has also become a significant object of transformation. Coaching centres have proliferated around the country, ranging from hole-in-the-wall outfits in small towns that target the urban and rural poor to well-appointed franchises in metropolitan cities that offer airline cabin crew training to those of greater means.

What they share are self-established norms regarding the “personality types” required for success in the service sector and syllabi drawn from an admixture of management theory, popular psychology, fashion dictates and dietary prescriptions.

The post-liberalisation period (since the early 1990s) has seen an expansion of official training schemes for those cultural and social skills that elites believe are lacking among those who seek employment in the “service” sectors – like the retail and hospitality sectors.

A variety of “expert” opinion speaks of “deficits” in soft skills, stressing the need for workers with “cosmopolitan worldliness” to deal with a “more demanding consumer”. Soft skills training is also linked to “personality development”, a term used imprecisely to suggest that such skills can fundamentally transform ways of being.

Attempts to refashion Indian selves have complex and unpredictable histories. The dominant analytical tendency, however, is to imagine programmes aimed at “personality development” as unhindered projects of transformation that produce “neo-liberal” subjects.

This derives from broader global frameworks within which studies of soft-skills training and its effects focus on “alienation” – how an “authentic” self is violated through accretions of “fake” or surface identities. The situation on the ground, however, is more complex.

My fieldwork suggests the making of contexts where neo-liberal processes do not necessarily produce neo-liberal subjects. That is, the subjects of “neo-liberal” projects of transformations in personality do not – through willing participation in them – become “entrepreneurial”, “self-regulating” ones. Simultaneously, as they engage with the market of new economic possibilities, they continue, whether on the urban peripheries of Gurugram or rural interiors of Jharkhand, to be located in networks of caste, kinship and familial obligations.

Soft-skills trainees in India use training in affect and dispositions to negotiate new identities that are neither “neo-liberal” nor its antithesis. A significant aspect of this is the manner in which the idea of a “surface” self is now part of self-making; that is, market identities acquired for purposes of social and economic mobility exist alongside rather than in competition with other ones, such as those deployed in negotiating enduring structures of power including family, kinship and caste. These do not simply disappear with the incursion of the market in everyday life.

Studying the social and empirical terrain on which soft-skills training unfolds allows us to understand subaltern self-making, which tends to be effaced in arguments couched as critiques of neo-liberal strategies. The truth is, hardly anyone fears the market or the loss of a putative “authentic” self.

Under conditions of deep economic and social asymmetry, the majority is, actually, preoccupied with negotiating new relationships between the state and private capital as grounds for altered futures.

Sanjay Srivastava is British Academy Global Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS University of London.

Originally posted as ‘Modernity and the Politics of ‘Personality’: Or Who is Scared of Neo-liberalism?’ on ‘South Asia @ LSE’, the official blog of the LSE South Asia Centre as part of its ‘India @ 75’ series, on 13 February 2023; posted with permission.