Selling the Indian car 'dream'

2011-11-29 08:29

NEW DELHI, India - Out on the edge of town, a few steps from the railway tracks and across the street from an emerald-green field that stinks of sewage, Sanjeev Saxena sits under a signpost of a new Indian era. Occasionally, he glances up from his desk to see if anyone is coming to his door.

He's waiting to sell a dream.

It's a dream about small-town prestige and aircon in the brutal northern India summer. It's a dream millions of villagers thought they'd never see realised, one of clawing their way into the "middle class". It's a dream that comes in 15 models and 35 colours and with easy finance.

Dharmendra Srivastava, one of Saxena's seven salesmen in the brightly lit showroom sporting the name Bright4Wheel, recalls car sales of the past. "I remember when cars were for rich people. Today, everybody in India wants a car: the city people, farmers, everybody."


Modern India has been changed by the spread of cars, a four-wheeled reflection of its economic transformation and a window into the aspirations of the new Indian middle-class.
The automotive metamorphosis has spread from the rich enclaves of India's biggest cities to its countless Barabankis: once-quiet towns now spilling over with concrete buildings, crowded streets and clattering vehicles.

Farmers and schoolteachers now buy cars. The Barabanki shopkeeper selling fluorescent tubes for R24 each has one. The farmer-businessman with the one-room tyre store has two. Saxena often tells his team that its all about sales technique; confidence, treating customers right and knowing the latest offers.

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Saxena said: "You need to learn how to convince people to buy. If you can't do that, you need to ask why."

It was the first day of a string of autumn Hindu festivals marking the year's biggest shopping season and an hour before the arrival of the day's first customers. It was three days before the Maruti-Suzuki dealership's monthly sales deadline. Everyb ody felt the pressure.

"We can't lose a customer, no matter what happens," Saxena said.

But behind the technique is something else. Maruti sells its cars with advertisements showing an idealised India that barely exists, even in the country's wealthiest enclaves: sprawling houses with white picket fences, highways with no traffic, friendly towns without a hint of litter. Everywhere, there are joyful Indians driving their Maruti.

That's the Indian dream they're selling.


The fantasy began taking shape in 1991 when the government was facing crushing debt payments and dangerously low foreign exchange reserves. Desperate to save itself, India abandoned socialism and embraced globalisation; the country become one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

Per capita income 20 years ago was the equivalent of about R3000 a year, a quarter of what it is today. The literacy rate was 42%. Cars were an unimaginable extravagance.

The small middle-class spent years on car dealers' waiting lists. Then, for the most part, they had two choices: the Ambassador, a ridiculously outdated but incredibly rugged sedan whose design was borrowed from 1950's Britain; and the Maruti 800, a stripped-down economy model that resembled a metal box on wheels.

What began in 1991, though, has turned India into an economic juggernaut with a middle class now estimated at more than 250-million. The country has paved more than 800 000kms of roads in the past two decades and car production and sales have skyrocketed. Maruti sells more cars than any other brand but automakers from Mahindra through Ford to Hyundai have factories here. Customers can now buy anything from a R22 000 Tata Nano - the dirt-cheap Everyman's car that became a sales flop - to a R6-million Ferrari FF.

Indians bought 2.5-million cars in 2010, 25% more than the previous year.


The new India was made Saxena's salesmen connoisseurs of automotive consumerism.

There's Dinesh Kumar, a 28-year-old who moved to Mumbai to sell advertising for an internet company. He ran out of money, came home, and finally moved into a R167-a-month rented room. After three weeks at Bright4Wheel, he hasn't sold a car. He can spend an hour staring at his cellphone, hoping for a miracle buyer to call.

Saxena has warned him: "Make a sale or you'll be fired."

Kumar said: "There's a lot of pressure on me. I've been unlucky."

Behind his back, the others suspect he won't make it.