Flaunting riches

Flaunting riches

Thinking aloud

Given its Brahmins and Dalits, India has always been a land of contrasts. It has also always epitomised the concentration of wealth. But no one salivated earlier over how rich the rich were or how they spent their money, as they are doing now over Mukesh Ambani’s new mansion. The public and private domains were strictly separate.

The overlapping of the two has not only exposed the rich to pitiless scrutiny but also distracted attention from the government’s neglected responsibilities. India lags behind many sub-Saharan countries in almost all the indices of modernity not because of the Ambanis, Mittals, Mallyas and Modis, but because of our political and administrative establishments.

The real charge of crass vulgarity that can be levelled at the rich is not levelled because almost all Indians who can afford it indulge in ostentatious display. West Bengal’s Durga Puja is an example of tasteless competitive showmanship.

The spotlight is on the rich because we live now in a more open society. Universal suffrage fosters the illusion of participative decision-making. Tub-thumping politicians whip up populist sentiment and talk resoundingly of equality. Apart from pandering to mass sentiment, it distracts attention from their own misdemeanours and extravagances — marble monuments, for instance. With the media forever on the lookout for titillating titbits, it’s news when Ambani buys a Rs 642-crore luxury jet as a birthday present for his wife.

The information revolution places a premium on immediacy. The past is another country. Those who gloat over the number of Indians in the Forbes list of billionaires forget that time was when India occupied the Number 1 global slot: His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar was reckoned the world’s richest man. Few asked how he had accumulated his wealth or questioned how he spent it.

The justification for inquisitiveness is something called social consciousness and responsibility. The argument is that the rich owe a debt to the poor and that extremes of wealth and riches are intolerable. Conspicuous consumption is condemned for the same reason.

But whatever lofty moral arguments might be invoked, the real underlying reason for condemning lavish displays of spending is fear: the rich must for their own sake take care not to provoke the envy and enmity of the poor who are always the majority. The French and Russian Revolutions are history’s warnings against unbridled and careless extravagance.

These are western notions and, significantly, most of the knowledge about the rich that excites India’s media comes from the West. A society in which the caste system is firmly entrenched does not recoil in horror when an import ban is temporarily suspended to benefit one polyester tycoon.

Social consciousness

But the West finds such manipulation outrageous for western society has evolved notions of social consciousness and responsibility. Western governments have achieved an egalitarian ethic and devised a social welfare net. The western media, therefore, goes to town on what it considers immoral spending like the jewel-studded 18-carat gold faucets on Sir Bernard Docker’s 860-tonne yacht, Shemara, in the 50s. Now the stories are about rich Indians and India’s media picks them up.

That is how Indians know that the most expensive home in Britain is the £117-million Kensington townhouse that Lakshmi Mittal (who spent £34 million on his daughter’s five-day wedding at the Palace of Versailles built by King Louis XIV of France) bought for his son. Another Indian tycoon, Bhupendra Kumar Modi, paid nearly £10 million for one of Singapore’s most expensive penthouse flats in Marina Bay.

Vijay Mallya, who spent £1.1 million last year on buying five relics of Mahatma Gandhi, reputedly has 26 residences around the world. Reports say the new home he is planning in Bangalore will soar to 30 storeys against Ambani’s 27.

Such details tell us a great deal about the quality of the people who make money but that doesn’t mean they can be blamed for Mumbai’s slums or our shameful public services. The most we can accuse them of is not investing enough in schools, vocational training, hospitals and recreational facilities. Instead, they prefer to store their wealth abroad. Some salt it away in concealed accounts. Ratan Tata prefers to acquire automobile and steel corporations in Britain and Singapore and reportedly donate $50 million to Harvard.

The solution does not lie in redistributing the wealth already created but in encouraging others to generate more wealth while also spending more on amenities like potable water, sanitation, housing and hygiene that western societies take for granted.

India’s self-image today is that of a superpower but a country does not become one only because a few people are filthy rich. Similarly, it’s equally facile to suppose that India isn’t a superpower because 800 million Indians survive on around Rs 70 a day. The British working class lived in abysmal squalor when Britannia ruled the waves.

The solution lies in unleashing the collective creativity of the Indian people and enabling them to be partners in the present great experiment. One key to that empowerment would be effective free and compulsory primary education throughout the country.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox