Have you noticed the strange sense of vicarious achievement that Indians feel each time one of our own makes it to some global Richie Rich list? Most national newspapers and television channels headlined the news that of the ten richest people in the world, four were now Indian. And readers and viewers reacted appropriately with breathless gasps of pride and awe. It was almost as if the Forbes’ annual list of the super-loaded had become some sort of postmodern index of Indian pride. One paper even felt inspired enough to compare the billionaire rankings to our cricket team’s recent victory spree and described Indians as being ‘world-beaters at creating wealth’.
What explains our new, ecstatic engagement with the making and spending of money? In a country that once romanticised Gandhian austerity, how did popular imagination come to be so captivated by Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storeyed mansion or LN Mittal’s $60 million wedding extravaganza?
If it’s really global recognition we are after, why is that another international survey on the nuts and bolts of economic wellness elicits, at best, a bored yawn? This year, India may have nosedived on the UN Human Development Index, a math-ematical measure of life expectancy, income and literacy, developed by Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq in the nineties, but these rankings would rarely, if ever make it to the front pages. We are enamoured of belonging to the country with the largest number of billionaires in Asia. But our eyes glaze over if you lecture us on how three hundred million of us still live on less than a dollar a day.
Despite politically correct gripes, I don’t think this seeming callousness is necessarily the result of neo-liberal capitalism. Nor do I believe that the tyranny of the free market has created an invisible dictatorship of wealth. On the contrary, in ways that we don’t fully understand yet, new wealth is playing challenger to old class monopolies, liberating some of us, and pushing others into paranoid insecurity. And perhaps we don’t respond as passionately as we should to alarming statistics of poverty because many of us have spent decades shrugging off the global stereotype of India as a land of cows, beggars and naked fakirs. Hence, the childish and competitive vindication at stacking up billionaires and millionaires — this is our chance to buy Bond Street on the Monopoly board game of globalisation.
The fact is that we are terribly confused by money. Our cultural response to wealth remains schiz-ophrenic and marked by all sorts of contradictions. This is probably because this is an India still evolving and adjusting to the social aftermath of economic reforms. Many of us grew up on the other side of 1991, in pre-liberalisation India, and today we are caught smack in the middle of a society in flux.
For those of us who still remember, this was an India where the only car most of us owned was an Ambassador or Fiat. McDonalds and Pizza Hut hadn’t yet come to a multiplex near you. With their imported Pajeros and BMWs, countries like Pakistan seemed more western, and thus, in those days, more modern. A trip outside India was by definition a gigantic shopping expedition and we thought malls with escalators existed only in the movies. Mobile phones hadn’t yet infiltrated our every waking moment and chocolates lugged back from Heathrow seemed like grand gifts to dole out to relatives who may never be lucky enough to get onto a plane.
It may sound unreal today, but back then, ‘elite’ was an intellectual construct rather than a monetary one. And influence and opinion was controlled by a charmed circle of bureaucrats, artistes, professionals, and of course, by politicians.
In our sepia-tinted memories we were somehow culturally superior to today’s brash, ambitious, big-bucks and blackberry generation of India. But, perhaps this is the sort of sentimental claptrap only lazy nostalgia can permit. Could it be that we were not ostentatious because both how we made our money and how we could spend it (right down to how many dollars we would sneak out in foreign exchange) was controlled by the government? We like to say that we only spent our money on books and music, but aren’t we imbuing ourselves with a supercilious superiority? What we don’t say is who you knew back then possibly mattered much more than what you read. Power and influence were contained and controlled within a tiny circle that doled it out occasionally in morsels of patronage. And the stranglehold of government control meant that if you didn’t want to bribe your way through the maze of restrictions, wealth could only be inherited, never created.
There is some irony to the fact that the man who defined economic change in India — Manmohan Singh — had to appeal to last year against “vulgar spending”. The PM’s own spartan lifestyle has happily co-existed with an economic philosophy driven by wealth-creation. But not everybody knows how to manage or understand that paradox and today’s India is struggling to find the middle ground between aspiration and austerity.
There are still lingering (and not necessarily dark) shadows of the Old India. We have grudging admiration for the ruthless and covert battles that corporate giants fight in the IPO war zone, but our deepest respect is still reserved for business houses that don’t pay bribes. We marvel at the glitz and glamour of the Big Fat Indian wedding, but our folk heroes are still the billionaires who choose to travel economy class. We salivate at the thought of driving and owning a Jaguar but are irrationally swept away by the notion of a ‘people’s car’. We are awestruck and even envious of personal wealth, but our heroes belong to corporations where the company peon had a chance to treble his wealth as well. We celebrate wealth, but still value accomplishment over money.
So, as we go gaga over the latest Forbes list, let’s celebrate by all means. But let’s celebrate because all four men on the global list of the super-rich are men who for the most part, built or expanded their own empires, crawling and climbing their way up. None of them were born to money (not even the Ambanis in the strictest sense). And if they can get here, so can the rest of us. It’s this can-do spirit that the New India is so excited about.
Barkha dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7