Vinay Lal

16 November 2007

Colonial officials and visitors from Britain during the some 200 years when India was under colonial rule spoke frequently of the immense wealth of Indian maharajas. Indeed, the ‘inaugural’ moment of British rule in India, Clive’s triumph at arms at the mango grove of Plassey in Bengal, has attached to it an extraordinary story about the plunder of India’s wealth. Clive had connived with Mir Jafar to defeat the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-u-daulah, and he is said to have been richly rewarded by Mir Jafar who succeeded to the throne. In the now forgotten Hollywood film, “Clive of India”, the English hero is shown wading through a roomful of valuable rubies, pearls, and diamonds, the riches of the Orient thrown at his feet. Clive would in time be put on trial on charges of corruption and bribery, and one of the most brilliant moments in the trial comes when Clive, accused of having gorged on India’s wealth, defends himself with an observation that there was a great deal more that could have been his for the asking: ‘Here I stand, my Lords, astonished at my own moderation.’

Judging from today’s newspapers, a new breed of maharajas has come to the fore in India. There is feverish excitement about the billionaires being spawned by India’s growing economy, and almost nothing appears to signal the evident pride in the country’s achievements as the fact, if fact it is, that India has more billionaires than any other country in Asia, more billionaires than Japan, which only a decade ago was always held up by Indian middle classes as an example of an Asian country that worked, and even more billionaires than China which has apparently set standards for rapid industrialization previously unknown in history. In all these matters, Indian newspapers turn to the magazine by which the monied class swears, “Forbes”. Today’s “Hindu” reports, in a piece entitled “A tide of billionaires: Lakshmi Mittal is India’s richest, again”, that, in aggregate, the wealth of the 40 richest Indians “surged to $351 billion, a bit more than double of last year’s $170 billion, making India’s 40 by far the wealthiest such group in all of Asia”.

Some weeks ago Indian newspapers were beside themselves with joy at the information that Mukesh Ambani had become the richest man in the world. This piece of information was splashed on the front pages of most dailies. Forbes’s list of the richest Indians pegs him at number 2 with assets of $49 billion, just behind the $51 billion stashed away by steel-maker Lakshmi Mittal. ‘Stashed away’ is perhaps not the best phrase, since, unlike the former Nizam of Hyderabad, who according to popular legend wrapped up huge bundles of banknotes in newspapers and spent little on himself or anyone else, Ambani and Mittal are, in some respects, huge spenders. Ambani has gifted a custom-tailored jet to his wife on her birthday, and Mittal reportedly spent something in the vicinity of $80 million on his daughter’s wedding. These indulgences do not raise any eyebrows among the elites and the climbers in the middle classes, who take heart in the exceedingly modest beginnings of someone such as Mittal and hold out the hope that Lakshmi will similarly walk into their lives and homes. Things have come so far that Azim Premji, who for years held the top spot among India’s billionaires and was always described as a modest and self-effacing man, has in less than two years become a somewhat forgotten figure. It is not merely that he has been eclipsed by the Ambanis and the real estate developers; to the extent that he might have appeared as embodying some notion of trusteeship, he has become passé. There is little time for him among members of the social set today.

The comings and going of these frivolous spenders today passes for news. We know that social workers, conscientious commentators, and political activists are likely to respond to news about Indian billionaires with umbrage at the shocking insensitivity of rich people and insistent reminders that poverty, disease, illiteracy, malnutrition, and even hunger are endemic and widespread throughout India. Some states do better than others, but no state is without its own gory afflictions. Those writers, social reformers and activists – among them P. Sainath, Aruna Roy, Sandeep Pandey, and many others — who alert us to these problems are doubtless right to do so, and it matters not that their labors may not have, in the aggregate, always made a difference. But, nevertheless, it is also necessary to add that their responses do not encompass the spectrum of considerations that the emergence of Indian billionaires brings to mind. Just what, for example, is wealth, and what has wealth meant in the Indian tradition? Conversely, what do we mean by poverty, and are the poor of the same as the poor of the remote past or even of a generation or two ago? The afflictions of the poor may be better known, but it is well nigh impossible that the afflictions of the rich are not similarly serious even if they are largely unrecognized, apart from such common manifestations as coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, and the like.

This narrative of Indian billionaires brings me to the game, most likely of Indian origin, of snakes and ladders. We have been hearing only about the ladders – everything in Indian seems to be going up, up, up: the Sensex (here, again, delirious joy among the elites and climbers), the growth rate of the economy, the onslaught of cars on the road, and, of course, the number of billionaires. Where there are ladders, however, there are also bound to be snakes. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, when the Union Jack dominated the seas and an imperious people seemed to have every reason to be brimming with confidence, the English modified the game and increased the number of ladders. The ancient Indians, I suspect, knew better, and it is worth recalling that the British Empire came tumbling down soon thereafter. There is the question, naturally, of how anyone can acquire a massive fortune without being a snake, but perhaps this does more discredit to snakes than is necessary. What our ancestors knew was that snakes begin to proliferate as one goes up the ladders.

I am tempted to think, apropos the game of snakes and ladders, that the supreme way to write about poverty is to write about the lives of the super rich. That may be the only social merit of the advent of a new generation of billionaires in India.