Have money, will spend

Whether or not the poor are becoming poorer under Narendra Modi, there is little doubt the rich are becoming richer. Not only is the richest Indian, Mukesh Ambani, richer by $16.9 billion in 2018 than he was in 2017, but the Forbes list of 121 Indian billionaires includes 19 who gatecrashed the club this year. Clearly, the partial demonetisation  Modi announced so dramatically on November 6, 2016, was only a peck at the small fry. The big boys walked away laughing. They are still laughing.

Contrary to popular belief, India has always been a poor country of rich people. Ironically, it boasted the world’s richest man — Mir Osman Ali Khan, Nizam of Hyderabad — when it was one of the world’s poorest countries. This contrast between the general and the particular is probably even more striking today but is shrouded in beguiling political rhetoric. The benediction of Donald Trump’s military alliance suggests India as a whole is Asia’s rich and powerful answer to China.

According to Forbes, India boasts the third largest ultra-rich group after the US and China. Their fortunes may be in the Cayman Islands but so what? hai Hindustani, at least until another economic downturn as in 1990-91 when all those NRI investors from the US grabbed their investments and fled. 

What’s the point of all this money if it isn’t used to dazzle the world? Some build architectural monstrosities for homes that mock the homeless. The palaces others rent for weddings subordinate the sacrament of marriage to ostentation. A jal to King Edward VII’s coronation so that he was bathed in sanctity every day spent among  London’s mleccha (people of foreign extraction in ancient India). 

The Mughal emperors had shown much earlier how man’s ingenuity can counter heaven’s command. There’s no problem with a camel going through the eye of a needle if the needle is big enough. As for the other part of the theory about a rich man getting into heaven, Shah Jahan created his own paradise on earth in the Diwan-i-Khas through the centre of which flowed the Nahar-i-Bihisht or stream of paradise.

Wealth may not yet succeed in forcing toothpaste back into a tube, but it does buy a “good” education and more. The more concerns a snobbery that is far more subtle than the flamboyance of many of today’s billionaires. My son, Deep, recorded in an article in memsahib if her husband went to Mill Hill or Millfield school in England, she retorted, “Mill Hill of course. Millfield was only for the post-war nouveau riche!”

Actually, there is no such thing as nouveau riche in India. Just as it’s a fashionable fallacy to call India a rich country of poor people, it’s wildly wrong to dub India an old society. Age is evident in archaeology and architecture but not in thinking. When someone offered a tycoon who was building a house some finely carved 19th century panelling in deeply seasoned teak, he retorted, “Why should I use old wood?” He meant but didn’t add, “when I can buy new!”

India’s is a post-war society. If British rule demolished traditional sensibilities, World War II with its rampant black market and corner-cutting get-rich-quick drive introduced new values. Modi’s embroidered jacket was revealing of this bold new India that is not deterred by any sense of delicacy from advertising itself. Indians like the young Maharaja of Kapurthala who was at Harrow with Jawaharlal Nehru and who retorted when ragged by other Harrovians that he would cut off their heads if they ever set foot in his state are a dying breed.

The future belongs to the Indian billionaire who advertised for a dozen servants including three footmen, a maid, a butler, three housekeepers, a gardener, a chef and a chauffeur to cater to his teenage daughter’s mansion during her four years as a student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. British media reports, also reproduced in India, reveal that a recruitment agency offered annual wages of around £30,000. 

The legend that Mayo College’s original princely parents built mansions at the school for their wards accurately gauged the Indian temperament. Now the great guessing game is which of India’s 121 billionaires is sending his daughter to St Andrews. 

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel