Wealth Issue 2016: Essay

Political Fortunes

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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The ideological colours of money

INDIA’S POLITICIANS AND ‘godmen’ are often dramatically rich, TN Ninan says in The Turn of the Tortoise. But politicians have an edge over godmen. As the American political satirist, PJ O’Rourke, who endorses Hillary Clinton for president as ‘the second-worst thing that could happen to America’, put it, ‘When buying and selling are controlled by legislators the first thing to be bought and sold are legislators.’ Ninan quotes the Association of Democratic Reforms’ finding that the average income and assets of our 100 richest legislators grew by a stupendous 745 per cent between consecutive elections. ‘Individual legislators saw their assets grow up to twenty-five-fold.’

He names Central and state ministers who are or have been in jail, who are waiting for court or appeal hearings, have been ticked off or forced to resign. But the doings of godmen are shrouded in mystery. One reason may be that a godman’s assets are partly in astral holdings beyond audit detection. How can the Enforcement Directorate track down a nibble of Nirvana or a mortgage on Maya, leave alone preference shares in Paradise? A politician’s access to the intersection of political and economic opportunities where fortunes are most easily made are traceable. A minister not only knows where the government will invest, but may himself take the decision before giving appropriate instructions to his broker. He can hold up or veto projects in the sacred name of environmental protection before being persuaded to clear them for the sake of the people. If the godman isn’t the minister’s guru, he must rely on supernatural channels of information.

This thriving cottage industry didn’t wait for the 1991 reforms to go global. Hollywood stars, Mayfair hostesses and Asian sultans were disciples before Tata Steel had even heard of Corus. A godman’s face is his fortune. The more hirsute his appearance, the greater the expanse of flesh his saffron attire exposes, the higher his sanctity. India also worships emblems of renunciation, the more ostentatious the better. A godman might stash away billions in benami accounts, but devotees flock to ash-smeared nudity. The mix of piety and poverty fits nicely into the national myth that ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’.

It’s chanted so stridently that I was taken aback when Manmohan Singh said with a touch of pride that there would have been no Azim Premjis if he hadn’t abolished wealth tax. The accidental Prime Minister didn’t need a politician’s moral fig leaf. The absence of cant went down well with Singaporeans who regard wealth generation as a solemn duty, like upgrading. When I asked an Englishman who taught at my son’s school in Singapore why the syllabus didn’t include Religious Instruction, he replied deadpan, “What can we teach the Chinese about money?”

It’s not only the Chinese. Recalling Nani Palkhivala’s contention that freed of India’s crippling restrictions, Indians abroad buy from a Scotsman and sell to a Jew and still make a profit, Indian Singaporeans have little time for the pretences of the country from which they escaped to better their prospects. When working on Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India, I read of Badr-ud-din Tyabji, a patrician member of the Indian Civil Service, and his encounter with Rajabali Jumabhoy, a successful Singaporean businessman of Kutchi origin who had fled to Bombay during World War II and pulled strings to become Tyabji’s assistant in the wartime supplies office.

The two met again in 1954 when Tyabji stopped in Singapore on his way to Jakarta to present credentials as India’s ambassador to Indonesia. Jumabhoy treated his former boss to a banquet that was so sumptuous Tyabji thought it was ‘in rather bad taste’. When he commented on the meal’s “extreme lavishness”, Jumabhoy’s ‘complacent’ reply was, “You see, sir, you only exist in India, we live in Singapore!” Jumabhoy’s own slightly different version admits to telling Tyabji in Bombay that “we live in Singapore and here Indians only exist”. He claims that having sampled his hospitality in Singapore, it was the ambassador who gushed, “Mr Jumabhoy, you were right, you people live, we only exist in India.”

The mix of piety and poverty fits nicely into the national myth that ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God

Nevertheless, India is the ultimate land of opportunity. Every billionaire tycoon may not start life as a matriculate clerk in Aden or a shopkeeper in Dubai; every Vadnagar railway station tea seller cannot clamber up the greasy pole to the pinnacle of political power. But even if some Indian princes claim the sun and the moon as ancestors, most people who matter start from modest beginnings. VS Naipaul once asked me what Jawaharlal Nehru’s father did and was aghast when I said Motilal Nehru practised as a vakil. “That’s middle class!” Naipaul exclaimed. “Why do Indians call the Nehrus aristocrats?” Because, I explained, Motilal Nehru made a lot of the only thing that counts in modern India. Few Indians will understand the utter snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s cry, ‘I wish I were descended from a useless lord!’

Corruption equalises opportunity. ‘For the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained,’ Katherine Boo observes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Bribery can counter the advantage of birth. Thanks to corruption, India remained a free market with prices for everything even under the most rigorous controls. At the high end, there is—or was—money in defence purchases, spectrum sales, mining concessions, land speculation and public sector appointments. Lower down, profits were made from foodgrain distribution, telephone connections, even cooking gas cylinders.

As West Bengal’s Vigilance Commissioner, Subimal Dutt of the ICS lamented that the ingenuity deployed in robbing a small and simple charge like the Vivekananda Bridge’s toll was not put to constructive use. His report coined the phrase ‘speed money’ which he called a way of life. West Bengal’s present Food and Supplies Minister, Jyotipriyo Mullick, must have wiped out a considerable investment if he really did eliminate19 million bogus ration cards.

Ninan’s break-down of Indian society into four groups—Middle- Class Rich, Aspiring Neo-middle Class, Vulnerable Non-poor, and Poor—is entirely monetary. Caste has been outlawed. Class is even more archaic. Almost the only education that counts is an IIT degree entitling the holder to aim for the coveted American Green Card. Money is the only yardstick. No wonder so many legends are spun around it. I remember being puzzled as a child by adult scepticism about Nehru’s claim to spend Rs 50 a month. I was wiser when I read of Nehru’s affected contempt when an American asked on his first visit to the United States if he had any idea how many millions of dollars were gathered round the luncheon table. Americans thought it dishonest of a leader who had gone there in expectation of aid to pretend to turn up his nose at money.

VS Naipaul once asked me what Jawaharlal Nehru’s father did and was aghast when I said Motilal Nehru practised as a vakil. “That’s middle class!” Naipaul exclaimed. “Why do Indians call the Nehrus aristocrats?”

Little did they know how expediently the ‘Indian’ and ‘foreign’ labels would be switched to make money. Since India doesn’t allow dual passports, Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister enabled rich expatriate Indians who were foreign citizens to become even richer by being treated as Indian when investing here. Continuing that tradition of treating the definition of ‘Indian’ as flexible, Arun Jaitley retrospectively amended the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010 so that all the foreign companies that gave money to the BJP became ‘Indian’. The opposition didn’t complain. There’s honour among politicians too: Jaitley’s law ensured the Congress also has the best of all corporate worlds. The cost of keeping Mahatma Gandhi in poverty was nothing compared to eating your cake and having it.

IN EUROPE, THE rich and poor are two nations ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets’ to quote Benjamin Disraeli. The poor steal, the rich suffer from kleptomania. India blurs the borderline. One of George Orwell’s essays describes the hubub of a Burmese official’s—Burma was then an Indian province and Orwell in the Indian Police—arrival with his entourage at a dak bungalow. Once the shouting and stamping to emphasise the official’s importance was over, the man settled down to a comfortable smoke with his attendants. They were not qualitatively different. Like the Indian princess who said in a TV interview in London, life in her palace was very egalitarian: her maid slept on the floor next to her bed. ‘The Colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.’

The common sight of ‘a sleek, expensive sports car crawling its way through choked traffic on pothole-ridden roads’ invoked by the Mumbai economist, Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, actually affirms this cohesion. Rich and poor, high and low, live cheek by jowl. Antilia, the world’s most expensive private residence, rears over Asia’s worst slums. If the co-existence of great wealth and abject poverty hadn’t been the natural order, India would long ago have exploded in revolution.

Indira Gandhi and VP Singh were savvy enough to understand their raids pandered to a sense of hierarchy. You were nobody if you hadn’t been raided. “No metal detectors! It can’t have been a real raid!” I heard one society hostess gush to another

That’s why the big fat Indian wedding is a desperate necessity. When Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in 1899, he had in mind only buying useless things with disposable cash. But the extravaganza of a wedding sets apart the Indian elite as caste or mastery over English once did. As my wife and I walked into a Calcutta dinner party in 2004, the local wit bawled out, “Here come two more nobodies!” Anybody who was anybody was in Lucknow that day at the Sahara Roy nuptials. Indira Gandhi and VP Singh were savvy enough to understand their raids pandered to this sense of hierarchy. You were nobody if you hadn’t been raided. “No metal detectors! It can’t have been a real raid!” I heard one society hostess gush to another. Now that raids have inconsiderately stopped, a groom’s father has to declare, “True, a Bell 429 helicopter was given but it was a simple wedding.”

David Astor, who owned and edited The Observer, was horrified when one of his senior editors mentioned his mortgage. He couldn’t conceive of anyone being in debt. Another journalist gently suggested a raise, adding he couldn’t afford lunch. Missing the point, the kindly David promptly offered to share his own lavish lunch hamper with him. Contrast that with an Indian media personality who neither owned nor edited his paper but controlled it with a stranglehold unmatched by any owner or editor. He frequently talked of seeing the chairman of another newspaper group in Zurich “where the banks are, you know”. As for his reason for being there, “My favourite chocolate shop,” was the answer. The paper of which he was de facto owner boasted extensive properties in two Indian cities to start with. What little was left by the end of his tenure was mortgaged to the hilt.

His might have been Edward Heath’s ‘unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism’. Curiously, Tiny Rowland, to whom the British prime minister applied that term, bought The Observer, and, even more curiously, was a protégé of Krishna Menon’s. Fate singled out this extraordinarily rich self-made businessman for an exceptional birth. His German father traded in Calcutta when World War I broke out. He and his wife were interned in Belgaum. Being born there, young Roland Furhop was entitled to British citizenship. Furhop was dropped and Roland anglicised to Rowland.

Politics and godmanship aren’t the only ways of making money. But neither demands any educational qualification, formal training or moral rigour. The ‘ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’ that a Fleet Street veteran famously thought ‘the only qualities essential for real success in journalism’ are more than enough. Being the son of a politician or godman may help, but isn’t essential. Both professions are open to all comers; both can lead to unparalleled fame and fortune.