schizophrenic India. Mallya, the silver-spoon-in-mouth tycoon, with his fleet of vintage cars, multiple luxury residences and 1.5-crore bid for Tipu Sultan’s sword. Kanhaiya, the son of a paralysed farm labourer and an anganwadi worker from Begusarai. Mallya gets away with bank default of Rs 9,000 crore. TV talking heads rage that taxpayers’ money should not be used to fund poor students like Kanhaiya.
Kanhaiya demands azaadi from an India of feudalism, poverty and rapacious capitalism. Mallya takes pride in showcasing his wealth and glamour, the gorgeous, semi-clothed women in the Kingfisher calendar a flourish of his devil-may-care, pleasure-seeking money porn as an adult choice for those lucky enough to afford it.
Kanhaiya’s India is the open-defecation capital of the world, where 13 million youth join the workforce every year, 270 million Indians still live in poverty, and 63 million are pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs. Mallya’s India is an “island of California floating in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa,” where the flamboyant display of wealth and lifestyle is perhaps a mark of Indian self-confidence, a patriotic swagger to show that we are poor only in mindset, a glittering repudiation of joyless socialist austerity.
The question arises: does a rich, privileged man like Mallya not have a duty towards Kanhaiya? Because so many million Kanhaiyas exist, and so few Mallyas, should Mallya not use his wealth to not only serve his country and his conscience but also to create a more democratic society?
RBI governor Raghuram Rajan recently said that when India’s rich flaunt their lavish birthday parties while owing huge amounts to banks, they send out the message that they don’t care. Almost a decade ago PM Manmohan Singh appealed to industrialists to shun conspicuous consumption, care more about the poor and be role models of moderation, charity and probity.
To no avail. Laxmi Mittal spent over Rs 200 crore on his daughter’s wedding, the Sahara wedding cost over Rs 500 crore, the rich have multi-storeyed homes worth $2 billion and yachts furnished in mother-of-pearl. Can India’s rich pretend they live in Monaco? Don’t they, because of the circumstances of the country, have a unique duty?
Economist Pranab Bardhan points out that billionaires who complain about doles for the poor are themselves recipients of a “corporate dole”, or corporate tax exemptions which according to certain estimates are higher than the total of food subsidies, fertilizer subsidies and MNREGA. When Salman Khan’s Land Cruiser cut down pavement dwellers, certain Bollywood stars callously demanded to know why some people stupidly chose to sleep on the street?
Reports say trillions of dollars of black money remain secreted away overseas but black money plutocrats remain untouched by the law. Instead students shouting for freedom are charged with sedition.
In his bestselling book, Thomas Piketty has repeatedly warned that capitalism is creating more inequality than growth. Inequality and perception of inequality is shaping our public realm today. And Kanhaiya Kumar is the youthful vent of that inequality. Why should millions of youth remain silent in the face of the antics of magnates from Mallya to Sahara Shree? The taxpayer may fund Kanhaiya’s education but cannot, after all, buy his silence.
Is it anti-national to seek freedom from injustice? Surely the onus has to be on the rich to attune their values to the country from which they extract their wealth. This means being low key about their treasures and practising humility and modesty. It means realizing that modern India in many ways perpetuates a monopoly of resources by the elite. Unless India’s rich embrace a conscientious austerity, prepare to be targeted, both justly and unjustly.
Bill and Melinda Gates plan to give 95% of their wealth to charity, Warren Buffet has pledged to give away 99% and recently Mark Zuckerberg pledged $45 billion to charity on his daughter’s birth. With the exception of the Tatas, Azim Premji, Murthys and Nilekanis, our rich define themselves by magnificent lifestyles, not renunciation or philanthropy. Sure, as Narayana Murthy often says, it’s socialist hypocrisy to regard wealth as a sin and to
see profit-making as evil, but to go to the other extreme and flaunt fortunes and disregard rules is to ignore the fate of Rajat Gupta, his conviction an example of how rigorously a free market like the US upholds the law.
If the rich only get richer and if the system bends to accommodate them, if India only works for a handful, then yes, cries for ‘azaadi’ will only grow louder. The government may try to silence youth and charge them with being anti-national, but as long as we have Vijay Mallya and all he represents, we will always have Kanhaiya Kumar.
A Little Politics about India