Wednesday, April 24, 2024

What the postcards from Jamnagar tell us


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By Jagdish Rattanani

It was only last year that Parliament discussed a private member’s bill to limit “wasteful expenditure” at weddings and special occasions. Congress MP Jasbir Singh Gill wrote in the objects and reasons statement of his bill: “… (wedding) has become a status symbol and a symbol of show-off … It is high time for our country to stand up against this unmeaningful and wasteful expenditure…” Similar private member bills, none of which were expected to pass but left some observations on record, were introduced by other MPs in 2016 and 2017.
How quaint that enterprise at thrift in our weddings sounds just now, as the nation emerges from the celebrations in the run-up to the wedding, or what is being called the “pre-wedding” gala, for Anant Ambani, son of the Reliance group Chairman Mukesh Ambani. The Ambanis preferred Jamnagar to their 27-storey mansion Antilia in Mumbai for these festivities, launching at the same time Anant Ambani as a sensitive, animal-loving businessman who has set up a private elephant sanctuary near the Jamnagar refineries of Reliance, which has its headquarters in Mumbai. It was here that the group founder and Anant’s grandfather Dhirubhai Ambani first made his mark.
Those days, the picture postcard of Mumbai used to be slums framed against skyscrapers, the everyday story of in-your-face inequality – two sides that nevertheless saw each other and routinely crossed paths. The idea of success was the rich man on the 21st floor (Antilia had not come up then), coinage of the late editor and satirist Behram Contractor who wrote as “Busybee”, with incisive pointers to the highs and the lows of what was Bombay. Life was about moving up the high-rise, literally and metaphorically. Bombay’s folklore was made up of the few who managed that dramatic rise, among them Dhirubhai Ambani.
In the changed India of the 21st century, that one picture postcard is split in two pictures that no longer encounter each other. One is pictured in the pre-wedding Ambani razzmatazz at a reported bill of about Rs.1,000 crore, with Jamnagar turned into an international airport just for the event as global flights brought in special guests to feast and have fun. It also showcased the power and reach of an Indian magnate whose invitation brought some of the world’s biggest business icons flying down in private jets. The second picture is the reality next door, of a nation growing fast but still with almost 60% of its people living on free food grains to “mitigate any financial hardship”, as the government put it, a subsidy billed at Rs. 11.8 lakh crores for five years. The two universes are sharply delineated in a privatised, liberalised India on the march to global stardom.
The Bombay postcard, ubiquitous as it was, defined and at the same time shamed the city that is India’s financial centre. The frame was also a trigger for popular struggles, some that challenged the then powerful mill-owners and others that went right up to the Supreme Court in favour of the rights of slum dwellers to live decent lives.
The postcards from Jamnagar frame some other stories that have emerged as a theme in the new India. These are stories of unrivalled pomp and power, of material riches beyond compare, of an elite space where forces work differently from the way they work elsewhere on the planet. The overblown celebrations and flood of PR-led news shows on the pre-wedding indicate that the story-telling itself was a part of the spectacle.
Yet, it may be a mistake to overstate the example and over-focus on one event of one family, propelled just by the size and the scale of the extravaganza. The story only serves to draw attention to a new normal in which elites abound, power and privilege are flaunted, golden gates separate the outside from the inside. Versions of the same theme play out at different levels of scale.
In the Mumbai of today, for example, high rises of 70 floors and up built by powerbrokers and the politically connected are fenced-in by boom gates and other barriers, separating slums outside from the lit-up swimming pools inside. At the entrance are of course hired hands from the slums, turned out in starched security uniforms to manage the gate.
What is inescapable is not just the growing inequality, not just the resigned acceptance of that inequality, but a celebration of that growing gap without much exploration of what it means for our society, our politics and our economy. This state of affairs is not entirely because of the Ambanis though the top one per cent do contribute significantly to the skew while the 99 percent, kept busy elsewhere, may even celebrate these stories.
How should India address this shift? It is well known that inequality has risen. Worse, the entrenched interests that liberalisation sought to disempower are present and more powerful in more ways and areas than ever, one of them being the business-political nexus, furthered by the trends toward highly concentrated and non-transparent political donations. Inequality experts Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty wrote that India has seen the highest increase in the top one percent income share concentration in the last three decades. The World Economic Report 2022 by Piketty et al notes that India is now among the most unequal countries in the world, caused by policy changes.
Fixing inequality was never easy, and has often required shock treatment, like the 94% top income tax rate in the US forced by World War II. Inequality is linked to issues of governance, stability, erosion of trust in institutions and carries grave implications for the legitimacy of the democratic political order. But fixing inequality is impossible without the first step, which is a recognition that this is not a desirable state of affairs and cannot lead to stable or sustainable growth for the nation and its people.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: [email protected])


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