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  Opinion   Columnists  22 Nov 2016  Hypocrisy in India: Where are the rich?

Hypocrisy in India: Where are the rich?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Nov 22, 2016, 12:25 am IST
Updated : Nov 22, 2016, 6:55 am IST

Modi doesn’t know how the poor are grappling with this crisis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

My hackles rise when I hear patriots, usually of the progressive persuasion, describe India as a rich country of poor people. On the contrary, I insist, India is a poor country bursting with rich people. And one reason why the country is poor is that the rich drain it of its wealth. It was so when the Nizam of Hyderabad was reckoned the world’s richest man. It is so today with the richest Indian living in the architectural bizarerrie of the world’s most expensive dwelling.

Not that I have any objection to riches, save that far too little of it comes my way! But what I cannot abide is the hypocrisy that surrounds wealth. The late G.D. Birla, one of India’s richest (and deservedly so) entrepreneurs, prided himself on the simplicity of his lifestyle. Jawaharlal Nehru once boasted he spent only `50 a month, never mind the elaborate infrastructure of supporting the Prime Minister the treasury paid for. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi wasn’t the only person it cost a lot of money to keep in poverty.

Sarojini Naidu’s witticism applies to everyone in public life because almost everyone in that august milieu has mastered the art of making someone else pay for his or her expenses. Remember Indira Gandhi riding a horse-drawn carriage to South Block, ostensibly to save fuel, when the security cars driving in low gear before and after her carriage guzzled petrol?

All this came to mind as I heard Narendra Modi’s booming boast of the service he has rendered the poor by demonetising Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes. Nothing could have been more insulting to Indians as a whole than his crack that the poor now sleep in peace while the rich need sleeping pills. It was like his boast of having “given up” everything. What has he given up? Surely, his standard of living wasn’t more lavish before he became Prime Minister?

Be that as it may, Mr Modi has obviously forgotten what it is to be poor. He doesn’t seem to have the least idea of how the poor are grappling with this sudden crisis. Had he taken the trouble of driving casually past a bank even once he would have seen it’s the poor who queue outside locked doors and ATMs proclaiming “No Cash”. Thanks to him, workers have been plunged into distress as wage payments are delayed. States are bracing for reduced food production as farmers are unable to access crop loans. The supply of commodities in rural markets has plummeted. Consequently, all prices are spiralling.

Where are the rich? If, as statistics show, India’s 100 richest people have more money than two-thirds of the population put together, it stands to reason that their enormous wealth must include some at least of those tainted notes that are said to account for 85 (or is it 86?) per cent of the currency in circulation. But has Mukesh Ambani ever been glimpsed in the promiscuous proximity of one of those queues? Lakshmi Mittal may be entertaining in faraway Versailles or Windsor Castle (if it’s for hire) but has anyone spotted one of the other three members of the Big Five — Dilip Shanghvi, Azim Premji or Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry — depositing a few lakhs (or crores) here or changing a pile of big denomination notes into `100 ones there?

What about other billionaires like Shiv Nadar, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Adi Godrej and Shashi and Ravi Ruia? Does any one of them sport a finger marked in supposedly indelible ink? It also strikes me as curious that Ratan Tata, de facto head whatever his technical designation might be, of a group with a market valuation of Rs 6 lakh crores in 2013 (according to an English daily) doesn’t ever figure in any list of fat cats.

My bank manager laughed scornfully when I suggested that these tycoons would have serfs and servants to queue, change, deposit and withdraw for them. How many agents can they employ? He retorted, going on to say the price of gold soared to a record Rs 18,000 per 10 grams before jewellers had to close shop. A popular goldsmith’s establishment down the road had been selling all night to packed halls, and my banker friend doesn’t rule out the probability of sales long after midnight with backdated receipts. Let me say here that bankers have truly excelled themselves in this crisis. I hope they are adequately rewarded for their long hours and diligent labours.

As for backdated receipts, I remember Delhi’s five-star hotels fudging the date on bar bills to dodge the capital’s weekly dry day. Thursday’s gimlet was always shown as consumed on Wednesday or Friday. We are good at falsifying evidence. We are good at pretending to be holier than other nations. We drink “potable alcohol” or “IMFL” (Indian made foreign liquor) and convince ourselves we are staunch teetotallers.

My mind goes back to 1971 when Indira Gandhi nationalised 214 private sector coking-coal mines and 12 coke-ovens, excluding captive TISCO and IISCO collieries. That, too, was supposed to be a surprise with not a word breathed to anyone in advance. Yet, friends employed as senior executives in the coal departments of British managing agencies were mysteriously transferred weeks before the takeover. Had they stayed on, they would suddenly have found themselves Coal India employees with greatly reduced emoluments and no perks to speak of.

It was even worse when a mining disaster was attributed — rightly or wrongly I don’t know — to the dispossessed private owners removing all the underground wooden supports before nationalisation. Obviously, the takeover didn’t come as a surprise.

And Washington is supposed to be the capital where government secrets leak out!

Tags: narendra modi, mukesh ambani, nizam, sarojini naidu