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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 11, March 16, 2024

A Wedding at India’s Super Rich & the Question of Public Morality | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 23 March 2024, by Radhakanta Barik


CAPITALISM THRIVES ON public morality, as it brings workers and consumers to the capital, one to create the goods that gather capital, the other who purchases the goods in exchange of that capital. The wedding that we are talking about happened in the household of India’s richest man. One person charged Rs 74 crore to dance for an hour at this wedding. This was at the recent wedding of Mukesh Ambani’s son, Anant.

Ambani stands for the capital which creates a relationship between industry and the worker. This relationship is mediated by consumers, who come from the general public. We will not be very wrong to argue that Papa Ambani was violating public morality, when he spent a thousand crores [1] which indirectly came out of the pockets of his workers, by organising such an event at such a cost.

One point of view can be, that the thousand crore Ambani spent was earned by not just one dancer dancing for an hour but by a thousand vendors offering their services at the event and a thousand employees of each vendor. Yet, this is Gandhi’s land where he felt shy of spending the money he earned in South Africa for his son’s education. He, however, sent a worker’s son to England for a law degree, while he organised trusteeship among the farm workers in South Africa.

Some years ago, we went on a road trip to villages in Gujarat where the driver showed us the village to which Gandhi belonged. We went from his village to a salt industry in the same district where the Tatas spend a share of their profit in rural development of the locality. We did a study of the villages where Tata money is being spent for generating employment for the workers of the locality. We also visited some welfare schemes in Parsi villages. More than a hundred years ago, the Parsis were organised by Dadabhai Naoroji into a modern business class with a philanthropic outlook which is absent among the other business communities of Gujarat. It is in this land that Ambani splurged on his son’s marriage.

Some modern political thinkers like John Rawls and others studied the nature of democracy by re-examining the character of the ‘ruling elite’ in democracies. They found that the elite’s consumption style determines the ‘welfare’ nature of such democracies. In the case of the Ambani spending in democratic India, it appears that the ruling elite are not concerned about the welfare of the people. Today, in 2024, India is a country where the common people have low consumption levels because of their low incomes. Labour today is getting the lowest share of the national income. The Labour Ministry’s own data says, more than 90 per cent of the workforce in India and about 50 per cent of the national product are accounted for by the informal economy. [At the all-India level, the estimated mean labour income in 2018–19 as per the PLFS was INR 11,233 per month. The 20-21 NSSO survey of labour force shows 45 per cent of this unskilled labour is employed by the agriculture sector.]

It is capital and land that forms a bigger share of wealth in India. This explains the rapacious nature of a ruling class who are ready to spend more on themselves rather than on the people of the country. Their consumption style is a relational concept and they spend more by presuming that common people are spending less (on essentials). It also explains the lack of public morality on the part of the ruling elite. They spend amounts which show that they move in a thoughtless zone. They are not concerned at the fate of the common people, which explain the state of the Indian economy, suffering from a high level of inequality.

The logic of American capitalism is – if there is no market price for wheat in the international market, then they dump the crop into the sea to get a higher price. This results in hunger-related deaths in Africa and Asia. Before 1972, India had a high number of hunger-related deaths. Even today 30 per cent of our children taste hunger for twenty-four hours. But we waste food and desire to destroy the farming economy by policies that demotivate farmers from producing their agrarian wealth. We as a nation suffer from collective depression. Old landlords cannot abuse modern farmers and their women are jealous of the poor coming out of hunger and not depending on them to borrow rice on Dedha.

America is another capitalist country and another big democracy. But what we are witnessing in India is not only capitalism but one of the worst form of capitalism… an extreme form of inequality. Some of it is inexplicable, though. For instance, the ‘need’ felt by stellar actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, and Salman Khan to dance at the Ambani wedding, even if it was free. One is left wondering why did all these actors dance in front of the guests invited by Ambani? They are all committed to their art and have established themselves from scratch. Why is there so much subordination of artistes to wealthy people in our society?

Hinduism does not really contain a moral philosophy that enforces giving to the needy. After the puja in the temple, one gets the ‘prasad’ to consume; not to distribute to the needy. This explains our greedy nature. We want to spend on ourselves. We see the children of working people remain hungry; they have not tasted milk for years. Same in the case of fruits. It is in the nature of the Indian middle class to throw fruits into dustbins that get collected by destitute women every day. People in India still collect food from the dustbin. Gurudwaras offer free food (langars) whereas most temples do not have any such provision. In Islam there is a concept of Zakat, that some portion of income one has to offers to the poor. Pakistan’s economy is poorer than India’s but in Human Development Index they remain close to India because of this arrangement that the rich is made to feel morally compelled to pay something to the poor. Christians too have such provisions.

Building social capital for India’s poor is a challenge still as ‘donation’ to food, shelter, education and healthcare is not considered a ‘moral’ responsibility of an individual. Gandhi too faced such a challenge while leading peasant movements in Gujarat, he advised his followers to go to the houses of Dalits and when they came back in the evening, he found that they had not gone to Dalit houses.

Some time ago, with a study group I went to investigate the welfare measures for Dalits and Advasis in the State of Gujarat and they were so scared that they refused to speak to us. Fear is an inbuilt mechanism of the caste system of Gujarat. The same situation prevails in the case of tribals who got rehabilitated after their hamlets were destroyed; they were forced to live in areas where their livelihoods and collective identity were impacted adversely. One feels that social capital among diverse social groups in Gujarat is the least. It gets further accentuated with the low wages to the migrant labour in Gujarat. The Ambani wedding expenditure just points to the lack of social capital and economic capability of the majority of people in Ambani-Adani-Modi’s Gujarat.

[Edited by Papri Sri Raman]

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