City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of bail & bail-outs

The flamboyant Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher is in trouble, realty magnate K P Singh celebrated his 80th birthday lavishly with Shakira in attendance, Mukesh Ambani’s billion dollar home Antilla reportedly sits unoccupied months after its inauguration, top business leaders have written to the Prime Minster once again pleading for some concrete action to dispel the air of stagnation that rest heavily over the economy while several business tycoons and senior executives cool their heels in jail in the 2G scam as they await bail. The story of India’s relationship with big money and private enterprise sits fidgeting between these fragments of reality.

What we are seeing today could be characterised as a cacophony of competing excesses under which the legitimate role of business is increasingly getting lost. Those with money spend it extravagantly and visibly, on activities which gloat with glamour and are bloated with celebrity. Whether it is Formula 1 racing, the IPL or private birthday parties, a closed charmed circle gets together to strut about in their finery, which a doting media feeds to the rest of us. At events like this the alleged differences between business, politics and media evaporate in a mash-up of wealth, access and privilege. Interestingly, these public displays are deemed to be for a good cause; they apparently promote a desirable face of India. They party so that India looks good; no wonder they need subsidies in terms of tax breaks and cheap loans from taxpayers and banks. The uncritical acceptance of wealth as a sign of progress helps create a culture which equates extravagance with achievement, and celebrity with greatness. Display of wealth becomes imbued with an a priori legitimacy, as it is seen to be a celebration of Brand India. The historical caution and sensitivity displayed by business to the other India has more or less evaporated, and the earlier code of underplaying wealth has been overthrown by a newer, brasher attitude. Of course, middle-class sentiment about wealth too has undergone a change, and in a country like India, wealth does play a social role, as it fires up the engine called aspiration, but there are still limits to which this acceptance has grown.

No one exemplifies the new attitude towards the use of wealth better than the larger-than-life Vijay Mallya. When an enterprise owned by someone like him runs into financial trouble, and seeks help in any form, it becomes very difficult to reconcile images of his unapologetically decadent lifestyle with his need for support. In a larger sense, it makes all business suspect, for it suggests that personal wealth has the ability to spend ruinously on everything but the business from it which it makes the money in the first place. If the Kingfisher business is viable and is thus worth supporting why should some of Vijay Mallya’s fabulous wealth, his fleet of yachts and residences (in a reported 26 countries) not be utilised to invest in his own company? Why must all the pleasure belong to him but the responsibility for saving the business lie elsewhere?

It could be argued that how the wealthy spend the money they have legitimately earned is their own business and that they are not answerable to anyone else on that account. That would be fine if the businesses are able to stand on their own feet without seeking institutional help. It is clear that you cannot have it both ways; you cannot be fabulously wealthy, spend money extravagantly in a personal capacity and then turn needy at the same time. What complicates matters further is the growing feeling based on some evidence that a lot of this money is not being made legitimately in the first place. It is true that doing business in India is fraught with problems of many kinds that makes it difficult to stick to the straight-and-narrow, but it is also true that business has not merely coped with this reality but has learned to thrive on it.

So on the one hand, we seem mesmerised by wealth and crave its sinful warmth, even if it only as a visual spectacle and on the other, we see a deep-rooted distrust of the wealthy that makes it possible for almost anyone to be doubted and presumed guilty. Which is why we see a situation where excess begets excess; for many months now we have a whole bunch of people in jail being punished pre-emptively by being denied bail. It is easy to understand why this move enjoys popular support for we all know (or believe we do) that the powerful never get punished. So bail is in effect a very hefty down payment extracted in the knowledge that the EMIs are never going to be forthcoming. The reason proffered- that they might influence the case against them is easy to contest. Powerful people do not need to get personally involved in matters like these; they have an army of underlings to do their dirty work for them, if indeed that is what they intend.

The images of business either as an engine for mind-bogglingly large amount of wealth and a resultant lifestyle that seems like a magnified version of fantasy or as a co-conspirator in large scale corruption are gradually overwhelming the idea of business as a critical source of growth for the country as a whole. The focus on a few who are really wealthy and their lifestyle makes the idea of business, on which a large part of India depends, seem like an elitist concern. The discourse around business blurs the seductive with the substantive and in doing so trivialises it. If business wants to betaken seriously, perhaps it is time for it to cut out the fluff.