Mukesh Ambani, the richest among Indians whose wealth is known, often says the same things that socialists and Mother Teresa would say: he wishes to improve lives.
And so it went on Sept. 1, during the 42nd annual general meeting of Reliance Industries Ltd, when he claimed that his new cellular network, Jio, would offer all calls free, as well as access to the internet that would be 5-to-10 times cheaper than existing rates. And though his young son seemed to be occasionally typing messages on his phone when his father was talking, the telecom industry followed the speech with great interest.
Now they have no choice but to improve the lives of Indians.
“There is nothing more precious in this world than life,” Ambani said with the calm confidence of a man who has recently discovered this idea in a reputed survey. He was once again framing capitalism as a social service because even among capitalists it is low-culture to speak only about money. Profit is the intent and service the effect. It is important for them to point this out, that there is meaning in what they do.
Ambani plans to enrich Indians by giving them greater access to the internet. If Jio were a government, you would think it was a welfare state. He plans to make data abundant and affordable to hundreds of millions by heavily subsidising it, partly through the redistribution of some of his company’s oil wealth.
Ambani has always reminded us that he affects society. Also, among those who wish to connect a billion unconnected Indians to the internet, he is more appealing today than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
But Jio will not change the complex relationship between Indians and their richest man.
People with old money, new money, some money, and no money all perceive him in distinct ways.
Among the group flush with old money, who generally resent everything he stands for, there are broadly two types of people: the refined socialists, and capitalists who sound like humanities professors only when they speak of the Ambanis. Their bitterness against new money is both cultural and economic. They find new money gaudy. They express their contempt for the ostentatiousness of new money even though their own affluence is vulgar in an impoverished nation. For instance, many critics of Ambani’s gigantic home in Mumbai themselves live lives of luxury in prime real estate that would be considered Spartan only by the Ambanis and a few others.
At the core of their resentment is that those with new money have seen their wealth grow much faster, making contemporary symbols of prestige too expensive for the old elite. Today it is cheap to be rich in India, but very expensive to be filthy rich.
This is a phenomenon that is sweeping many great cities of the world—mere millionaires in the shadow of multi-millionaires and billionaires. The mildly rich are beginning to feel like the oppressed, like victims. Others wish to be co-opted by those richer than them. It is amusing to watch how some millionaires behave in the presence of billionaires.
One dawn, 10 years ago, I witnessed this when I went to Marine Drive in Mumbai to check if Anil Ambani is truly a competent long distance runner. The idea was to run with him the entire route and check his speed. I lurked near the Oberoi hotel. Several middle-aged wealthy men arrived, one by one, in luxury sedans. It was truly an assembly of rich men in running shorts. When Anil Ambani arrived, the millionaires (though not all) transformed into deputies. And they took care to run behind him in a comet’s tail, and not appear disrespectful by overtaking him. The reaction of this class to Mukesh Ambani is similar.
The new upper middle class, too, is filled with fans of the Ambanis. They love making money and see in Mukesh Ambani especially nothing short of a patriarch artist. They don’t see luck and subterfuge in his success; they don’t see lottery. Instead, they see strategy.
In this group, where entrepreneurship is the new robust pursuit, and “making a difference” is somehow chiefly about starting a website that would deliver food or groceries to your house, a salaried job, especially a non-banking one, is already a form of defeat. There are probably more young people today plotting doomed start-ups than those who are attempting doomed novels or movies.
To the poor, Mukesh Ambani is just “one of them.” They club the Ambanis among the other rich, exactly the way those of the middle and upper middle classes ignore the many social and economic layers that form the pyramid of the poor.
What we do not know is how Mukesh Ambani perceives us. We can gather very little from his speeches and cautious interviews. Indian billionaires, with some exceptions perhaps, hide their minds, unlike, say, American billionaires who are not so shy. What do India’s super rich think of money, democracy, caste, and feminism? Maybe they feel they have much to lose if they reveal their deepest thoughts.
It would be fascinating to hear Mukesh Ambani truthfully explain why his home, Antilia, is the way it is, why it soars over 20-stories without embarrassment, why he is not ashamed of displaying his wealth, like say Ratan Tata is. Is it a message to his old Parsi foes that a new order has come? Is it a reassurance to “shareholders” that he will make them, too, richer? Or is it just that for years, in his old home, he had to endure the sight of a slum in a city that always flaunts its miseries in plain sight, and he wanted to get even with Mumbai?