Sunday, July 25, 2004


Times of India, July 25, 2004

I didn't get the 20-page invitation cased in silver for Laxmi Mittal's daughter's wedding. I read about it in the papers, and like many, I was left with ambivalent feelings about the Rs 200 crore celebration near Paris. I told myself that he is, after all, a self-made billionaire and a British citizen and he can certainly do what he wants with his money. Yet, there are nagging doubts that something was wrong here.

A few weeks earlier, I had met some seriously rich American billionaires in Chicago. I was struck by their unassuming, modest manners and their desire to hide their money. They spoke little about their companies, more about their philanthropies. Their heart seemed to be in giving their money away rather than in making it. In this company it would have been coarse to talk about spending conspicuously, on a wedding for example. I was left feeling that seriously wealthy Americans, at least after the first generation, seem to have taken Andrew Carnegie's admonition to heart, "Anybody who dies rich, dies disgraced." Bill Gates, the richest of the rich, symbolises this ethic — he is busy giving away most of his fortune while he is still alive.

We have a saying in North India, haveli ki umar saath saal, (the life of a business family is sixty years). The first generation makes the money and naturally wants to flaunt it, like Laxmi Mittal. The second doesn't want more money; it wants power, which might explain Anil Ambani's curious decision to join politics. Born into money and power, the third generation dedicates itself to art, or more likely just squanders the fortune. The Kennedys, Rockefellers, and others illustrate this cycle. Thomas Mann, the great German writer, made the same point in Buddenbrooks, my favourite novel about a business family. In this saga of three generations, the scruffy and astute patriarch works hard and makes the family fortune; his son becomes a senator; but his aesthetic and physically weak grandson only wants to play the violin; thus, a grand family comes to an end. This rule also explains why business families break up in the third generation.

Dutch burghers amassed great wealth in Holland's golden age, but they spent it on social good as Simon Schama describes in his charming book, The Embarrassment of Riches. Similarly, most wealthy Jain families that I know are not ostentatious and devote their money to social uplift. Thus, they help to soften capitalism, making its unequal outcomes less offensive. Capitalism becomes acceptable if everyone feels they can become a millionaire. Our recent software millionaires prove this. They did not inherit wealth, nor did they have a family name. They rose because of merit, and reflect a new social compact for post-reform India, where talent, skill, and hard work have replaced inherited wealth. Inequality is accepted in Bangalore because it does not excite envy, but hope and aspiration.

I admire Laxmi Mittal for his business acumen. He has created enormous value and jobs around the world out of sick steel companies. I always wished he would invest in India, but he says he is afraid of India's red tape. If India is a hostile place to do business, I dearly wish that he would emulate Bill Gates and spend his millions in India doing good for the poor. It is this that will win him the respect of the world. Many men can get rich but only a few can be good. And, that is a legacy worth fighting for! Who wants to be remembered as the sad Indian Gatsby who dropped Rs 200 crores on a wedding?.


Medical Blog said...

Their heart seemed to be in giving their money away rather than in making it. In this company it would have been coarse to talk about spending conspicuously, on a wedding for example.

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