Two Gujaratis stood tall in the last century — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel. Tall ? They stood taller than known measurements of charismatic height. Their impact ran across the country. From Gujarat’s latitudinal counterpoint of Bengal, Tagore gave Gandhi the prefix he would always be known by, “Mahatma”. And Subhas Bose called him — the first to do so, “Father of the Nation”. And Patel, after he had led the agrarian agitation in Bardoli, Gujarat, with stellar force, came to be called by all of India, “Sardar”, meaning ‘leader’. The description was reinforced by the Sardar’s resoluteness in the matter of welding princely India into the evolving republic.
This century too has seen India’s imagination being dominated by two Gujaratis — Narendra Damodardas Modi and Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani. But there the parallel ends, like an epic footage on the screen cut by a grimy outage. No one from Gujarat’s eastern counterpart — Bengal — has given either the chief minister of Gujarat or the chairman of Reliance Industries Limited any epithet of respect. Nor for that matter has spontaneous and affectionate admiration come to either from any other part of the country. True, a local forum has awarded Narendra Modi the title of ‘Gujarat Ratna’ and Ambani has been ranked fifth best performing CEO in the world by Harvard Business Review but that is just about it. Cut. Letting the Gandhi precedent aside and thinking of the doughty Sardar alone, Modi cannot accuse himself of welding India, nor Ambani claim a passion for agrarian or any equity barring, of course, the corporate kind.
Power is power, prestige is prestige. I do not intend commenting on the chief minister whose administration was unequivocally indicted by J.S. Verma, the erstwhile chairman of the national human rights commission in “real time”, that is, while the February 2002 ‘Gujarat riots’ were blazing. This article is about the other, younger Gujarati.
The gentleman and his family live in their 27-storey home in Mumbai said to be named after a mythical island in the Atlantic, Antilla. I was once shown the building from the car I was in by the man driving it. “Antilla,” he said in Mumbai Hindi, “Ambanisaheb hai na? Unhij ka ghar.” Craning my neck to the limit of its spondilous extreme, I glimpsed the monstrous height long enough to exclaim “Baap re… ‘ghar’ ?” I could not see the driver’s expression from my backseat but the way his cheeks puffed up in silhouette I knew he knew what I meant.
Valued at one billion dollars, this structure is so bereft of taste and so wholly null of values as to be more than visually revolting. It is aesthetically gross. It is, in fact, more. As the most expensive home in the world and, in fact, the costliest to have ever been raised anywhere in history, it has to be seen as an installation of the darkest Daliesque art. Not just by its exorbitant ugliness but also by the vacuity of its human imagination and the howling vacuity of context, it is meant to and does repel. Everyone’s home is more comfortable, better proportioned than somebody else’s who is poorer, less fortunate. But this cornucopia of excess, of utter and sheer over-the-topness in money squandering merely because the money is there, reflects a blinkered callousness of some rarity. Google tells us that 600 human beings are employed in running that house, perhaps the only good that has come of it. One hopes they are well paid, those ‘home’-carers, their dependents helped in terms of old age security, health and education needs. They perhaps are. Gujaratis are not uncaring as human beings.
Even the meanest of dwellings in India, when they are built, have ‘evil-eye-warding’ stuff like pumpkins painted to look like demons, placed at the entrance or above the roof. There is a sense that the owning of a homestead and building on it will draw someone’s resentment and therefore attract misfortune. Superstition that this is, it also reflects a kind of guilt, a restiveness about owning something that is coveted , something of which the ‘supply’ is less than its ‘demand’, something which is a slat above one’s moral entitlement. The Ambanis, being globally contemporary, may not be burdened with that superstition. But another form of unease has obviously taken over, a real fear, a worry about one’s very safety.
I do not know and have no means of knowing the details of the ‘threat perception’ to Mukesh Ambani that has made him want the high and mighty’s equivalent of the painted ‘demon pumpkin’ — Z level security. But it is clear that it is not Antilla, the Xanadu-like pleasure dome, but the large industrial house that Antilla represents that is resented, hated, targeted. A monopoly that amounts to a hegemony, a grasp over natural resources, investible capital, manufacture and retail, RIL is an inch short of the description B.R. Ambedkar had reserved for the republic of India itself — “a single Imperium”. In its ‘jakad’, RIL resembles the ‘pakad’ of ancient satrapies and modern imperial adventures. As a contradiction for a democratic republic, a dangerous anachronism in a poor country and a provocation to vengeful resentment in our highly strung times, RIL’s show of strength and its octopus-like penetrations into the crowns and the crannies of power are a discordance of epic scale. Even more notable than the magnitude of this discordance is the blasé imperviousness of its makers to the fact that it jars.
And if that imperviousness was not incredible enough, the author and perpetuator of this discordance wants more — concordance with the State apparatus’s instruments of public security. This stretches selfishness to brazen egotism. As any reckoner calculating the budget of the ministry of home affairs and the cash flows of RIL will tell us, Mukesh Ambani has wealth enough to wholly finance the security bill for all our VVIPs put together. If the State does not ask him to do so, it is because the State has something called izzat, reflecting that of the people of India. The poor cannot have Antilla, but they have izzat. For an Ambani to ask for and to be given Z category cover on the specious argument that he is going to pay for it is to try to befool the unfoolable, namely, the common-sense genius of simple Indians. It is to reverse the gravity of logic, to turn the alphabet of plain intelligence on its head and, quite literally, to bring Z to A.
It is not the money, Mr Ambani. It is the idea. If you think you are a national asset that needs to be protected by denting the public exchequer, and from out of the revenues of India’s minerals, its farms, forests and factories, and the taxpayer’s mite, then, not just humility but truth requires you to say, no, I am no asset, only a user, and perhaps over-user, even misuser of India’s assets and so, even if I cannot be a trustee of those assets, let me not become that liability. More, Mr Ambani, if you think that security manpower, ammo and intelligence-time should be re-deployed from where they now protect those and that which can only be protected by the State, then, please pause and reconsider the examples of those two other Gujaratis, one of who had not a single policeman protecting him and the other who died with a broken heart over not having done enough to protect his Master. Think of those two.
India has its hurts. It also has its graces. Somewhere in its oceanic heart it will make space even for your Antilla. But reciprocate, please India’s grace with that of your own. Take upon yourself, as the copyrighted author of your own hazards, the cost and the self-respect of buying your own security. If G.D. Birla, J.R.D. Tata, Kasturbhai Lalbhai and Lala Shri Ram could, so can you. They were Z category in what they did, not in what they feared.
Between the As and Zs of the matter, this issue is about the abacus of our daily life, about its alphabet from the Bs to the Ys. It is about where we as a nation are headed. Are we, on voting day alone, an electorate but on all other days a protectorate that swings from being a pre-medieval khanate, a medieval nizamate, a modern-day sultanate? And, in another dimension of our life, headed to becoming a Hindutva plus technutva revivalate? This is where Bengal’s namakarana of ‘the other Gujarati’ tells me, no, that is not what we are meant to be.