A couple of years ago, we in India heard with much drumbeating that Azim Hasham Premji had officially become the world’s second richest man. Head of Wipro, the Bangalore-based IT company whose stock was booming as the entire dot-com world was booming, Premji’s stake in Wipro was then worth about 35 billion dollars. Which little nest-egg put him second only to an obscure Seattle peddler of Windows called Bill Gates.
It’s quite something to think about; and as I do, I know the reason for the fuss—I mean, apart from the sheer magnitude of Premji’s wealth. It’s the curious thought that an Indian—an Indian!—has become so fabulously rich. Aside from the princes who once dotted this country, we are not used to, have never known, wealth on that scale. (Though I’m willing to bet that more than a few of our politicians have collected treasure chests weightier than Premji’s, if in unsavory ways. But that’s another story, and in any case those chests are locked away under various Swiss streets).
Indians as wealthy as that evoke a sense of wonder. Is this man Premji flesh and blood? Is he even real? Is he like the rest of us in any way? Much to our relief, the news reports about Premji assured us that he is.
“He continues to move around in his 118 NE (a trusty old Fiat model seen on India’s streets—a more nondescript car would be hard to imagine) and resides in his simple home,” said one. And a Wipro vice-president told the Times of India about Premji: “For lunch, he usually brings a dabba from home.”
What could be more like us than a dabba from home for lunch?
It’s our odd love-hate relationship with wealth: it lends a certain unreality to the notion of Indian multi-billionaires, especially self-made ones. Not unlike when Indians find out it isn’t a universal law that international flights must take off and land at absurd hours of the night, it takes some getting used to. After all, we grew up with the idea that great wealth is the capitalist dream found only in the capitalist West, and then taken to perfection only in the big bad capitalist U.S.A. No longer.
We also grew up believing that great wealth is something to be mildly ashamed of; that the very existence of wealth itself somehow proved it had been acquired dubiously. No longer, again. Today, we look at wealth differently.
It is refreshing that men like Premji have reached where they are and make no apologies about it. But how much more refreshing it is that we can and do openly admire them for what they are!
Yet there is a third article of faith we grew up with, and it clashes rather more jarringly with Premji’s billions. This article of faith: India is a terribly poor country. That’s the impression we give the world about our country; that in fact we Indians all know somewhere inside ourselves. It remains as true as always.
Now nobody need grudge Premji his riches. But while we applaud and are inspired by him, while we luxuriate in the knowledge that there finally is the beginning of a climate in India where acumen gets its due, we might spare a moment for a sobering thought: If we have the world’s second-richest man in our midst, we likely also have the world’s second-poorest man among us. The poorest, no doubt, is his neighbor.
That’s India for you. We celebrate the presence of the second-richest man here; I am certain we do not celebrate the presence of his counterpart at the other end of the wealth spectrum.
The thing is, whether we like it or not, to the rest of the world India is defined not by Premji but by the hundreds of millions of the planet’s poorest humans who live here. Whether you find them in our cities, villages or tribal hills, that also remains as true as always.
I’m not at all suggesting this should shame us; it’s a simple truth, that’s all. In fact, I suspect that if we look at it like that, we will address poverty better than we have, with no need for shame. For shame only promotes the neglect we have tolerated all these years, the neglect that has kept the poor poor. Shame only nurtures the pretense we allow ourselves, that less fortunate Indians are in some unmentionable sense less than human, can be treated that way, can be ignored.
It’s this pretense that explains the sign you will find in a gorgeous pre-Independence building in the heart of Bombay: “Servants not allowed to use the lift.” I’m sure you have seen the same sign, as well as its more telling variant: “Servants and dogs not allowed to use the lift.”
Less than human. Think about it. Where else in the world would you find such signs?
For me, the success of men like Premji stimulates thought about the society we have built in India: the one in which servants cannot use lifts. And when I do that, I invariably return to an odd thought: that the most encouraging, even inspiring, thing about the Indian infotech billionaires is not their wealth. Nor, endearing as they are, is it their dabba lunches or 118 NEs. No, it was something I learned about N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys, himself a remarkably rich man.
His chauffeur, Kannan, is also a millionaire.
Over the years, Infosys has rewarded Kannan—and plumbers, peons, electricians and other drivers, besides all the other employees in the company—with company stock. Kannan’s portfolio was once worth as much as 20 million rupees. Even with the pricked dot-com balloon, even with the steep drop in value of technology stocks over the last couple of years, he remains a very rich Indian today. Sixty-seven others like him are among the few thousand millionaires who work at Infosys. From all accounts, Premji is as enlightened with Wipro employees.
How many other companies in India have been similarly generous with their drivers? How many of us Indians even look at drivers this way?
That men like Murthy and Premji run their enterprises like this is, far more than their enormous wealth, the reason for pride in their very Indian stories. That, and the man who, I feel certain, uses lifts just as his boss does: Kannan.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|