One of worlds richest men threw a wedding filled with glitz and glamour in Mumbai. Mukesh and Nita Ambani’s daughter’s wedding was the talk of the town as global superstar Beyoncé flew in for a private performance. The wedding couldn’t be ignored. It was all over social media, it had movie starts, sportspersons and former international diplomats with former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in attendance and dancing to tunes.Lavish Indian weddings aren’t something new. Its part of the culture so to speak. Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, in 1995 threw a big wedding for her adopted son V.N. Sudhakaran which some estimated put at costing Rs.10 crore. That wedding didn’t do much for optics as there were allegations of her government and herself being corrupt. Allegations of misuse of state machinery such as the electricity board and other municipal resources for personal use were rampant at the time.
“The vulgarity of super-rich weddings should ideally suggest to the Indian middle class how vulgar they themselves appear to the poor. Aren’t the Skodas of the conscientious “austere” Indians as gaudy as the Maybachs in the eyes of the starving?” The point of relative wealth is interesting. Perhaps the overt display of it can be off putting to some. Others might shrug and comment that its their money to spend how they wish. Many a wedding in India are lavish, it’s all relative, it’s a spectrum. Joseph makes the point of the middle class in India pointing out the Ambani’s and lamenting while perhaps themselves making big expenses, which would look lavish to someone who is much poorer. The populism argument comes into play at the intersection of politics and business. Again, this isn’t new. However, the perception and/or acceptance now gets a different reaction. It also depends on the people involved. Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra too recently had a wedding where the complaint there was the use of fireworks; as some cited the hypocrisy of actors propagating for clean air while then polluting it with fireworks at a personal function. The rise of populism is a significant point here. As has been stated in many places, the elites are no longer trustworthy. As Manu Joseph points out with an example, Salman Khan, a multi-millionaire himself being more relatable with the average Indian than any politician or intellectual; despite the various legal troubles Khan has been embroiled in over the years. David Klion in Foreign Policy, writes on the message it sends when politicians break bread with rich businessmen – “The world is shaped by, and for, these elites, yet their social lives are presented as light entertainment. The easy friendships of the post-national elite are a reminder that they’re all on the same team”. Klion’s piece argues that while the intentions of politicians to mingle with the super-rich isn’t in itself illegal or wrong; the optics matter. That’s a fair point. However, he singles out Secretary Clinton, a private citizen, for her appearance at the wedding as well as John Kerry’s, as being cosy in the presence of multi billionaires. Sure, but they don’t have any position in government and aren’t in elected office. It must be added that their former boss, President Obama having the left the White House went on vacation with billionaire Richard Branson on his private yacht. To the effect that businesses and their wealthy owners affect policy is important. Former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, in the 2015 economic survey pointed out that subsidies benefit the rich as they are better placed financially to reap the benefits of them. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s main attack against the Modi government is that it’s a government for the rich and elite and not for the common folk or for the poor. Joseph and Klion both argue to varying extents that the rise of those like Trump is due to nature of elites mingling with each other, giving the perception of ignoring everyone else. Hence people tend to gravitate to those who pretend to be for them. Joseph also points out that perception and likability play a crucial role; take the Salman Khan example mentioned above. Economic inequality will be one of the defining issues politically in the years ahead. The reaction to the Ambani wedding was not uncommon but does put forward interesting critique.
More columns by Varun Sukumar