Writer/activist Arundhati Roy known to take on the establishment, took on the country’s richest man on Friday. Addressing the audience at St Xavier’s College for the Anuradha Gandhy Memorial lecture, she was in her usual belligerent form. “Since we are talking about poonjiwad ka pret (the ghost of capitalism) I shall start with one and only Mukesh Ambani. I had gone to see Antilla on Altamount Road; and my friend who had accompanied me said, ‘Here we are, pay your respects to our new ruler.’”
That was just a beginning: “I’d read about this most expensive dwelling ever built, the 27 floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and the 600 servants. (But) nothing had prepared me for the vertical lawn - a soaring wall of grass -- attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches; bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, ‘trickle down’ had not worked. When I walked away, (I saw) a board on a nearby building that read: ‘Bank of India’.”
Hoisting Ambani and his multi-million dollar house as the symbol of India’s capitalism, the Booker winner spoke of how a handful of corporates have cornered the country’s major share of wealth.
Mentioning Tata, Jindal, Essar, Infosys, Vedanta, Mittal and Reliance as some of the corporate houses that have cornered India’s one-fourth of GDP, Roy stressed on how cross-ownership of businesses had made the rich richer and the poor, poorer. She backed her arguments with well-accumulated statistics and allegations of politician-corporate nexus underestimating the quantity of reserves, and the actual market value of public assets, leading to the siphoning off of billions of dollars of public money.
“We have no law against cross-ownership of businesses; and thus, we have a situation where corporates are not misusing their position but using a position that the government has provided them,” Roy said. Castigating policy makers on how, for 0.2 per cent royalty, India was allowing corporates to mine minerals worth trillions of dollars, how so “many secret MoUs” were being signed, and dams being built without the consent of the people, she said, “India is colonising itself.”
Roy used her quintessential wit to take pot shots at farcical corporate social responsibility initiatives of companies and how companies invested in various foundations to form public opinion in favour of capitalism.
“The Tatas run two of the largest charitable trusts in India. Recently, they donated $50m to that needy institution called the Harvard Business School. The Jindals, with a major stake in mining, metals and power, run the Jindal Global Law School, which recently had a workshop on how to hold protests,” she said.
She also attacked the US for its “war economy” and Indian companies “aligning with this model”, and the Indian Left for having failed to adapt to Indian conditions and completely botching up the caste and class issue. “That is why they have been restricted to tribal belts in India,” she said.
She ended her speech with another attack on the symbol of India’s capitalism, Antilla, which she called the single biggest secessionist movement in India that divided upper and lower class. She concluded: “As early stars appear in Mumbai’s darkening sky, guards in crisp linen shirts with crackling walkie-talkies appear outside the forbidding gates of Antilla. The lights blaze on... Someone said Antilla has snatched Mumbai’s nights. It’s time to snatch it back.”
Post her speech, a student, looking at Marxist books on sale outside the venue, summed up the evening: “Dude, I am a hardcore Capitalist. I don’t believe in dismantling capitalism. But what she was talking about is not Capitalism, it was crony Capitalism. And that’s a scourge.”