Panama Papers: Rites of the rich
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A few weeks ago, I made a professional trip to the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur to participate in the work anniversary celebrations of one of India’s top jewellers.
The event was what many would describe as a fabulous private party in a royal setting with select guests from all over the country dressed in finery to match the resplendence of the venue. Dazzling jewellery, studded with diamonds in whopping sizes—some on display as part of an exhibition and others worn by guests for the gala dinner—almost stole the show. I even made the awkward middle-class gaffe of asking the price of one massive diamond necklace in the exhibition and when told it was some multiple crore rupees, went quietly numb.
This fashionably capitalist scenario sidetracked me. Despite alerting myself repeatedly to not fall for anything but the story I was there for, I found myself observing the “behaviour and body language of the rich”. I am not proud of this thought track but it is important to own it, embarrassing as it sounds. Not everyone in that party was “rich”, of course, but some stood out and not just for the size of their diamonds. The eminently visible cocktail of privilege and self-content didn’t necessarily stem from professional achievement. It stemmed instead from the unquestioned existence of wealth.
Decency demands that I introduce some balance into this piece by saying some people were very sweet, kind and humble and so forth. But I am not about to do that. Some people will always be sweet and kind and humble everywhere in the world, regardless of their bank balance. Wealth is not a synonym for societal superiority after all. US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’s much tossed about quote last year that “billionaires have psychiatric issues” is a ridiculous statement, according to me. Nobody needs to be told that Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men, is also one of its most noteworthy philanthropists. Or that some of the most invigorating arguments on socialism have come from capitalists.
On the flight back from Jodhpur, I rued whether some of us in the professional middle class of India (like me) even remembered the right reasons before judging the rich. Or was it just a “hate the superior economic class” thing.
But the Panama Papers, the umbrella name of the damning story that broke all over the world earlier this week, has, with a jolt, put scattered thoughts (certainly mine) about the rich in perspective.
An unprecedented leak from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and among them The Indian Express, show the myriad ways in which the rich exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. Political leaders, sportspeople, top film stars, businesspeople—it ropes them all in.
Suddenly, I understand the import behind the words of Indian businessman and philanthropist Rahul Bajaj. In an interview, he had said: “Philanthropy should be driven by basic ethics. An ethical mindset is a prerequisite to do good.” No one is suggesting that all rich are unethical or that the Panama Papers must, by way of reflected notoriety, taint even those who are not listed in them. But there is certainly a strong indication that a large section of the rich contribute not only to the inequality of income and wealth in a country but also to the inequality of ethicality. The latter eventually drowns a society in moral mayhem.
This is not to say that the only way for the rich to prove their “moral goodness” is to be philanthropists. I am only arguing for enlightened self-interest—which means do not deceive your country, your people or the classes who work for you and help you add to your wealth. Flaunt and enjoy your riches by all means, stash it for your future generations or buy bejewelled islands as long as you don’t duck the law of the land.
Clearly, my assumptions about the rich showing off their large diamonds at Umaid Bhawan Palace was an uninformed thought track. But, like millions of people worldwide and in India, I stand corrected. Thanks to the Panama Papers, we have a list of the unethical and law-breaking rich to resent. I am going to direct my middle-class and journalistic ire towards them.