Home / Opinion / India’s middle-class billionaires

Amid all manner of disclosures, some quite unsavoury, in the Cyrus Mistry vs. Ratan Tata battle, the one silver lining has been how neither camp has accused the other of personal excesses. So while Mistry has suggested the group’s pursuit of a small car for the Indian middle class was no more than a personal fancy of Tata and should be wound up, the accusation never extended to how the man who ran the group for over 20 years went and splurged on a gold plated Rolls Royce for himself.

Indeed, till the time Tata Motors Ltd bought Jaguar Land Rover, the group owner would often squeeze himself into one of the more plebian cars the company made.

In truth, most of India’s company owners and founders have conservative lifestyles with few of the wild and exotic indulgences that we associate with the billionaire lifestyle across the world.

Sample this: in January 2014, the Dallas Safari Club, a “hunters’ rights" organization, auctioned off a permit which would allow the holder to travel to Namibia for the chance to kill one of only 5,000 surviving black rhinos. The auction was won by oil heir and Texas hunter Corey Knowlton, who bid $350,000 for that dubious right.

It isn’t the kind of thing that Tata or Kumar Mangalam Birla or Mukesh Ambani, or a dozen other Indian tycoons are likely to be doing on their summer breaks. Despite their obvious wealth, their sensibilities seem no different from that of many well-brought-up middle-class Indians of an earlier era. That shows even in the way most behave with people around them. Thus, Tata will often hold the elevator door open at Bombay House when he sees an executive rushing towards it and by all accounts Mistry is a chip off the same block.

Dilip Shanghvi, founder of Sun Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd and the country’s richest billionaire by some rankings, is low-key to a fault. Fortis Healthcare Ltd co-founders Malvinder and Shivinder Singh may be in the best-dressed lists of social magazines, but you are unlikely to find Prathap Reddy, founder of Apollo Hospitals or Y.K. Hamied, chairman of Cipla Ltd, displaying any sartorial vanities.

Most of them dress simply, wearing suits only for meetings and even those tend to be the kind that will hardly attract attention. Tata, in fact, seems to have dropped his jacket of late, appearing in his shirt sleeves at most of the acrimonious annual general meetings of his group companies over the last few months. Clearly they are not following the example of UK-based billionaire Scott Alexander, dubbed the Vainest Man in Britain, who likes to buy out entire clothes collections, rather than just certain pieces. One year he spent £300,000 on clothes from Dolce & Gabbana.

At meetings to discuss strategic plans for his group, Ajay Piramal munches on such frugal fare as khakra while Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani’s fondness for vada paav is legendary. Contrast their gastronomical conservatism with that of Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, who is known to have spent $13,000 on a single meal.

India’s IT billionaires are of course in a class of their own in terms of frugality. Azim Premji, once India’s richest man, whose stake in Wipro Ltd. is worth nearly $15 billion, would often take an auto rickshaw from the old airport in Bengaluru and once threw a mini fit when he was automatically upgraded from his regular economy class seat on a Kingfisher flight to Delhi.

The others, Infosys founders N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and the reclusive Shiv Nadar who set up HCL Technologies Ltd, are no different. The latter’s one indulgence is his Zen garden, on which he showers attentions. How utterly boring, when compared to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer, who got himself a $600 million replica of the Titanic, or another billionaire who recently ordered a diamond and gold encrusted collar for his pet dog.

Of course, India’s billionaire class has its honourable exceptions and the latest gizmo or car eventually does find its way to Indian shores. But these are few, and their excesses still raise an eyebrow.

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