The 21st century began in 2002
By M J Akbar
The 20th century ended in 2002, on the day the Godhra riots began. It was a turbulent age that ravaged society and broke the land as faith became the emotional spur of identity and the principal dialectic of politics. If Jinnah used the rhetoric of Islam to divide, then Gandhi used the metaphor of Ram rajya to unite. Both left an immediate legacy of incomplete dreams; it was up to history to decide which one had a better chance of success. Jinnah's Pakistan has crept towards theocracy, inciting blood-warm civil wars and cold-eyed terrorism. Gandhi's India, despite the able custody of Nehru, has had to struggle with the scourge of communalism, the one great impediment to its tryst with destiny.
The pivotal moments of faith-based passions were the narrative of the 1980s: the Shah Bano episode, and the Ram temple movement. Babri linked up to Ahmedabad through Godhra. But 2002 turned into a swivel point; the last of the lava spewed out, leaving those who had stoked the volcano a spent force. Hindsight confirms that after 2002, enough Indians turned away from fire to the forge of social and economic change. Congress understood this, instinctively rather than ideologically. The absence of ideology permitted tactical mobility between virtual laissez faire, a tilted partnership with America and state-financed handout programmes. Enough constituencies were onside, therefore, on polling day. The BJP flourished only where its regional leaders recognized the primacy of rice over anger. Narendra Modi, uniquely, has mined both seams, but he will find out in the next elections that one seam has run dry. Even the violence of the last eight years, spawned by Naxalites, has been motivated by hunger rather than faith.
The true business of the first decade of the 21st century has been business. It was both appropriate and unfortunate, therefore, that the last date on the legal calendar of this decade was occupied, in the Supreme Court, by the bitter gas case between the iconic businessmen of our time, the brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Their dispute has generated more headlines in six years than any political conflict.
Blood, we have been reliably informed, is thicker than water. Why does money become, all so often, thicker than blood?
There are two medieval models for inheritance. The Mughals opted for a life-and-death decision on the battlefield. The English graduated, possibly to preserve their nobility from self-inflicted wounds, to primogeniture, in which the eldest son got the estate and the younger son a book written by P G Wodehouse. Both models are unacceptable in more egalitarian times, but in our country the elder brother still has the edge. This is why Mukesh Ambani received nearly three-fourths of the Dhirubhai empire, and Anil accepted such an unequal settlement.
But it also becomes a duty on the part of the heirs to preserve this amity, for every empire, political or business, is a public responsibility. Businessmen are often called barons or the new 'Moghuls', but this is not a license to behave like a Mughal, consolidating power by eliminating kin.
There is a remarkable parallel between what might be justifiably called the two most powerful brother-heirs in the Indian private sector. Decorum prevents me from naming one pair of brothers. Both lost their patriarch in harness. The comparative bank balance is not the issue, since billions are beyond mathematics. But if the Ambanis possess the power of wealth; the others have the wealth of power. All four are brilliant, with the rare ability to nurture a seed into a plant and then transform it into a plantation. The Ambanis are an international phenomenon; no less remarkably, the other brothers lifted the dominant newspaper of a single city into a range of media products that made their brand an unparalleled sensation. Brothers inherit genes, not temperament; there were differences in both families. The contrast is that the unnamed heirs, prone as everyone else to human weakness, turned a kingdom into an empire in exemplary harmony, offering a template. Imagine the economic stratosphere in which both Ambanis would flourish without their epic war.
The difference between fortune and misfortune is not money, but the value of a family at peace with itself.
The Supreme Court has the task of Solomon, without the luxury of sentiment: it cannot suggest that the last word be left to the mother, since the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, the supreme mother of Indian justice. It will be guided by merit, precedence, and the principles its judgment will establish for private and public sector. If India's destiny lies in its economy, if India is to soar above the neighbourhood towards a unique horizon, then the moral code of our faith in business will lie in the voice of the Supreme Court.
Appeared in Times of India - December 27, 2009