What the Ambani wedding palooza says about Modi’s India

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Unless one had been under a rock, it was difficult to miss the fact that the Ambanis were having a bash. Movie stars, singers and tycoons from across India and world gathered in the Gujarati city of Jamnagar to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Asia’s richest man.

Rich people having a good time is hardly an uncommon phenomenon. Even then, the publicness of the celebrations were remarkable. Not only was young Anant about to get married, the revelries to herald his impending union in July became a mass spectacle. For days, Indians consumed Ambani’s so-called pre-wedding bash (a whole new ritual) on television and their phones. Videos of the celebrations were pushed not only on social media but also put out by news wire services. Anant Ambani gave a puff interview to a major television news channel, with the interviewer fawning over the scion (and even sampling food being prepared for toothless elephants in the magnate’s animal rescue centre).

Eroding socialist roots

India’s founding decades after the departure of the British were characterised by socialist thought and ideas. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was a democratic socialist – and, in the wake of the global Great Depression that started in 1929, socialist ideas were the common sense of the age. Besides, British colonialism, based on laissez faire economics, had resulted in significant poverty, a lack of industrialisation and frequent famine. A reaction was inevitable after the transfer of power.

In fact, socialist ideas were so popular that even Indian industrialists used them when lobbying for favourable policies. Even when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was founded in 1980, its constitution upheld the “principles of socialism”. Indian movies during that period frequently made villains out of capitalists. As a result, when the very rich indulged in conspicuous consumption, they did so without fanfare.

By the late 1970s, however, the hegemony of socialist ideas was weakening as public investment declined. In the 1980s and the 1990s, India focussed hard on the “expansion and modernisation of the private sector”. This churn led to the rise of a new group of businessmen that historian Jairus Banaji calls the “New Capitalists”. They emerged within a new system of crony capitalism, with large businessmen working in close collaboration with elected politicians. In 2014, Raghuram Rajan, then governor of the Reserve Bank of India, summed it up:

“The crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections. The corrupt businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged. Every constituency is tied to the other in a cycle of dependence, which ensures that the status quo prevails.”

Even news wires blurred the lines between news and public relations when it came to the Ambani pre wedding celebrations.

The Modi age

The rise of Modi to national power in 2014 strengthened this system. “New Capitalists are the most fervent supporters of Prime Minister Modi,” wrote Banaji, who also linked this system to the BJP’s introduction of electoral bonds. This instrument allowed the efficient as well as secret taping of large capital for political financing. “Doubtless the groups [New Capitalists] just mentioned are major contributors to those,” Banaji wrote. (On Wednesday, a Supreme Court order to make public the corporations who had bought electoral bonds seems to have been ignored.)

In his first term, Modi was still vulnerable to attack on the issue of crony capitalism. In response to Rahul Gandhi’s jibe that the prime minister was running a “suit boot ki sarkar”, government for the rich, Modi turned to welfare populism, junking his libertarian small-government plank from the 2014 campaign. He also scrapped an attempt to dilute the United Progressive Alliance’s Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which made it harder for private corporations to acquire farmland.

However, in the 2019 election, Gandhi’s attacks on alleged corruption in the Rafale combat aircraft deal fell flat. Since then, Modi has hardly been bothered with allegations of cronyism even as the phenomenon seems to have been turbocharged. In 2021, Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic advisor, described a system dominated by the “two As”: Adani and Ambani. The dominance of these two conglomerates was so immense that it was “unique in the history of global capitalism”.

Bulletproof government

In 2023, Hindenburg Research, an American investment research company, published a report alleging that the Adani Group was pulling off the “largest con in corporate history”, claiming that the conglomerate had, over the decades, been involved in stock manipulation, accounting fraud, used offshore shells for money laundering and syphoned money from listed companies.

The Opposition used this to launch attacks on the Modi government. Malfeasance on this scale would have been a serious charge in many other countries. “But in India, it is unclear whether it can dent Modi’s image,” my colleague Supriya Sharma wrote while reporting on the lukewarm reception to allegations of a Modi-Adani nexus.

A similar brazenness was seen at the Ambani pre-wedding. The Hindu reported that Jamnagar airport was awarded international status for the duration of the bash. Clearly, the BJP did not think this sort of blatant bending of government rules for a private function was going to be a political liability.

In fact, far from being uncomfortable, many supporters of the BJP have tom-tommed the Ambani bash, advertising it as a sign of India’s power and, even, as a flag-bearer of Hindu identity. So it hardly surprising that the Ambanis are not only making little attempt to hide their immense wealth, they are actually quite happy to flaunt it.

Allegations of cronyism – which held such immense political power for much of modern India’s history – seem to hold little relevance for many Indians now.

Hindu nationalist messaging was common among BJP supporters who cheered on the Ambani bash.

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