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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 46, October 31, 2009

Making a Farce of Vulgarity, too

Sunday 1 November 2009, by T J S George


Mukesh Ambani’s salary is Rs 44.2 crores a year, about three-and-a-half crores a month. In a country where the poor outnumber the well-to-do, that seems vulgar. On the other hand, the big salary works out to 0.23 per cent of the Ambani companies’ net profits. That doesn’t look vulgar.

Sun TV’s Kalanithi Maran and wife Kavery take a salary of Rs 37.08 crores each. That works out to 16.96 per cent of their net profits. Is that vulgar? Anil Ambani’s salary is Rs 30.02 crores a year, or two-and-a-half crores a month. Is that vulgar?

The answer is really simple: Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When Serena Williams obliges an ESPN publication by posing in the nude (Good heavens, Serena Williams of all people!) it is vulgar according to the Tennis Federation. But it is inspirational to herself and to others according to Serena. Who is wrong?


Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid might have been speaking in the spirit of the latest government fashion, austerity, when he asked corporate CEOs not to give themselves vulgar salaries. Was he asking them to get on the hypocrisy bandwagon on which government Ministers are currently riding? The government’s travel-economy-class movement was a farce from the start. It has been shown up as such by several Ministers buying economy class tickets and upgrading themselves on board—an irregularity against which Air India pilots have formally complained.

In the true spirit of farce, the Congress Working Committee recently decreed that all Congress Ministers must take a salary cut of 20 per cent. This is in a culture where a minister getting a salary of Rs 10,000 routinely gets the Public Works Department to spend Rs 50 lakhs to refurbish his official residence. Irresponsible spending of this kind by a class of public men who create no wealth is what is really vulgar.

Of course wealth creators often go vulgar, too. Some notorious cases came up in America recently when CEOs gave themselves enormous bonuses and other benefits even as their companies were sinking. Asatyam Raju apart, the worst that has come up in India are CEOs indulging in vulgar consumption with yachts and private jets and mansions in world metropolises. They often justify this by saying that politicians demand use of these facilities which make the yachts etc legitimate business expenses.


Besides, CEOs have shareholders and company reports to cope with. Politicians say they have voters to cope with. Which is a half-truth. The way Big Money is spent during election time, it is clear that coping with voters is not what it is supposed to mean. If you have uncountable cash and the muscle power to go with it, voters are negotiable. Think of those Bihar netas who won with big majorities while they were in jail.

The system is elastic enough to facilitate hanky-panky. Consider, for example, the affidavits politicians file at election time. Four MLAs seeking re-election in Haryana this month, all from the Congress, have reported an 800 per cent increase in their assets since 2004. If this is not vulgar, what is? Yet, no questions are raised about the sources of this income—not by the Congress Working Committee, not by Salman Khurshid, not even by the Income Tax Department.

Clearly this austerity business is tomfoolery. Vulgarity, like decency, is a state of mind. What doesn’t come from within cannot be enforced by state fiat. The Fifth Pay Commission asked for a 30 per cent cut in the number of government employees. (Central Government employees alone number 3.3 million today, not counting defence personnel.) A reduction of that kind is the way to meaningful austerity. All else is deception. Of the vulgar kind.


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