NYT Saints Mukesh Ambani: W... T... F?!

I hate hagiographies. I can barely take it if the ‘saint’ in question is dead, murdered for his idealistic beliefs and mourned by the many whose lives were transformed by his or her example. (Even in this instance, I'm with Orwell on his reflections on Gandhi). My blood pressure rises to a whole different level, however, if the individual is very much alive, well-padded, entirely self-serving and quite possibly the richest man in the world.

And thus the New York Times decided it would be a good idea to profile Mr. Mukesh Ambani, elder son of Dhirubhai Ambani (the ‘Polyester Prince’) and the chairman of Reliance Industries. The NYT has sunk to some depressing lows in its coverage of South Asia over the past couple of years (most of them diligently recorded in this blog, search around a bit), but this is, I believe, a nadir from which it cannot redeem itself. By setting Ambani as the exemplar of Indian success, if not the saviour of the Indian people, the article is telling the story exactly as Mukesh-ji, in his most self-assured moments, would have it told.

What you get with such innocence and trust (read, naivete) on the part of the interviewer is some truly absurd claims: No, Mukesh Ambani is not a latter-day Gandhi. No, Mukesh Ambani will not save Indian agriculture by establishing a chain of grocery shops. No, Mukesh Ambani is not “a revolutionary thinker”. And no, Mukesh Ambani does not “speak more like a father of the nation than a corporate executive”. But under such absurdity is a pitch, from a salesperson no less vaunted than the New York Times, for a pretty radical concept in governance: that we trust the robber barons of modern India with the project of development.

I use the term ‘robber baron’ advisedly. Ambani -- along with a few others such as Laxmi Mittal, Kushal Pal Singh of DLF and yes, OK, Vijay Mallya (no one likes the beer monopoly) -- share more in common with Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and the like than most Indian industrialists with whom I've talked. All these individuals became immensely wealthy through a particularly vicious sort of monopoly capitalism, particularly in the extraction and conversion of rentier commodities, combined with a fairly elevated form of corruption that involves having politicians and bureaucrats making homes in their back pockets. In fact, from the article,

“When we talk about Rockefeller and Carnegie and all these guys, they really each changed one industry,” said Mr. Nilekani, the Infosys co-chairman. “But if you look at what he’s doing, he’s really changing three or four industries.”

The main difference -- aside from the fact that it's a stupid comparison to begin with -- is that with the 19th century robber barons, their injuries to the body-politic have diminished while their philanthropy has led to institutions that endure, whatever you may think of them: the Met in New York, the University of Chicago, Carnegie-Mellon, Leland Stanford Jr. University (running the Central Pacific Railroad while also running the state of California as governor, quite a class act). And the excesses of the Gilded Age forced some measure of reform and regulation to American capitalism, from the formation of the trade union movement to federal regulatory agencies, along with puritanical b-llsh-t like Prohibition that never did no one any good. Anyone expect that to happen in India any time soon? (aside from the Prohibition, alive and well in the dry and God-forsaken state of Gujarat).

Another explicit comparison was made, by the co-chairman of Infosys (that Bangalore real estate company), between Mukesh Ambani and Bill Gates. Now, whatever you say about that particular Prince of Evil -- and I am typing this on a mac -- he genuinely has changed the way we interact with technology. And the Gates Foundation is pouring gigantic amounts of cash, admittedly with a sometimes counterproductive technology focus, into solving the world's problems. What do Ambani's foundations do? Send kids of bureaucrats to US universities, it seems.

So what sanctifies Mukesh-bhai? Visionary leadership at the helm of Reliance, the country's premier development institution? Or a life of such stout principle and touching humility as to serve as an example to us all? Well, both, it seems.

Reliance is solving India's energy crisis, apparently, by building a gi-normous oil refinery in Gujarat. Never mind that that does not increase the supply of energy, but just facilitates the conversion of imported crude oil into a more useable form by cars, trucks and motorcycles, and thus increasing demand, and adding to the crisis. This is pretty disgusting as India has, by virtue of a poor population and rising energy costs, done quite well in looking for alternative energy sources, from roadside mechanics with CNG conversion kits to the Mahindras making cars that run on bio-diesel. Ambani, by investing so heavily in the ultimate non-renewable resource, is trying to set India back on a road that will only lead to pain and suffering in the long run, as oil prices rachet upward, global supplies dwindle and rising sea levels threaten to engulf Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Reliance is "fomenting agricultural revolution", apparently, by setting up a chain of supermarkets that will source directly from farmers, kicking out the middlemen. Never mind that agricultural crisis in India is in large part due to inequitable land tenure and ownership patterns, and a Reliance chain will in all probability source from those wealthier farmers that can handle its demands of volumes and variety. The article itself lets some of these doubts through:

...in other areas, landowners have protested Reliance’s acquisition of their property; elsewhere, shopkeepers have staged violent rallies against a supermarket chain that they fear will decimate them. Some states, including Uttar Pradesh, have sought to block Reliance from their territory.

India's downward spiral into agricultural collapse, symbolised by the scores of farmer suicides in the country's most prosperous states, is not a thing to be taken lightly. Reliance supermarkets will more than likely be yet another leviathan in agricultural markets with already too little power for the small-holder and the agricultural labourer. Why add insult to grievous injury by dressing up what is essentially a consumerist convenience for urban middle classes as a tool for rural social change?

Reliance industries under Mukesh Ambani, apart from exerting monopoly power and thus gaining more and more control, is almost the opposite of transformative in any way that is relevant to the Indian economy or social development. The industries that Reliance has entered do not employ large numbers of workers, do not bring in new technologies or funds for further R&D, and do not directly contribute to the creation of upstream or downstream industries. Ambani is savvy, certainly, but not oriented toward a developmental vision.

For me, what was even harder to take was the portrayal of Ambani as a man of simple tastes, a devout vegetarian, an 'Indian to the core', whatever that means. In Mukesh's preferences for eating dal-roti-chawal over sushi, speaking Gujarati over English, and wearing safed kameez-kala pant over designerwear, the article makes an implicit comparison to Gandhi's homespun and places him in opposition to Westernised elites, who are clearly non-nationalist. Quite apart from the fact that I can't see bhapu-ji wanting to build a 60-story monstrosity right in the middle of beautiful and beloved Bombay, this particular framing is employing certain tropes in the service of the Reliance corporate narrative. And the New York Times is buying it.

The cinematic version of this narrative is Mani Ratnam's 2007 film 'Guru', starring Abhishek Bachchan as the driven, small-town outsider to Anglicised elite-dominated industry (as in, Dhirubhai Ambani with a six-pack). The film was even produced by a company belonging to Anil Ambani, making it a Reliance commercial you can pay to watch. The punch line is the same: Ambani is a man of the people, Ambani is a man of the people. (The movie even includes an Abhishek Bachchan speech where the character compares himself to Gandhi, which was so absurd I burst out laughing in the middle of PVR Saket).

There has two iterations to the 'man of the people' narrative, one concrete and the other more figurative. The first relates to a discrete strategy, started by Dhirubhai, of selling Reliance stock fairly widely to the public, letting ordinary people cash in, at least a bit, on Reliance magic. The second relates to a desi version of Reaganite-Thatcherite conservatism, in which anyone can succeed in business when one stays true to one's ideals and when the government gets off one's back (starring the License Raj, as villain).

Never mind that Dhirubhai Ambani made a great deal of money illegally buying licenses to import synthetic yarn, and thus became fabulously wealthy not in spite of the license regime but, at least in part, because of it. And the white-shirt-black-pants outfit is virtual uniform for certain Gujarati bania communities that provide enormous capital -- social as well as financial -- to its native sons (and occasionally daughters). Is the Reliance story replicable among other, less fortunate circumstances? The answer is resoundingly no for most everyone who actually lives in the country, but I can just see the technocratic NRIs in their McMansions in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park nodding their heads sagely at the picture of Mukesh Ambani and his daughter watching the Mumbai 'Indians' and reaching for their checkbooks.

My point in this post is not to demonise Mukesh Ambani, but to oppose his sanctification and the proposition more generally that the interest of the most wealthy in society is the same as society's interest. Even neo-classical economics has is it that self-interest is general interest only in the context of perfect competition and the Ambanis are monopolists. Their strategies are not coeval with the country's development.

But aside from Reliance and aside from Ambani, industry and consequently industrialists are critical for the development of the country. Many of the scores of industrialists I interviewed over the last eighteen months professed the same nationalist concerns and commitments as Ambani in this article. A few I actually felt were being truly developmentalist in their strategies, either in terms of creating indigenous technology or increasing work-forces. Most would say, rightly, that their vocation is about making money, which is certainly the sentiment etched deeply on Mukesh Ambani's soul.

But beyond any one individual, industry is the only sector of the Indian economy currently which has the potential for dramatically increasing both the scale and the quality of employment, and thus in a real sense, the potential to spear-head development. There are lots of firms and quite a few sectors that employ a large number of workers, and added investment in these firms can increase employment, the scale of operations and thus labour's voice in firm-level decision-making. None of this, however, applies to Reliance's major initiatives: oil refining is a capital-intensive process, and retail consumerism is about service-work and sub-contracting.

There is a long-standing tradition in business journalism to lionise individual personalities to the exclusion of broader economic trends, and surely this article fits into that category. Mukesh Ambani is not important, not for society. But following Mukesh Ambani's example, for whatever reason, is disastrous. Sometimes, a window into the perspective of this Gazillionaire Gandhi is worth bolting shut.

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manvantara, i appreciate the

manvantara, i appreciate the detailed if occasionally patronizing response. My main criticism is that you've laid out the trees, but not given the forest. How do you think that the Indian economy is going to establish convergence over decades with advanced capitalist countries? Over the past two decades its total factor productivity growth has been about 3-4% from what I have read (Kohli 2004 I think--maybe 2006, in EPW); South Korea's in the 1960s were close to 10%.

So I will lay out for you what i have learned about how late late developers "catch up", and you tell me what's wrong with it or, if there isn't anything, how what you're saying conforms to it:

In order for a country like India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh) to generate higher per capita incomes (however they are distributed), they need to eventually produce globally price and quality competitive goods and services. However, they started with serious constraints - small formal capital sector, agriculturally intensive economy, etc. In order to address this, they needed to pursue a carrot and stick policy - to provide protection to infant industries in order to allow them to sell goods at global prices while at the same time disciplining them to ensure contineud productivity growth. Over time, especially after the death of Nehru and the collapse of the Congress system, the planning economy fell apart because of the inability of the state to force companies / state enterprises that were receiving subsidies (direct or indirect) to improve efficiency, unlike, say, the close monitoring and disciplining that happened in South Korea with its chaebols. As a result, what limited progress was being made completely fell apart, with added shocks from the global economic conditions, drought, oil shocks, etc. However, after 1980, the Indian political establishment, starting with Indira Gandhi post-emergency, decided on a strategy of state-business partnership, which led to increased growth. I would agree that opening the market probably provided some of the discipline necessary for the pockets of Indian industry that would ready or close to ready to compete (think Tatas, ITC, etc.), but partly this was built on the results of the planning regime and there's still a lot of effective subsidization and protection of Indian industry, contrary to liberalization rhetoric. What it has NOT done is allowed widespread growth of industry because, just as with the planning regime, you have gargantuan enterprises, rather than widespread diversification of industry, and now you don't even have sufficient state investment in developing new industries.

There are some spillovers (for example, airline employees coming from towns like Kulu/Manali) but overall, from what i have heard, there are very few linkages being created with the rest of the Indian economy. Rather, you have the emergency of a few transnational companies, a collapse of some of the more important things that were being done (like reverse engineering in pharma), and an almost total failure to bring the 80% of the population that is involved in agriculture into the formal economy. Moreover, you have too much concentration in industries that may not produce development even if they produce growth - labor intensive industries like garments that will generate profits, yeah (especially for the multinational retailers and manufacturers like Nike and Wal-Mart ;), but they depend on simply increasing horus, greater exploitation of workers, etc., rather than improving firm level productivity or growth in ways that will benefit the local regional or global economy as a whole unless there are significant backwards and forwards linkages and other such things created.

Meanwhile, you have the government trumpeting growth figures when in point of fact, it's productivity growth that matters more, because that's how you catch up - by increasing productivity through improved organizational routines, gaining tacit knowledge, applying new technologies relavant to firm productivity, improving labor productivity, which in turn leads you to produce higher quality products at lower prices which you can then export. And of course there are certain political constraints that are present - notably the need to maintain policy autonomy from the external sector, which I'm concerned India has ceded far more than it needed to through things like TRIPPS, and is not as well positioned as China to deal wtih this - and internal poltiical stability for the policy regime - and we're about to find out (because global economic conditions are worsening dramatically) if an Indian policy regime based on high growth economies geared towards the wealthy can succeed in India without resulting in some sort of disaster - whether Hindutva fascism or massive social upheaval or both.

After which point, there will probably be ANOTHER policy regime, colored by international trends just like this one and the planning regime were, but the successes or failures of it should still be measured by how effectively it establishes convergence in per capita income, the means for which is increasing productivity in existing industries (moving up the technology ladder among other things), developing new industries and fostering their productivity growth, and maintaining enough political stability to ride out the inevitable political fallout from the collapse of the regime.

And so forth ;)

Okay, so that's basically my story. So you tell me whether it's wrong and if so how, and how what you're saying fits into it, and then we can talk. Because I would rather not engage in a back and forth with namecalling and assumptions about who supports what when the topic is interesting and important.

Wow….you do realize you

Wow….you do realize you haven’t responded to the specific points that kawaa made at all, right, and the namecalling just makes people think that you can’t back up what you say?

Doc Anon, kawaa's post is so littered with junk. There's nothing to parse in it. Because he like you is far out of tune with the ways of India, that unless you deliberately fudge or simply say - it is not so - or something outrageous you have not even a pretence of an argument. Kawaa's post is littered with gems of absurdity that leap at you.

A few I actually felt were being truly developmentalist in their strategies, either in terms of creating indigenous technology or increasing work-forces.

So not creating indigenous technology or increaing work-forces directly is not developmentalist? Creating technologies is a good thing. But do you understand what the term technology encompasses? Or what constitutes the technological core of any fairly high tech product today? Technology is not simply some invention or the application of a physical or biological principle. It covers business processes, algorithms etc. Infosys is at its heart a very advanced technology company. It isn't easy to employ 1000s upon 1000s of people at gargantuan campuses and keep customers satisfied. At a time when Wipro, the other giant was a hardware biggie, and TCS was already a global operator - barely 20 years back - Infosys was still operating out of its modest Jaynagar HQ in Bangalore. Nilekani occupied a simple desk and Narayanamurthy had a cubicle to himself. There was also an airconditioned cabin reserved for the use of the rare foreign client representative, and some of the other mid level employees who needed to be behind closed doors at night screaming themselves hoarse over the notoriously poor overseas circuits that the DoT provided in those days. That day when I dropped in (I used to sell HW those days) Nilekani showed us around their "showroom" where there had a rack of Borland software as they had just then tied up with the firm to sell Turbo Pascal and Paradox and were still then pushing telex cards from Transmatic. That day only one of their five phones was working. Bangalore Telephones had threatened to dsconnect even that one if Infosys wouldn't fork out the annual maamool. Nilekani had just then seen off a sarkari employee and asked him to shove it. So that's the company that is talking. Those were the heady years of loan melas courtesy that swindler Janardhan Poojary and in India's banana republic. Rajiv's famous hamein yeh banana hai, woh banana hai . Kawaa and Doc, when Nilekani talks I suggest you simply listen. He knows a thing or two about transforming industries, when the competition includes behemoths like IBM and EDS.

There are lots of firms and quite a few sectors that employ a large number of workers, and added investment in these firms can increase employment, the scale of operations and thus labour’s voice in firm-level decision-making. None of this, however, applies to Reliance’s major initiatives: oil refining is a capital-intensive process, and retail consumerism is about service-work and sub-contracting.

Let me try to ungarble this. Oil-refining is a capital intensive process, so you shouldn't invest in it, because it won't increase employment? By the same token you shouldn't invest in thermal power generation or solar power generation because they are both capital intensive, and won't generate much employment? OK so you want to increase employment, but you don't want to expand retail? How silly. You would rather have an adolescent work half naked in a kiraana dukaan for long hours than have smartly uniformed employees in a clean retail outlet? Even if Reliance Retail sub-contracts so what? Ultimately employment increases. Let's run a small test. Let's conduct a survey where we describe the Wal-Mart job to a kiraana dukaan employee (but do it when his malik isn't watching or the poor sod may get thrashed), and then let's find out what our kiraana employees think of working for Wal-Mart. Want to try? I am sure even you aren't that foolhardy to take on reality.

Did you check out Atanu Dey's comment here. He is a very serious writer on economics and blogs at deeshaa.org. He spends an immense amount of time, money and energy developing solutions to make India a more humane and prosperous place. Aren't you miffed that he chooses not to take this screed of yours apart. Mere mitron, take it from a person who has lived in those dull and dreary days. There is no romance in poverty, no contentment in mediocrity. And read your Chanakya. Get off this silly hobby horse of yours about capitalism - there's no such thing, nor is there a Hindutva Capitalism. The churches of India together are the biggest landowners in India after the government. The CSI and the CNI and many other churches have made killing out of real estate. In every city in India you will find commercial buildings run by the Church (Catholic as well as non-Catholic) making a fat profit collecting rents without paying a paisa in taxes on it. The son of Mary it is said threw out the money lenders from the temple of Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. The princes of the church who act in his name now discharge that role. There is an even more hair raising proposal to allow the Wakf's develop their real estate commercially. And yesterday in Srinagar the Kashmiriyat thugs and goons were out in full force destroying public property protesting the grant of a measly 40 acres to the Amarnath Mandir. Hey Badri Raina can you read? I would rather have Col.KP Singh developing our real estate.

Great post. This article

Great post. This article pissed me off in uncountable ways, but the point about developmentalist industry vs. Reliance's practices was beyond my understanding so thanks for bringing it out. Still plagued by whether developmentalist industrial is compatible with human decency, but what to do. For now :)

This is a long and poorly

This is a long and poorly thought out rant, even by PTR standards. We don't need one Mukesh Ambani. About 50 would help, and with 100, we would have to open exclusive visa processing stations all over the G8 to serve all applicants trying to beat a path to India. Dhirubhai had a habit of making light of his achievements, even in those heady days of AGMs in Cross Maidan. He used to pooh pooh his own companies, that unless he had a single company with a paid-up >$100 million it meant nothing. In five years Anil and Mukesh each have about quintupled their inheritance. That's unheard of anywhere in the world. Dhirubhai thought big, as the citizen of a country should that commanded >30% of the world's output 300 years ago. This was at a time when some moronic babu (one of whom is a v.v.v. senior politician today) was doling out licenses for piffling capacities. Everyone was certain that Dhirubhai's empire would slow down if not collapse when the licensing regime withered away. Instead today his children are among the wealthiest businessmen in the world and could host an Apprentice-like show with Donald Trump and his peers for contestants! And of course Anil could buy out the production house and possibly even the network that broadcasts the show!!

India's business ethic, is not as you misunderstand inspired in any way by the Protestant Reformation Puritan inspired Adam Smithy Reaganism and Thatcherism. Our roots run much further in the past - a few 1000 years ago, and are much deeper and trace back among other things to the param maha adi samhita of politics and economics - Arthashastra Prosperity isn't a reward for the devout and misery and poverty is not a punishment visited upon the sinful or a result of man's sinful state. Social responsibility comes naturally to Indian business. Which is why there never will be or has been a robber baron in India. The Tatas in their earliest days at Tisco offered better working conditions for their employees than their counterparts in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Check out the Tata Steel archives some day in Jamshedpur and read Sir Visvesharayya's report on the company.

With 60% of the population engaged in agriculture contributing barely 20% to the GDP, with no economic land management, no supply chain, endless layers of middlemen, agriculture cannot but become worse. Added to this thugs in red in Kerala dictate to farmers burning up any crop other than rice, and thugs in red in Waste Bengal are busy supplying maggot infested muck to the people while shipping out choice grain to enrich the party's coffers. Anything that frees the farmer of this miserable state of affairs is welcome. It takes extreme stupidity to deny that direct buying from the cultivator does not benefit him.

It is a mark of the absolutely ossified and unimaginative thinking that pervades the progressive circles to dub Infosys a real estate player. I am actually delighted to see that your criticism is so devoid of ideas and is bankrupt of imagination that in your blind fury you reveal that you have nothing to say at all. Subramaniam of Subhiksha had something priceless to say that shut up that loudmouthed moron AB Bardhan. When accused of bringing about the decline of unorganised retail, Subramnaiam tartly replied that he could not imagine why anyone would want to support a slave driver of a kirana dukaandaar whose employees work shirtless all day long inside a dinghy and airless dungeon of a store!

And how thoughtless some of these accusations are. Mukesh sets up a refinery that refines more oil that drives up the demand for oil? Every enterprise is about growth, driving up demand, driving up revenue, and making more money. Fundamental.

I am amused to read this torrential diatribe. It indicates how desperate some are in India are for the good old days of licenses permits and quotas. Since I have lived in those days and know what it was really like, I am happy we will never see those days again, try as the Congress and its Chini Chamcha allies might. And also for those of you PTR romantics you are lucky to be living in the India of today and are even luckier to have not experienced the dreary days of past.

The biggest rentier in India is the post-1947 government and its prime movers - the Kaangress and its commie allies the latter who even when not in power have managed to impose a commie dispensation of mediocrity, dishonesty, corruption, criminality, and stasis.

NYT rarely gets the India story right, deploying half-read cranks to pen its stories. This is one of the rare occasions when they have got it right. Excellent story. More power to Mukesh and every Indian entrepreneur. We need as many as we can get, so that posts like these wallow and then finally sink in the ooze and slime where thought is lost in the dreary sands of cholche cholbe.

Manvantara, wow! Thanks very

Manvantara, wow!

Thanks very much. I could not have said it any better. Mukeshbhai is good. More power to him and his tribe.

India’s business ethic, is

India’s business ethic, is not as you misunderstand inspired in any way by the Protestant Reformation Puritan inspired Adam Smithy Reaganism and Thatcherism. Our roots run much further in the past - a few 1000 years ago, and are much deeper and trace back among other things to the param maha adi samhita of politics and economics - Arthashastra Prosperity isn’t a reward for the devout and misery and poverty is not a punishment visited upon the sinful or a result of man’s sinful state. Social responsibility comes naturally to Indian business. Which is why there never will be or has been a robber baron in India. The Tatas in their earliest days at Tisco offered better working conditions for their employees than their counterparts in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Check out the Tata Steel archives some day in Jamshedpur and read Sir Visvesharayya’s report on the company.

Wow....you do realize you haven't responded to the specific points that kawaa made at all, right, and the namecalling just makes people think that you can't back up what you say? It's an interesting post though as an example of the blind Hindutva-capitalism of the Indian upper class and its friends.

The industrialization that is happening is by and large concentrated in a few pockets with few spillovers and linkages, and is the result of government-business collaboration, not some independent initiative by "the market" which doesn't exist in neoclassical terms. The vast majority of Indians are extraordinarily poor, and, as kawaa pointed out, if there's investment in productive industry, the activity simply inflicts violence on them without even generatin the potential "trickle down" benefits that they might eventually claim in redistributionary efforts. As a result, the government of india currently can't send the army to about 15% of the state's land because people have revolted in those places. And meanwhile, the wealthy and their friends and the newspapers of the west celebrate 9% GDP growth rate without looking at the really important measures - productivity growth rates, diversification, linkages, etc.

So honestly, what are you talking about? Because it doesn't sound like the Indian economy. And when the party's over, as Aditya Nigam has said, don't blame the Maoists.

The only point I'm trying to

The only point I'm trying to make is that of the universe of Indian capitalism, Mukesh Ambani is not the example to follow. If you want companies that both create indigenous technology and spur the employment of thousands of workers, look to the Mahindras, TELCO, Cipla, Ranbaxy, and the thousands and thousands of smaller industrial companies investing in their workers and investing in indigenous technology. As per the article, the two big efforts of Reliance these days, petroleum refining and consumer groceries, do not bring technology in and do not create sustainable long-term growth in quality employment.

And yes, I may have been snide about Infosys, but the fact remains that a) ICT only employs one million people in India, and b) most large ICT companies, such as Ifosys, TCS, and Wipro, do not create intellectual property but rather do jobwork. the entire industry has been criticised by Chidambaram and by Kalinath for just this.

Mukesh Ambani is very rich and very successful on his own terms, but I can think of at least a dozen Indian industrialists I've met personally who are worth more to the nation in terms of economic development.

Are you willing to defend him on these terms, say against Keshub Mahindra's vision, or would it make you happier if we treated 'Indian capitalism' as one big undifferentiated blob?

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