Family sway

Gandhis and Ambanis have shaped and fettered Indian democracy and capitalism

The story of contemporary India is the story of coming to terms with the legacy of two families: the Gandhis and the Ambanis. Taken literally, this statement is, of course, absurd. But it is often a summary way of thinking of India's power structure. Recently, in a lecture, I was making some quick remarks about the shifting bases of social power in India. The British Raj, for instance, used to be dubbed the Brahmin-Company Raj. A young man piped up, "I suppose we are in the Gandhi-Ambani Raj."

Any comparison, taken too literally, stretches the truth. There is something farcical in comparing a business and a political family with such different genealogies, sensibilities and tastes. But there is some analytical value in thinking together about these two family enterprises in power. In the annals of business and politics, there are few families that have exercised such dominance. There is widespread muttering against their power, yet their dominance seems inescapable. We live in their shadow even when we have no faith. Indian democracy revolves around the Gandhis more than it should, as Indian capitalism revolves around the Ambanis more than it should. The Gandhis have shaped our form of democracy, as the Ambanis have shaped the nature of our capitalism. But, in a subtle way, both also act as fetters on the maturation of democracy and capitalism.

Both are, in a fundamental sense, beyond the ordinary standards of democratic reproach. You can criticise them in the abstract, but candour about them is impossible. Try publishing something on the Ambani business enterprise and you will quickly recognise the subtle censorship that pervades the public sphere in India. Except for fringe right-wing groups, the Gandhis are treated with more self-censorship and deference. Both have had family feuds of sorts, but it strengthens rather than weakens the mainline business.

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