Guru of giving, Azim Premji shows the way to India’s Scrooges

Fifteen or so years ago, after Wipro had taken off as one of the great stocks to invest in, Azim Premji was interviewed by a magazine.

He was asked about identity and he said he felt Indian first and Bangalorean second. Any other label one wished to paste on him, he added, was unimportant and could only come after these two.

I thought about this because Premji comes from one of my favourite communities, the Gujarati Khojas, converted mainly from the caste called Lohana.

This small but very successful caste, from whom both the mercantile Khojas and Bohras come, has produced such diverse people as MA Jinnah, LK Advani and Uday Kotak.

Members of the caste are usually conservative in the way that they approach business and have traditional values.

Premji is of course famously frugal and apparently used to only fly economy (one story about him using share-an-auto to get to his house in Alibaug I heard from two separate sources, even though it may be apocryphal).

This is the background in which to receive the news published last week that Premji was giving away half of his wealth to charity. If I understood it right, this would mean giving away Rs 50,000 crore, a number I cannot even wrap my head around. Premji had made a pledge to do this in 2013 and has been active in giving his money away, sending a thousand crore rupees towards the poor and the needy every year.

Now there are great things to be said about the merchant castes of India. In their ability to raise and manage capital they are first rate. Given the right environment they can build enterprises that can compete with the best in the world. However it is also true that they have been lacking in one respect. The great mercantile communities of India have never been inclined to giving their money away.

The Economic Times reported a story in 2006 on Lakshmi Mittal which was headlined “I’m too young to follow Warren Buffett’. In it, Mittal, wealthy as Croesus, spoke of the reason he was not a philanthropist. “I am still very young” he said, “I will work a couple of more years and then I would think about it.” The report said this statement was followed by laughter.

The same year Rajashree Birla was interviewed on the subject and she said this: “In the Indian context, we don’t have the mindset to give away large amounts of money to charity… This trend of giving away large amounts to charity is happening only in the US. I think it calls for very large heartedness. The donors leave just a little bit for their children so as to be able to live comfortably and at the same time not dependent on the wealth they have earned. I don’t see this happening in the Indian context in the near future at least.”

Andrew Carnegie built thousands of libraries in the United States and elsewhere. The man behind the opening of thousands of libraries in India is not an Indian but American John Wood (of Room to Read). The man working to take hundreds of thousands of Indian children out of poverty through sports is not an Indian but Englishman Mathew Spacie (of Magic Bus). There are many other such stories.

When I hear about them or read about them, I am of course warmed by the thought of such selfless greatness, but I am also depressed. ‘Why cannot Indians do this?’ is one question that would not go away. ‘What makes it easier for those people?’ That was the other question.

In some ways I was wrong to see it in as happening easily in some cultures and not in others. Wealthy Americans have not always been philanthropists.

It has been less than 150 years since Carnegie wrote the Gospel of Wealth, the work that best describes the motives and benefits of spreading one’s wealth.

A lot of the American turn towards philanthrophy came as a tithe to the church. It was not merely out of large-heartedness in that sense, but out of other worldly reward. But it is also true that once it started in their nation, it became a tradition very quickly and the line connecting Carnegie to Gates and Buffett is not dotted but straight and thick.

In India the line is dotted. Premji stands like a colossus, his own man and distinct from his tradition. Only after the Tatas (two thirds of Tata Sons, the holding company, is owned by charities) have we had such giving on this scale.

It has taken a century, but it has come in a manner which will convince or shame our other billionaires. Of this I am quite sure. Premji’s other great contribution than giving away his wealth will be to have started an Indian tradition.

What an achievement that is to his name and that of his family. Even if he does not identify with us very much, he has given Gujaratis something and someone to be proud about after a very, very long time.
“That,” we can justly point at him and say, “is what we are capable of.”.


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