Is the new altruism a means to an end?

Published on FT.com, by James Lamont, October 21, 2009.

An unusual act of self-sacrifice by a company chairman has found remarkably little resonance in a land where austerity is a way of life for most of the population and some of its most revered leaders.

On the eve of Diwali, a Hindu festival that in part celebrates prosperity, Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and chairman of Reliance Industries, volunteered a 66 per cent pay cut. Mr Ambani, who ranks seventh in a world tally of billionaires, would instead make 150m rupees ($3.2m) in 2008-09.

No other scions of India’s largely family-owned business elite have opted to follow this seemingly exemplary lead, nor have they heartily cheered this act.  

With an economy growing at near 7 per cent this year, and executive salaries that on average are far below those enjoyed by their counterparts in the west, India’s corporate leaders see little reason to drastically tighten their own belts …

… There is also fear that his altruism may be motivated by calculated gamesmanship. He and his brother Anil have been locked in an extraordinary corporate battle over the price of gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin. During this bitter rivalry, which stems from an unresolved division of their father’s business empire, the two have tried every trick to outwit each other, whilst securing public opinion and political favour. Their attacks have ranged from charging each other with over-stating earnings to scuppering India’s economic reforms. Investors can only look on, baffled.

Compassion has also been artfully deployed. While Mukesh has stressed philanthropy and chimed with the government’s call for austerity, Anil has gone on pilgrimage to the revered Hindu temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath to pray for his brother’s goodwill and seek divine intervention to end the feud.

Both, however, now face an earlier judgment from a less divine authority: this week the brothers’ dispute came before India’s Supreme Court. Neither Mukesh’s new-found altruism nor his brother’s religious feint look likely to sway the Court. (full text).

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