No one grudges Warren Buffet and Bill Gates their desire to donate part of their considerable wealth to good causes in India. If their visits encourage more of our indigenous tycoons to emulate them, so much the better. The question that arises is whether their visits warranted the level of saturation coverage that the media, both electronic and print, has accorded them. The issue is not just magnitude but also tenor. Over the past three days, the media has breathlessly reported their every word and action — whether it is Mr Buffet’s observations on Indian hospitality, the Indian market, India’s potential, his Indian colleague, his thoughts on capitalism, free trade, death, succession... or the Gates’ Bihar visits and their views on TB, measles, polio, women’s health and other social issues of the day.
Indeed, if the cloying coverage has revealed anything, it is the lack of balance that the Indian polity displays towards all things American. To put it bluntly, we either lick them or kick them. The shrill political reaction to the Wikileaks cables highlighted the latter predilection, and the Gates/Buffet coverage falls in the first category. Despite the giant type-size and the foreign journalists imported to interview them, Mr Gates’ and Mr Buffet’s statements are not particularly remarkable. They represent the platitudes that every foreigner repeats when they come to India and face the obvious question from the press. Does India, now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, really need such endorsement from the West?
There is no denying that as, respectively, the world’s second and third richest people, Mr Gates’ and Mr Buffet’s visits are media events that would interest readers and viewers — especially Mr Buffet, the famously austere tycoon, who is on his maiden visit here. But the difference between reportage and public relations is a fine one and in this instance, it is difficult to distinguish the two. A dispassionate observer — and there are any number on the Web — is likely to wonder whether their mission of encouraging India Inc to “open their wallets,” as one website described it, merits such flattering coverage. To start with, it is difficult to escape the notion that Mr Gates and Mr Buffet are being a little presumptuous. As in the US, philanthropy, whether corporate or individual, has never been in short supply in India. It’s the belated western concepts of Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR and the Triple Bottom Line that have brought these notions into the global spotlight as measurable attributes. In the rigidly politically correct intellectual climate of the day, these are increasingly becoming the yardsticks by which companies are judged. This is not a bad thing. But there are any number of rich and even reasonably wealthy Indians who are no less philanthropically inclined than Mr Gates and Mr Buffet (if not as famous), who do or have done sterling work outside the spotlight. Their missions are no less meaningful than or impactful as those of the two US billionaires. So they are just as likely to take umbrage at the Giving Pledge campaign as, say, our known corporate philanthropists like the Tatas, Birlas or Bajajs and so on. That is why it is possible to suspect the turnout at this very public advocacy as little more than a networking opportunity. It is also unclear why American businessmen, no matter how successful, should preach to Indian industrialists on how they should spend their philanthropic rupees. In India, there is no shortage of social causes that need investments. As with business opportunities, India’s industrialists have been skilful at spotting them.