Theft as a crime is typically envisioned as three masked robbers entering a bank and stealing people's hard-earned money or a knife-armed man mugging you on the sidewalk, in other words, it's usually labelled as a street crime committed by "low-lives". However, the most elaborate and public thefts are committed by businessmen and not heisting criminals.
The Netflix documentary, Bad Boy Billionaires: India, by the virtue of its name was supposed to be an in-depth investigation about the scandalous scams led by rich businessmen and the Indian bureaucracy.
As a viewer, however, the series comes across as Modi’s and Mallya’s acquaintances recounting what we already knew about the case rather than offering new details or insights. From the choice of clips they showed in the documentary, it felt like the show portrayed a bias that glorified these absconded criminals such as Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi as venerable and larger-than-life figures.
For instance, the documentary depicts Vijay Mallya, the King of Good Times, as an ambitious and overzealous man who’s aspiration was to create a globally recognized Indian airline. A brand that would bring international recognition and praise for India; this narrative is likely to make the viewers admire him and consider his loan defaulting as a small mistake. However, the cold truth is that Mallya faces heavy charges of money laundering, loan defaulting to up to 9,000 crores, and fleeing the country to escape his punishment.
Nirav Modi, a diamond tycoon, has a similar story to that of Mallya and was also an economic fugitive who had procured loans through bribes and defaulted almost 11,000 crores. After leaving India in 2018, he was caught by the Telegraph in 2019 and remains at Wandsworth Prison to date.
This raises the question - in a world where domestic help stealing Rs 5,000 is frowned upon and immediately reported to law enforcement, why are powerful people not reprimanded for their thefts?
We're okay with loan defaulters because we like to idolize the rich
India, the land of the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor has a stark inequality in income distribution - there are people living in luxurious homes sharing the city with slum dwellers. A 2019 report by Oxfam found that 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.
Despite the stark inequality, Indians are star-struck by the rich such as the Ambanis, Ratan Tata, and unsurprisingly, Bollywood actors. This love or veneration for billionaires is visibly seen on social media with the growing interest in the lives of mega-rich families.
This is quite ironic considering our deep-seated contempt for the Congress leaders and the major financial scams committed by them. Rich tycoons who are lauding for creating their own empire are spared from public anger and scrutiny as people view their criminal activity as a one-off case. They're too starry-eyed to see the systematic issues of corruption, bribery, and loopholes stemming from a gross abuse of power by rich men.
We’re obsessed with billionaires because we want their lifestyle
The most obvious reason is the aspirational value the billionaires hold for most middle-class or poverty-stricken Indians.
Most of us desire to be in the upper echelons of society wearing designer clothes, going on tropical vacations, and possessing the latest tech gadgets so, in a way, we start identifying with the rich on the account of wanting the same things in life. This morphs into a subtle obsession where we start filtering out the problems with their persona and how they amassed their wealth.
An interesting study in the psychology of human behaviour towards the rich at Princeton University in 2006 by the neuroscientists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske showed that people reacted more pleasantly to rich people compared to homeless people.
Volunteers were put in a brain scanner and showed pictures of belonging to different economic groups varying from businessmen in fancy suits to shoddily dressed individuals.
The brain scans showed that when the volunteers viewed the pictures of rich, people the area of the brain was activated when we experience relatability with another person. In other words, we feel connected and empathetic towards them. However, two-third of the participants self-reported that they felt disgusted when they saw pictures of the homeless individuals.
A shocking study but it further proves that we're less critical of rich people than we are of the poor. For aspirational purposes, we tend to idolize the rich for their "hard work", "huge ambitions" and "determination" and stay in ignorance about how they manipulate the justice system.
Powerful people take more from society than they give back
Indian billionaires are really lacking when it comes to giving back and donating to the society. Yes, we have Azim Premji, an Indian tech magnate, who donated over 50,000 crores to charity in 2019 but apart from him there isn't anyone who accounts for 80 per cent of large contributions (more than Rs 10 crore) made by individuals since 2014.
According to an analysis by Quartz, in relation to the size of our population, we don't have enough people donating, and on a percentage basis, India is one of the least generous countries, ranking a lowly 106 in 2015 on the World Giving Index.
If you think it's excessive or a socialist fantasy to demand billionaires to give back to society, think again. Building a billionaire empire requires immense natural resources and human capital - a huge favour from society so it is only fair that they share the exponential wealth they've earned collectively - nobody becomes a billionaire on their own.
Some may believe that the growing number of billionaires in India from 9 to 101 since 2009 is an indicator of economic growth, however, that's far from the truth. The reality lies in the GDP numbers and the fact that a large number of Indians are still struggling to emerge out of poverty in a society that favours the rich.
Why is the legal system lenient to the rich?
Unlike daily crime reports, white-collar crimes such as public corruption, health care fraud, mortgage fraud, loan default, etc aren't violent or gory, hence, it's assumed that they don't require severe punishment. Even banks that were scammed are lax about bringing criminal justice upon themselves.
Indian banks, repeated targets of economic misbehaviour, have made no significant process in procuring the alleged offenders or making a meaningful recovery of the lost money. High-profile offenders continue to roam freely denying their moral transgressions and escaping their sentencing by hiring top lawyers.
If the tables were turned and an ordinary middle-class citizen defaulted a few EMIs on a few lakhs of rupee loan; there would be a full-fledged follow-up. The recovery agents of the banks would knock at the borrower's doorstep and harass them or threaten to bring them to court if they were unable to pay back in a certain time frame.
The situation is even worse for small-time farmers that resort to suicide when they're unable to pay back their loans. For example, in 2018, a debt-ridden farmer was put in jail after he got arrested in a cheque bounce case and unfortunately, ended up dying in prison.
According to the First Post, bankers usually defend their position by citing the industry environment that has incapacitated borrower's cash flows or the need for banks to assist businessmen during times of crisis. But why don't the same concessions and rules apply for common citizens too? Why is a farmer who defaults on a loan due to crop failure harassed by officials? Aren't farmers also benefiting society by producing food?
Now, there's nothing wrong with asking or persuading borrowers to return their loans - that is a normal consequence of defaulting on your loans. But the rationale of playing coy with affluent industrialists while bullying the poor is a huge double standard that needs to be rectified.
Indirect repercussions of a white-collar crime
While white-collar crime doesn't deserve the death penalty or violently harsh punishment, it is still a breach of the law and it definitely has victims. A single scam can lead to the downfall of a company leaving thousands without a job, wipe out life savings of hundreds of families, and cost investors billions of dollars. You would be surprised to know that Kingfisher Airlines owes 3,000 employees Rs 300 crore in salary - imagine the mental pressure of working for months without a fixed salary.
Despite the magnitude of their crimes, businessmen continue to commit economic offences; this could be due to negative reinforcement (a phenomenon where a response or behaviour is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome). So, as long as there are no repercussions, and the worst-case scenario involves fleeing to a first-world city such as London, the tendency to scam will prevail.
How can we demand greater accountability from the rich and powerful?
The media needs to emphasize the indirect effects of white-collar crimes in which all of India is a victim since they have defaulted on taxpayers or your money. Most people may not be aware of economic terms or understand bank processes that led to the bank frauds, it's vital to convey that information and its effects in layman's terms.
A Critical Study on White-Collar Crimes in India Dr Sanjay I. Soanki suggests that the new media ought to point out the increasing costs due to white-collar crimes that remain hidden in the extra prices of goods and services passed onto the consumer.
Soanki proposes that the public tends to sympathize with the offenders only because they don't have adequate knowledge about the crime. If they knew how they are being victimized through such scams, the public would be more outraged than they are now. Hopefully, then Indians will begin to question so-called self-made billionaires and we don't have another economic fugitive on the loose in London.