Inside the glittering façade

Mathew Idiculla | Updated on August 17, 2018

High contrast: There is a Great Gatsby-like feel to the narrative when Crabtree describes the lives of the rich and powerful   -  PAUL NORONHA

Perceptive and detailed, James Crabtree’s book advances a familiar argument about the story of India’s uneven growth

James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age opens like a crime thriller. A badly damaged Aston Martin Rapide is found abandoned outside the Gamdevi Police Station in Mumbai. The car was earlier involved in a crash with an Audi A4 in South Mumbai, not far from Antilia, the skyscraper residence of Mukesh Ambani. The car belonged to Reliance Industries and the driver of the car reportedly fled the scene by jumping onto one of the SUVs tailing the car. This scene sets the tone for a pacy account of the rise (and, in many cases, fall) of India’s new super-rich and the associated problems of crony capitalism and income inequality.

Crabtree served as the Mumbai bureau chief of Financial Times for five years (2011– 16) and the book draws on his interactions with politicians and businessmen during this stint. While the book is primarily pitched as an account of India’s billionaires, its scope is much wider as it captures the zeitgeist of India’s political economy over the last decade. It is, in some ways, another “India book”, following the path set by his predecessor at Financial Times, Edward Luce, whose 2006 work In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India received much international acclaim.

However, the British journalist has a more specific argument. As the subtitle ‘A Journey through India’s new Gilded Age’ indicates, he argues that India is at present in an era resembling the “gilded age” of the US in the late 19th century when its economy grew at its fastest-ever rate. This term was first used by Mark Twain to describe an America which “glittered on the surface…but was decaying underneath”. In the “gilded age”, tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller and JP Morgan, derisively called “robber barons”, presided over rapid industrialisation in the midst of increasing inequality and rampant corruption.

The argument that India is currently going through its “gilded age” has been made by scholars and commentators before, and Crabtree acknowledges that he first came across this premise in a 2011 article by Jayant Sinha and Ashutosh Varshney. This idea was developed further by Michael Walton, who has demonstrated that while in the initial years of liberalisation, India’s new billionaires emerged from areas like IT-services, which were relatively untouched by the government, the latter years saw billionaires emerge from “rent-thick” sectors such as mining, property and telecom, which required closer dealings with the government. Crabtree takes forward an idea that was mainly discussed in academic circles and fleshes it out through perceptive profiles of key actors from business and politics in India.

The Billionaire Raj is spread across 12 chapters, which are divided into three sections. The first section focuses on business tycoons and includes chapter-length profiles of Mukesh Ambani and Vijay Mallya. In the second, Crabtree trains his eye on politics and its links with business, with interesting profiles on Narendra Modi and J Jayalalithaa. The author returns to the theme of India’s “gilded age” in the final section, which includes chapters on the Indian Premier League and Arnab Goswami. While Crabtree has tried to tie together the various chapters under the overarching themes of crony capitalism and inequality, they often read as individual stories not necessarily linked with the book’s core argument.

There is a Great Gatsby-like feel to the narrative when Crabtree describes the lives of the rich and powerful. Vivid descriptions of Antilia’s crystal chandeliers, Mallya’s golden bathroom in his London mansion, and Janardhana Reddy’s wedding invitation box with TV screens reveal Crabtree’s eye for detail. Beyond the narratives of bling, he adroitly tackles more weighty debates around the byzantine relationship between politics and business. One of the most insightful chapters of the book is called ‘House of Debt’, which brilliantly captures the “bad loan” problem faced by Indian banks.

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age James Crabtree HarperCollins India Non-fiction ₹799



As the book seems to be primarily written for a western audience, Indian readers might find parts of it banal. While Crabtree is not guilty of essentialising India, sometimes the gaze of a western reporter comes through. For instance, he makes multiple references to the Wikileaks cables sent by US diplomats , which revealed mostly their perceptions of Indian politics and nothing factually relevant. The book often uses the narrow prism of corruption to look at complex multi-dimensional political issues. Hence, the conundrum of southern states performing better than the northern ones is analysed purely from the perspective of the different forms of corruption prevailing in these regions without considering other policy factors that may explain the divergence.

However, Crabtree needs to be particularly appreciated for being non-judgmental and sensitive in describing characters with questionable morality. It is measured and balanced in its take on ongoing political debates, especially Modi. While some would have liked the author to take clearer positions, a dispassionate approach is most welcome at a time when political commentary has become increasingly polarised and predictable. Though the core arguments are not particularly novel, The Billionaire Raj is a compelling read as it sheds light on the murky machinations driving India’s growth story.

Mathew Idiculla is a research consultant with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru

Published on August 17, 2018

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