Book Excerpt: Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree


Title: The Billionaire Raj

Author: James Crabtree

Publisher: Oneworld

Year of publication: 2018




At the port, the facility’s amiable chief executive, Captain Unmesh Abhyankar, talked excitedly about the mechanics of the place: a world of berth occupancy, throughput rates and turnaround times. Mundra had an unusually deep harbour, allowing it to attract some of the world’s biggest cargo ships, he explained, giving it an edge over rivals elsewhere along India’s western coast. ‘We focus on the three Cs: coal, containers and crude,’ he said of the cargoes the ships brought in. Exports were more of a mish-mash, including everything from bauxite and cars to iron ore and wood. India’s dilapidated road network made it hard to move this in and out, so industrialist Gautam Adani built a 60-kilometre private freight line to the main rail network. Most Indian ports were state owned and inefficient, taking a couple of days or more to unload a ship. At Mundra, however, cargo was mostly whisked in and out over a morning. Abhyankar expected his facility to become the country’s largest port later that year, handling 100 million tonnes of goods, the first in India ever to do so.

Even at dusk the giant container cranes were easy to spot from the window, as our plane took off that evening and flew us back to Ahmedabad, ready to meet Adani the next day. The day’s last light glinted on the grey of the Gulf of Kutch in the distance. A few years earlier a team of oceanographers had found an ancient stone anchor lying 50 metres below the waves, of a type used by merchants more than a millennium before. For centuries, those same waters had been India’s trading artery, bringing wooden dhows and then steamships across from Africa and the Middle East. Through such trade and commerce, India had been an early pioneer of globalisation, at least until Nehru launched his new age of self-enclosure in the aftermath of Independence in 1947.

Now the ships docking at Mundra harked back to those earlier eras, from the ninth-century Chola dynasty, which forged ties from Babylon to China, to the Emperor Babur in the early sixteenth century, whose Mughal dynasty traded on favourable terms with the Portuguese, Dutch and British. India’s record in colonial times was less impressive, as centuries of exploitation left its economy barely larger in the mid-twentieth century than it had been when the East India Company first seized territory in the 1600s. Yet even then India remained closely tied to the world economy and played a sizeable role in global events. The Indian army supplied millions of men for Allied efforts in both world wars, fighting across Africa and Europe. Holding only a blue British-Indian passport, Indians were free to travel throughout the empire, as Gandhi did when he studied in London then practised law in South Africa. Chants from Gujarati temples still spill out onto the streets of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in eastern Africa, while the strains of the Gujarati language can be overheard in the school yards of Leicester and Edison, New Jersey. In America, roughly a third of all motels are owned by families of Gujarati descent. Drawn outwards by commerce, ‘Gujjus’ became India’s consummate globalists. In novels and Bollywood movies, they are portrayed as traders and wheeler-dealers, a reputation that extended most obviously to Adani himself.

So rapid had Adani’s rise been, and so large did his holdings become, that he eventually attracted the attention of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a veteran journalist who made it his business to pore over the dealings of India’s more controversial business empires. Guha Thakurta made his name taking on the Ambani brothers in a controversial 2014 book called Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, which detailed the fierce disputes between the two men’s respective energy businesses following their 2005 fallout. In the book he laid out various allegations of cronyism, which both Ambani brothers denied, and which Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries countered with an unsuccessful defamation suit. Undeterred, Guha Thakurta turned next to Adani, a man who was viewed by many in India as the purest inheritor of the industrial spirit of the Ambani family. For all Adani’s undoubted talents in business, Guha Thakurta questioned whether it was in part his political connections, rather than just his entrepreneurial abilities, that explained the secret behind the tycoon’s rapid entry into the upper echelons of the super-rich.

‘His is a truly remarkable story,’ Guha Thakurta told me a few years after my visit to Mundra. We were sitting drinking tea in his higgledy-piggledy office on the upper floor of a colonial-era home in one of the nicer neighbourhoods in central New Delhi. Guha Thakurta himself looked every inch the agitator, with wild curly hair and the well-worn clothes of an elderly academic. At the time he was editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, a storied but generally little-read journal of the Indian left, whose weekly editions were printed on cheap paper and filled with dense argumentation. But while his publication’s prose could be heavy going, Guha Thakurta in person talked with great animation, galloping through sentences as he explained the scale of Adani’s achievements and the various ways in which he had pushed his way towards to the top of India’s billionaire class. 

After building Mundra, Guha Thakurta explained, Adani went on to buy or build half a dozen other ports around India, making him the country’s largest port owner. He was the largest private electricity producer too, even though he had opened his first coal-fired power station less than ten years before. He was also getting big in solar, having unveiled the world’s largest plant in Tamil Nadu in southern India. Even further south, in Australia, close to the Great Barrier Reef, Adani was midway through building a controversial mining and shipping complex, whose vast scale attracted the ire of global environmental groups. Adani’s dozens of other corporate entities variously built office parks, traded diamonds and imported oils made from soybeans, sunflowers, mustard and rice. ‘He even dominates in fruit!’ Guha Thakurta said with a final flourish, noting that one Adani company was India’s largest supplier of apples. ‘More than almost any billionaire in India, his has been a meteoric rise,’ Guha Thakurta told me. ‘The question is: just how did he do all this?’ And behind that question lay a deeper issue: just how had India’s billionaire boom come about in the first place? 

About the book:

India’s explosive rise has driven inequality to new extremes, with millions trapped in slums as billionaires spend lavishly and dodge taxes. Controversial prime minister Narendra Modi promised ‘to break the grip’ of the Bollygarchs, but many tycoons continue to thrive amidst the scandals, exerting huge influence over business and politics.

But who are these titans of politics and industry shaping India through this period of breakneck change? And what kind of superpower are they creating?

A vivid portrait of a deeply divided nation, makes clear that India’s destiny – prosperous democratic giant or corrupt authoritarian regime – is something that should concern us all.

About the author:

James Crabtree spent five years in India as Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times. He is now an associate professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. He has written for Wired, Foreign Policy, and The Economist, among other publications.


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