Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Billionaire Raj
Author: James Crabtree
Publisher: One World, 2018
Billionaire Raj by the former Financial Times Bureau chief in India, James Crabtree, is a journalistic assessment of not only how the British Raj in India has been replaced by entrepreneurs and politicians who work symbiotically to create a close nexus of exclusive crony capitalism but also gives an optimistic outlook for the future… with a few strings attached.
The book comes across as a series of clear well-researched articles strung together thematically in logical order. From British Raj, India moved to ‘License Raj’, where a license was needed to start any venture. Once that was lifted, the age of billionaires sets in. He has compared this period to the Gilded Age of American history, an era in the nineteenth century of robber barons and rich bankers, just after the American Civil War.
Crabtree plunges in with stories of people he calls ‘Bollygarchs’, a new term which has evolved to define billionaire-entrepreneurs with Russian oligarchic tendencies like, Vijaya Mallya, Ambani and Adnani and more. The best way to understand the Bollygarchs is perhaps to imagine the flashy Bollywood culture (like that seen in the Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) brought to life.
A spoof by the much talented stand-up comedian and writer Anuvab Pal summarises what has been elucidated in a number of chapters of John Crabtree’s book. Probably only after reading of the Bollygarchs in Crabtree’s book, can one fully appreciate the spoof on the inheritors of the Raj syndrome. Pal writes that he interviewed Crabtree to understand the term Bollygarchs and this is what he came up with: “Me: So, are Indian billionaires nice people? James Crabtree: Regrettably, yes, they are a bunch of charming rogues. Me: When defaulting on public sector loans, why do billionaires flee when in 2018, one can easily be found? JC: Billionaires, as much as the rest of us, are followers of fashion. When one of them has a ridiculous yacht or prominent residential skyscraper, the others think, ‘Well, what about me?’ Me: What suggestions do you have for people reading this article on how to become a billionaire? JC: In India, the answer is probably to go into politics, isn’t it?”
And some of them have ventured into politics like tycoon Rajeev Chandrashekhar and actress Jayalalitha, the former star of the silver screen from the southern part of India, who has almost a whole chapter dedicated to her. Cricket scams, business scandals and the changing face of media have been explored. Arnab Goswami, the trendsetter in Indian media whose catch phrase “the nation wants to know” is not just the title of the chapter that is almost hogged by him but the phrase also became the bone of contention between him and his former employers, the Jains of the Bennet and Coleman group. That Goswami torched the ‘breaking news’ syndrome into existence under the auspices of the Bennett and Coleman group, a trick that has been picked up by majority of the news channels in India, was an eye- opener.
It was interesting to learn in this chapter that some media moguls in India believe advertising is more important than news. Crabtree writes: “Vineet Jain, one of the brothers who own both Times Now (where Goswami got his break) and The Times of India, displayed a relaxed attitude to editorial standards. ‘We are not in the newspaper business,’ he once told the New Yorker. ‘If ninety per cent of your revenues come from advertising, you are in the advertising business.’”
A chapter called ‘The Tragedies of Modi’ defines the issues faced by the Prime minister and his reaction to it. He shows through his reportage that Modi rose to power due to a vacuum in leadership; chose to remain silent about “social tolerance that, in the long run at least, ought to have provided the surest footing for his own stated economic objectives” and that he could not fully deliver what he promised in his election campaign. Crabtree uses conversations, like that with socially liberal author and businessman Gurcharan Das and discussions with the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, and more to elucidate the situation.
The issues addressed are not just of poverty, wealth and corruption but of larger economic movements. He quotes Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: “‘There is something a little deceptive about being focussed on the very rich,’ I was once told by Amartya Sen. ‘Having lots of rich people is not always a big problem so long as they get no special favours and pay taxes.'” Crabtree continues: “The problem is that these increases in wealth have turned India into one of the world’s least equal countries. Without action, this gap between rich and poor…is only likely to widen. Perversely, the closer India comes to its ambition of a near-double digit growth, the faster this will happen.”
Crabtree states that such a situation cannot be blamed on Modi, “though he has done little to reverse them”. The fear is that India will fall into the middle-income trap like Latin American countries, “in which poorer nations achieve moderate prosperity but fail to become rich. The more successful countries of South-East Asia, by contrast, grew prosperous while managing to stay broadly egalitarian, partly by building basic social safety nets.”
Crabtree has extensively interviewed and based his book on the perceptions of noted economists, politicians, entrepreneurs and even common men from slums and streets! It is a well-researched coherent and honest book. Kirkus Review has labelled Billionaire Raj as “Solid reading for students of economic development and global economics.”
As a lay reader, I feel it has more. It has led me through a journey that explains the changes in India in the first two decades of this millennium. Crabtree has created a link between the intelligentsia and the lay reader with his fluid writing and interesting storytelling about what goes on beyond closed doors. In his conclusion, he has offered a solution that gives hope, despite the review of the New York Times that states: “Although there may be cause for such optimism, I could not find it in the pages of The Billionaire Raj. Only 30 years ago, the economies of China and India were roughly the same size. China’s economy is now almost five times as large, and at India’s current growth rate, it would take decades for India to reach China’s current size.”
Crabtree, on the other hand, concludes with a note of optimism: “India’s new Gilded Age can blossom into a Progressive Era (late 1890s America, the stage following the Gilded Age in history) of its own, in which the perils of inequality and crony capitalism are left decisively behind. India’s ambition to lead the second half of the Asian century — and the world’s hopes for a more democratic, liberal future — depend on getting this transition right.”
Now the ball is in India’s court.
Perhaps, in his next book, Crabtree will elucidate further on his optimistic outlook.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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