The Billionaire Raj: Cricket to elections, how money has changed everything

James Crabtree’s publishers have packaged this as a book about India’s billionaires and, indeed, most Western reviewers have echoed that characterisation. But Crabtree’s book is really about much more than billionaires. It is, in effect, an account of the five years he spent in India as Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times till 2016. Crabtree retells many of the stories he covered during those years and tries to draw some broad conclusions from the events he covers. 

It would have been easier to just do a book on India’s billionaires. Crabtree has met some of them, is skilled at profiling individuals and his portraits not only bring the men alive but are also full of telling phrases. So Subhash Chandra looks “ever so slightly, like a Bond villain”. Subrata Roy is “slim with boot-polish-black hair”. Ponty Chadha had a “sizeable paunch and a taste for rich men’s clothing”. Vijay Mallya’s private plane “whisked him between parties and business meetings, a distinction that, in any case, was hazy to all involved”.

But the billionaires take up less than a fifth of this book. Most of it is about the India of seven years ago and while some billionaires do crop up in the stories that Crabtree tells — Lalit Modi and N Srinivasan are the stars of the cricket chapter — but he uses them only to advance his story, choosing not to focus too much on their own lives. 

Some of Crabtree’s stories are fascinating. In the cricket chapter, for instance, he captures the essence of the Indian Premier League, suggesting that it had little to do with cricket (“it was never exactly clear that Lalit Modi liked cricket”) and was patterned more clearly on WWE-style, televised American professional wrestling. (Or “sports entertainment,” as Vince McMahon, the Lalit Modi of the WWE, calls it.)

Crabtree is as good on the rise and death of Jayalalithaa, observing perceptively how she transformed her image, “abandoning the starlet of her youth and fashioning in its place a public persona that was at once matronly and menacing”. 

There are a few heroes in the book: Vinod Rai, who is portrayed as a scam-busting do-gooder; Raghuram Rajan, who does his best to clean up the banking system before being booted out; and Jayant Sinha, who tries to help break the hold of crony-capitalists before he too is removed — in his case, from the finance ministry to a portfolio where he would be less influential.

Nor is Crabtree unduly judgmental. Arnab Goswami is treated with fairness and empathy though Crabtree left India before he could record the spectacular success of Republic. And he refuses to take sides in the battle of ideas between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Consequently, both seem to have liked the book and have provided flattering blurbs. Bhagwati’s “bound to become a classic” appears on the front cover while, on the back cover, Amartya Sen describes the book as “an enlightening and engaging story of wealth and poverty in India”. 

Crabtree’s  aim, as Sen’s blurb suggests, is to capture the contrast between the wealth of the billionaires and the state of India. Today, the richest one per cent of Indians own 58 per cent of all wealth, up from 39 per cent at the start of the decade. The bottom 50 per cent of Indians, on the other hand, own just four per cent of all wealth. 

You don’t have to be Amartya Sen to recognise that the growing inequality is a problem. Research shows us that unequal countries  grow more slowly, are more prone to financial instability and have difficulty creating the broad social agreement needed for reforms to work. 

One view of India’s development is that while the first wave of billionaires tended to be people who made their money honestly and through talent (say, the Infosys founders), the second wave consisted largely of the old bania business class. It had been temporarily shaken up by liberalisation, but it returned to form and resumed managing politicians. 

The Billionaire Raj; A Journey through India’s New Gilded Age; Author: James Crabtree, Publisher: HarperCollins, Pages: 384, Price: Rs 799
As the commentator  Ruchir Sharma has  pointed out, the so-called “bad” billionaires got rich by dealing in scarce government-controlled resources (minerals, spectrum and so on), by paying politicians off and by extracting loans from government-controlled banks. Nothing Crabtree writes detracts strongly from that characterisation though he does make the point that many of today’s billionaires (Gautam Adani, for instance) are self-made. Perhaps because Crabtree left in 2016, he has little to say about the newest billionaires: the guys who make their money from apps and e-commerce.

Most books of this kind have an overarching theme but perhaps India is too complex for a single theme to dominate a book that is full of so many disparate experiences. To the extent that there is a theme, it focusses on how money has changed nearly everything in India from cricket to elections and even wedding celebrations. 

A lesser theme is India’s failure to get better. The banks were not really cleaned up after the excess of lending in the United Progressive Alliance era. Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi continued to get loans. Rajan and Sinha were moved out. 

And even today, the choice for banks is not between careful lending and high-risk loans, as it should be. In India, the choice is between lending and not lending. Once their bad loans are exposed, bankers respond by not giving any big loans at all out of fear and industry is starved of credit.

And then, finally, there is the Modi factor. By the end of the book it is clear that Crabtree is concerned about the future. His last full chapter breaks with the book’s generally neutral and understated tone and is called “The Tragedy of Modi”. 

In Crabtree’s telling Modi has failed as a reformer. “Modi’s many initiatives have a habit of delivering much less than promised. Plans to reform the state have gone the same way..... The most dispiriting episodes have occurred when Modi had easy opportunities to push forward with development reforms and yet still opted not to.”

Eventually, Crabtree ends up discussing the now familiar comparisons with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

He regrets also that Modi “has consistently declined to speak up in defence of social tolerance….”

It is a shame that the book ends on an uncertain note. But then, those are the times we live in. No snapshot of India ever captures the full story because things change so quickly. To record the Indian reality you need a movie camera shooting in real time.