The Billionaire Raj

This is book review of The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree published in India by HarperCollins in 2018

In his latest book, Of counsel, Ex-CEA Arvind Subramanian referred to The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree while making a point on crony capitalism. The opinion from an outsider who has spent considerable time in India provides a very different and refreshing perspective than Indian intellectuals or outsiders with limited first hand experience about India. James Crabtree has spent five years between 2011 to 2016 in India as Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times. Going by his accounts, he seems to have travelled across India (Mumbai to dusty rural UP) and met cross-section of peoples (Tycoons to Politicians). He lived in India during interesting 5 years and put in lot of efforts to understand the complexities of such a vast and diverse country, which even us Indians don’t comprehend enough.

The central theme of the book is crony capitalism i.e. rise of Indian tycoon and the nexus between them and politicians to corner inappropriate share of wealth of the nation. It has 12 chapters structured in 3 parts taking reader on a journey from Mumbai high-rise (to showcase wealth of the few) to Indian States like UP, Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh (to establish nexus) and finally trying to make a sense of all of this in a new India which wants to be counted among US and China. The chapters and parts are well connected for readers to not get lost while author is taking them through the maze of politics, business, media, sports etc. The book tries to be as relevant for Indian reader as for outsider and therefore goes back and forth to establish links and historical perspective, though last few chapters divert from central theme. The chapters start with setting the context in dramatic way, language is fluid and keeps reader engaged. He met some of the key influencers in Politics, Business, Media, Sports and Intellectuals. Each topic covered has some of these characters playing up the main lead like in a Bollywood movie and his style of presenting them also has similar masala flavour which only an outsider like him with audacity can do (Checkout his description of Mukesh Ambani when he first met him – in his mid-fifties, he was shorter and chubbier then I expected with dark black hair swept back with oil). The openness and frankness appears all over the book which make these lead characters more human than Indians are used too.

He explains the book title, essentially India’s shift from British Raj to License Raj and to post 1991, which he termed as Billionaire Raj. But book is not restricted to these wealthy tycoons and how they built their empire by hoarding resources with help from politicians and bureaucrats but in the process walks his reader through India’s transformation, eco-socio-politico, since Independence. The book looks at India from multiple angle; right, left and centre. Unlike others who are either too optimistic or pessimistic on India, past or future, his is a balance narrative. While he agree to India’s potential but mentions all the headwinds which could stop it realising these potential. He acknowledge the steps taken to streamline many ills but list all where no action is taken.

Anyone who is interested to go through a quick flashback on India particularly between 2011-2016, this is a good book to flip through. James is currently in Singapore, not far from Indian shore and we should be looking forward to his follow-up story.