Top positive review
A critique on Indian capitalism
13 August 2018
I ordered the Kindle version of James Crabtree's first book, "The Billionaire Raj: A Journey through India's New Gilded Age" as soon as it was launched. I had come to know of it through a tweet by a journalist who was happily endorsing Mr. Crabtree's account of his time as the Mumbai bureau chief of The Financial Times. I have never really read the newspaper apart from a few articles here and there that had piqued my interest but had always known about the reputation. For someone having a middle-class existence in Mumbai (actually, Navi Mumbai), the title itself was engaging enough to trigger my urge to lay my hands on the book.
I will first jump to my verdict. It is a truly fantastic take on India's current economic and political standing that has been weaved together by government policy (and at times the lack of it), widespread poverty, booming middle-class wealth and the towering presence of its billionaire industrialists. It is the last part that the author puts his focus most on.
The Billionaire Raj begins on a very interesting note with a narrative on the curious case of the Aston Martin and its alleged link to Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries Ltd. With this, Mr. Crabtree skillfully lets the ball rolling by throwing some light on a subject which most of the media houses in India were reluctant (or even petrified) to report adequately. The book then goes on to give a rather blunt portrayal of the towering opulence that is Antillia, the billion-dollar residence of Ambani.
Mr. Crabtree then turns his focus on the other two media favourites among the Indian billionaires over the past few years - Vijay Mallya and Gautam Adani. Though he does not explicitly state that all these barons clearly won favours from the governments of the day, the sense always prevails that cronyism has helped sustain plenty of businesses and even empires in India.
There is a lot of space dedicated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well and how he came to power promising economic reforms to a country that faced a drought of them in the years before and how he actually has not managed to deliver and instead pandered to taking populist decisions. Though the book clearly gives respect to Modi as the head of a state, it is largely critical of him, and fans of Modi will take umbrage. However, it is to be mentioned that it notes that he has kept a tight fence around the corridors of power to keep out lobbyists who earlier had the rights to loiter around. It also tries to paint a slightly sympathetic picture of him in that he arrived in New Delhi in a stark departure from his earlier pursuits of a religious zealot and with genuine intentions of ushering in much-needed economic reforms. Mr. Crabtree, at the same time, minces no words by saying that Modi has failed to rein in some of his partymen who are openly communal and comes down hard on him for having installed Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
It is this seemingly balanced take on matters that makes The Billionaire Raj a delightful read. From one perspective, it is undoubtedly critical of India's state of affairs. From another, it is sympathetic. It ends with a well-wishing note to all Indians who continue to aspire to better lives regardless of their current economic state.
I did feel that there was a couple of gaps, albeit excusable ones for sure. The chapter on Arnab Goswami and his theatrics looked slightly disconnected from the main premise but it in itself is an engrossing read, much like the rest of the book. There was an editorial oversight as well - in one of the chapters Rahul Gandhi is referred to as the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru when actually, he is his great-grandson.
Mr. James Crabtree has wonderfully brought out the account of his journalistic pursuits and assiduous observations during his time in India and the result is one of the best books of the year you can read. And I sincerely hope that he will churn out more such products of his gifted analytical mind.