Bilal Qureshi is a writer and radio journalist. He lived in New Delhi from 2015 to 2017.
India is shining, rising, thriving and, finally, arriving. In the decades after its economic liberalization in 1991, the narrative of boundless Indian growth became a global mantra. From Davos panels to magazine covers, the technology- and services-fueled boom in the world’s largest democracy turned India into capitalism’s wildest frontier. In his new book, “The Billionaire Raj,” the Financial Times’ former Mumbai correspondent James Crabtree provides an unsettling portrait of India’s go-go 2000s. Across these pages, there are beachfront mansions, private yachts, imported supermodels and so many spectacular weddings. But instead of a raucous celebration of liberalization, Crabtree offers an exploration of the overnight ascent and dubious finances of India’s new billionaire class. Raising cantilevered skyscrapers over slums and building fortunes on graft and kickbacks, the executives profiled in the book operate with the unobstructed swagger of robber barons. Crabtree’s Indian story is a cautionary tale of globalization’s excesses and the consequences for one of the world’s most unequal societies.
“The Billionaire Raj” — referencing the word once used to describe India’s colonial masters — is also a portrait of a fragile democracy where the lines between politics and business have blurred to dangerous extremes. The India of today is led by a generation of “Bollygarchs” reveling in the pleasures and possibilities of rampant cronyism, financing campaigns, and even assuming political office. Crabtree’s tale opens with a chase scene straight out of the “Fast and Furious” films. An Aston Martin crashes and skids off one of South Mumbai’s busiest roadways, with its driver swept up by an accompanying motorcade and rushed behind the gates of Mumbai’s most iconic private residence, a skyscraper palace glittering above the slums below. The car at the center of the crash, worth far more than most Mumbaikars would accumulate over several lifetimes, disappears, and the identity of the driver is never resolved. Stories of scams, scandals and erased crimes follow. The Trump administration’s alleged excesses pale in comparison with the unchecked power of India’s new tycoons, enmeshed in and protected by layers of political and economic influence.
The foreign correspondent’s memoir of an adventurous, exotic posting has become a kind of publishing standard. Awed by the drama of modern India, Crabtree joins tycoons on private jets, attends lavish parties and is charmed by the eloquent elites at the forefront of South Asia’s gilded age. These chapters sometimes read a bit like repurposed articles and strung-together profiles. While Crabtree’s book occasionally suffers from abrupt shifts in focus, it offers an excellent survey of India’s economic and political transformation. In crisp language designed for a general reader, “The Billionaire Raj” provides an overview of just how India became the world’s most coveted market after its independence from British rule. Gandhi’s austere anti-colonial movement to shun materialism gave way to Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist, secular vision of a highly regulated market. The decades of stagnation and political crises that followed under Congress Party rule opened the doors to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a pro-business Hindu nationalist party that found a way to combine the electoral power of majoritarian populism with the mantra of red-tape-burning deregulation welcomed by the country’s business elite.
For the international reader, while the 2000s featured celebratory tomes on the possibility and promise of “India shining,” this past decade has inspired a darker library of the reality behind the gloss. Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Rana Dasgupta’s “Capital” and, in fiction, Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel “The White Tiger” reveal the more pernicious forces of greed at play. In some of Crabtree’s strongest reporting, he zooms in on the cultural dimension of that transformation, focusing on how capitalism and communalism were braided together to fuel Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic victory in 2014 over the establishment Congress Party.
To students of President Trump, the cult of personality and social media savvy employed by Modi’s supporters should seem familiar. Modi arrived in New Delhi with a promise to clean up the country’s rampant corruption, but as Crabtree writes, the results have been mixed at best. The cronyism, nepotism and excesses of India’s billionaire class have continued, with newer dynasties joining the ranks of this small and powerful elite. Weak state institutions, crumbling regulations and a highly adaptive strategy for circumventing laws have left many of the government’s chronic limitations in place, despite Modi’s soaring rhetoric. Instead of extending opportunities across classes, where the BJP has been more successful is in forming a “thick identity” of Hindu supremacy. Anti-Muslim violence and fervent nationalism have boomed under BJP rule and ensured political spoils in a society where religion remains a potent force.
In a book as ambitious as “The Billionaire Raj,” there are bound to be omissions. There is too little attention paid to caste, gender and the environmental degradation facing many of India’s teeming cities, and the narration is sometimes too narrowly confined to the chandelier-strewn ballrooms of the country’s new palaces.
Crabtree suggests that the only solution to the excesses of this gilded age rests in the promise of a progressive era. Despite his reservations about the BJP’s Hindu nationalist impulse, Crabtree remains cautiously optimistic for India’s future — with a demanding list of caveats: the strengthening of banking and financial regulations, an East Asian model of manufacturing-driven growth, and drastically needed investment in health care and education. Crabtree argues that with the passing of the current gilded age into a Roosevelt-style progressive era, India could take its rightful place in the story of great Asian transformations. Whether this is even remotely possible is dealt with in the classic journalistic exit strategy akin to the elusive “only time will tell.” But the author’s first-hand journey into the dizzying heights and distressing recesses of Indian capitalism is a worthy addition to modern India’s story. It is a coming of age more complex and uncertain than globalization’s loudest cheerleaders once suggested. For now, India’s current rulers, its native-born billionaire raj, look set to maintain their reign.
By James Crabtree
Tim Duggan. 408 pp. $28