James Crabtree's The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age devotes the bulk of its length to the new cadre of super-rich that has arisen in India's newly resurgent economy, but it opens with an important point: India is still an intensely poor country. The average citizen earns less than $2,000 a year, and the low-end of what constitutes the richest one percent of the country is only around $33,000. The richest one percent of the country owns more than half the nation's wealth; it's a starker income disparity than virtually any other country on Earth.
As in most such cases, the income gap is braced and fueled by immense wide-scale graft, and readers at the outset of Crabtree's book are left with no illusions about the state of the economy underlying this new oligarchy of super-wealth. “There is every reason to believe that, without intervention, the gap between India's rich and the rest will keep widening,” Crabtree writes, pointing in every chapter to the symbiotic link between unregulated mega-wealth and rampant corruption. The balance between these two forces is the thematic balance of the entire book, and according to the author, it “lies at the heart of the struggles of India's industrial economy.”
In fast-paced evocative prose, Crabtree, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times, describes some of the foremost players in that continuous struggle at the heart of India's booming but troubled economy. For good or ill, the billionaires are the stars of this show – colorful, conflicted figures like “onetime billionaire brewer and airline magnate” Vijay Mallya, the self-dubbed “King of Good Times” who at his peak of power and infamy, “was ringmaster of his own circus: a bon vivant and hard drinker; a man of coteries and Gatsby-style parties and famously ill-disciplined timekeeping.” Mallya had been one of India's richest men, until forced into exile by corruption scandals.
Scandal dogs most of the figures Crabtree profiles in these pages. Controversial coal magnate Naveen Jindal, for instance was once the idol of the beau monde. At the peak of his popularity, as Crabtree writes, “Jindal quickly acquired an image that was part young Turk entrepreneur, part playboy: a snappy dresser, polo player, champion marksman, and for a time, the country's best-paid businessman.” Scandals likewise tarnished Jindal's time in the limelight; when Crabtree talks to him, he's a far more reflective figure, looking with wiser eyes on the institutional graft that plagues the country's growth.
“In India we have this idea that we come empty-handed, we go away empty-handed,” he says at one point. “These are challenging times.”
India's scams and corruptions follow similar patterns, as Crabtree points out a few times in this book, even though they each have their own unique DNA. The similar patterns add up to an emphatic and deeply engrossing portrait of corporate India. These men and women – right up to the head of state, graft-targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi – are so vividly dramatized that even readers with no prior knowledge of India's politics and business will feel not only well-informed but also swept along.
As Crabtree notes, there are major stakes involved in the story of India's rise. The country's current $2.3-trillion economy is smaller than that of Great Britain, but it's projected to surpass America's in size by mid-century and perhaps go on to surpass China's. This makes the fate of India's billionaire Raj important to the rest of the world, not just the people of India, and it makes dealing with systemic corruption all the more pressing.
"At its most basic level, graft is a function of growth, meaning that it will reemerge when the economy expands strongly,” Crabtree writes. “Without careful managing, spending on this scale will provide ample scope for grand corruption to return.” The careful managing he's advocating is to greatly strengthen the central government's regulatory oversight, drafting new and stronger anti-graft legislation designed to out-last Modi's administration.
This is a hopeful goal. And perhaps even more hopeful? The number of billionaires in Crabtree's book who earnestly seem to want a better world.
[Editor's note: This review originally misstated Vijay Mallya's relative degree of wealth.]