.Author of ‘The Billionaire Raj’ at Books Inc.

Business journalist James Crabtree details the lives of India's elite

James Crabtree will discuss his new book, ‘The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age,’ at Books Inc. Photo by Charmaine Wu

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age begins with a car crash. Someone related to India’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, smashes up a $700,000 Aston Martin; no one’s held accountable. At the time, author James Crabtree was Mumbai bureau chief for The Financial Times, a job that led him to write his new book, which explores the shadowy billionaires and crooked power brokers who have driven India’s growth over the last few decades.

Since The Billionaire Raj is essentially a business book, we get doses of statistics, analytics, Forbes lists and all the things that seem to fascinate business writers. But these data points never bog down the story. In Crabtree’s attempt at evenhandedness, he speaks with sycophantic admirers of crony capitalism, those who think mass corruption is justifiable if economic growth is vast enough, yet he also tracks down numerous journalists, activists and academics who’ve been muck-raking through the slime for years.

The first section of the book, aptly titled “Robber Barons,” introduces us to business magnates hell-bent on becoming the Vanderbilts or Rockefellers of India. We meet the reclusive Ambani and the $2 billion, 27-story residential skyscraper he built for his family. In Mumbai, a city where half of the 18 million residents live in slums, Ambani’s residence includes a few gyms, a yoga studio, a soccer pitch, a basketball court and six stories of parking to house the family’s car collection. Upon construction, its energy bill tipped the scales at $100,000 a month. The building, writes Crabtree, “hinted at an existence that was part burlesque fantasy, part oligarch mansion, part Bond villain lair: a city within a city, and a barrier against the chaos below.”

We also briefly meet Vijay Mallya, the fallen billionaire, the wannabe “Branson of Bangalore,” a failed beer and airline tycoon now exiled in the UK and buried in debt, facing fraud charges if he ever returns to India. When talking to Crabtree, he complains that he can no longer watch the Monaco Grand Prix from his yacht every year.

There’s also Gautam Adami, the self-made industrialist, the “Quiet Tycoon” who built the largest private port on India’s west coast, as well as his own railways and power lines. Adami is a perpetual crony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi going back to the latter’s days as an aspiring autocrat in Gujarat.

In a wonderful way, The Billionaire Raj functions like the logical flipside of masterpieces like Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, in which Suketu Mehta painted a rich, evocative, multisensory pastiche of Bombay’s underbelly—including the ganglords and the real estate graft, plus the violence, poverty, prostitution, bribery and crooked cops—or even a book like Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, in which William Dalrymple investigated extreme fringes of religious practice in nine specific cases. The Billionaire Raj is the shiny business-writer yin to the dark yang of those other books. And to Crabtree’s credit even more, he does mention books like The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, both of which are dark portrayals of class struggles that underpin the booms and busts Crabtree lucidly documents.

What emerges most candidly in The Billionaire Raj is that corruption and “pay for access” politics are simply part of the fabric of Indian society. In a fantastic chapter called, “Cronyism Goes South,” we learn about Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the autocratic and reclusive politician in the southern area of Tamil Nadu, who, before her death, was a cult figure plastered on billboards for decades. Later, we get to meet Arnab Goswami, the hyperbolic TV newscaster with ambitions to create a global Indian competitor to CNN and Al-Jazeera. In each case, cronyism reigns free.

Nevertheless, India is still the world’s largest remaining emerging market with much untapped potential, leaving Crabtree optimistic. The country shouldn’t morph into a tyrannical oligarchy like Russia, he writes. It should welcome its own equivalent of America’s progressive era, during which the Gilded Age of tycoons eventually gave way to antitrust laws, competition policies, mass investment in public services, and eventually the New Deal.

James Crabtree
Jul 17, 7pm, Free
Books Inc., Mountain View

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


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