Book review: The Billionaire Raj
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Book review: The Billionaire Raj

India's so-called bollygarchs take as much advantage of the nation as did the previous ruling classes.

I once introduced an Indian billionaire to Tim Tams. I have admired the indoor swimming pool of another billionaire, complimented a third on the comfortable sofa on his private jet, and inspected another's distinctly lavish office. On another occasion, I rescued a billionaire from a bear hug. When I admired a Persian carpet in a friend's office, he dryly noted "it should be good; after all, I am now a billionaire". One evening, I wandered down to a reception in the retreat of yet another billionaire, bemused by the Swarovski crystal inlaid in the stair rail. The best of all my billionaire acquaintances was exemplary in his gentle courtesy and meticulous punctuality.

I mention those random anecdotes to demonstrate a nodding familiarity with the subjects of James Crabtree's excellent book about modern India, The Billionaire Raj. Let me confess one more connection. I talked regularly to Crabtree during three of his years as the Financial Times' correspondent in Mumbai. Crabtree's premise is that an oligarchy – the billionaire raj or bollygarchs – has established itself as a logical, linear successor to the raj itself (direct British rule) and the licence raj that followed independence.

Where the British raj was an excuse for wholesale looting and exploitation lasting two centuries, the "perverse edicts and myriad regulations" of India's own licence raj exemplified how corruption, bureaucracy, inertia and ill will can stymie development. Under the licence raj, one genteel lady complained about not being able to procure necessities, let alone luxuries or fripperies, or to navigate through a maze of forms, regulations, restrictions and ill will. Her companion at cards responded by suggesting a then-classic remedy: "surely, my dear, surely you have your own smuggler".

The billionaire raj treads over the ruins of the previous two. The rich exert less raw power, even if India's 100 or so billionaires owned more than $US479 billion in assets last year. India's economy is too large and too diverse to be run by or for billionaires. Nonetheless, the most wealthy Indians do wield considerable influence, leverage and sway in what Marxist-schooled planners under the licence raj would have called the commanding heights of the economy.

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Many of these magnates, moguls, titans – or, to use India's own euphemism, "promoters" – have profited from the first liberalisation of India's economy (in 1991), from a decade of growth as the century turned, shrewd investments in resources, telecoms or logistics, and from government decisions. Crabtree explains deftly how their ambitions swelled and tactics evolved to underpin their wealth. His case studies and pen portraits bring to life creative accounting as well as clever stratagems, bad debts and bold plans, cutting-edge initiatives at the top juxtaposed with poorly paid, inadequately skilled, unprotected workers at the bottom.

Antilia, the Mumbai home of India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani. The property is valued at over $US1 billion and has more than 600 staff to maintain it.

Antilia, the Mumbai home of India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani. The property is valued at over $US1 billion and has more than 600 staff to maintain it.

Mumbai permits only two evident curbs on billionaires' public behaviour. Even the super-rich are not permitted to drive in cars with tinted windows or fly helicopters on to the roofs of their apartment blocks. One more constraint is a product of circumstance. Mumbai abounds in jarring contrasts, few more comic than watching a rich driver take his Porsche out for a spin, unable to shift above second gear in traffic jams, scared of scratches, inured to abuse, but looking disconcertingly like someone with more money than sense.

Crabtree eschews the silliest temptation in writing about the Indian economy, the one Chinese theorists might call straight-line'ism. Straight line'ism would claim that India's demographic dividend, its huge workforce, its advantages in labour costs and economies of scale, all should guarantee continued growth. Straight line'ists might pay less attention to drags like an unfair tax system, delays in the justice system, rigid labour laws or the sheer numbers seeking jobs.

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In theory, there is no compelling reason why India might not trundle along at something approaching 7 per cent growth each year, lifting many people (but not all) out of poverty, creating lots (if not enough) jobs in the formal sector, trading more with the world (albeit on India's idiosyncratic terms). There is, however, nothing inevitable about such growth, nothing inexorable about India's development, nothing innate that would transform India into an economic motor like China. Straight line'ism leads into dead-ends, into a relationship with India comprised of first dates and false dawns.

After all, to be included among the richest 1 per cent of Indians requires assets of only $US32,892 (2016). Crabtree recalls the sad but true tale (also from 2016) of what happened when a job for a delivery boy in Uttar Pradesh, paying $US240 a month, was advertised. Over two million Indians applied. Coming back to Mumbai, the city absorbs 1250 new families a day, or 20,000 internal migrants each week, or a million every year. That is the same number of unsolicited newcomers that caused Europe to panic and implode a couple of years ago. What city anywhere could provide housing (other than a blue tarpaulin), a clinic, a tap, a teacher or a decent job for an influx like that? In segments of Mumbai's slums, the state is effectively absent.

Resignation and defeatism are not the answer. I asked Crabtree about possible limits on the power of the billionaire raj. His response emphasised: competition policy; developments in media; expansion of a middle class demanding more public goods and transparent governance; political funding reforms; a larger welfare State. Crabtree underlined that no single, simple, silver bullet exists. I agree, while wondering about the time frame, the odds for synchronised movement and possible hiccups with the five changes he outlined. I am also persuaded that addressing chronic inequality in India will mean, sooner or later, trying to modify the caste system to engender not just growth but a meritocracy, too. Not one of my Indian friends, however much they lament the iniquities of caste, believes that abolition is a feasible objective within this lifetime.

Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.

The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India's New Gilded Age, by James Crabtree, is published by Oneworld (July 2018).