James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj reads as equal parts exposé, profile of the ultra-wealthy, and author’s journey. Crabtree examines the question of how so many Indians have reached the highest ranks of the Forbes’ billionaire list in the last ten years. Looking sharply at India’s history since independence, the author points directly at cronyism in the forms of favors for land, natural resources, and government contracts as significant causes. These favors led directly to the boom on the mid 2000s, which Crabtree compares to the The Gilded Age of the United States. The overarcing inquest in The Billionaire Raj is whether the accumulation of wealth for so very few will or will not beget an economic boost for the hundreds of millions of poor in the country.
The Billionaire’s Raj is broken up into three parts, focusing on the players, the politics and the times (essentially 2005 to the present). Crabrtree uses several examples of the leaders of industry to illustrate his thesis: including power, communications, liquor, electronics, to name a few. He delves into complex questions about the roles politics, regulation, capital, corruption, and individual grit played in the prosperity. I particularly like his explanation of the fixers, the people who who perform the litany of graft and favors that grease the wheels of the economy.
The writer takes a very healthy approach to his subject, one filled with optimism and objectivity. His research is thorough and well-quoted, and many times includes himself as a part of the writing process. One of the best allusions was to the TV show The Sopranos, which illustrated how ‘gifts’ and the use of fixers permeated most every deal. The familial, spiritual, and financial backgrounds and the ascents of the key players was fascinating.
Crabtree’s best writing is in his vast profile of controversial leader Narendra Modi which is woven throughout many of the sections.I read this book over several days in twenty to thirty minute snatches of time; the depth and density of the writing necessitated many breaks. I felt like at times Crabtree had a hard time balancing between the narratives and the nuts and bolts of the economics. And it was hard to tell if it was best to organize the book thematically (as it is) or chronologically.
Overall, I came away from reading The Billionaire Raj with a firm grasp of the aspects of the causes and effects of the severe wealth gap that exists in India. His thoughtful conclusion looks at possible ways India and the world may react to these global inequalities. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in contemporary Indian history and/ or global economics.
4 out of 5 stars.
Releases on July 3th, 2018.
Thank you to NetGalley, Crown Publishing, Tim Duggan Books, and James Crabtree for the advanced copy for review.