“With great power comes great responsibility” goes the proverb. Some see it as a responsibility to help the society, while some see it as an opportunity to help themselves and their brethren. The Billionaire Raj, written by James Crabtree during his time in Mumbai as a Financial Times correspondent, is a gripping read about the lives of the super rich of India and their journey to becoming the oligarchs they are today, or were until they got caught. By definition, an oligarch is a very wealthy or powerful businessman, and befitting the theme of the book that talks about the synergies presented by business and politics, the author has written about Mukesh Ambani, Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Naveen Jindal, Arnab Goswami, Jayalalitha, Gautam Adani and Narendra Modi to name a few. He is not a critic of the rich, but perhaps equally surprised like us, with the way the rich and the powerful function as he follows them along with intimate details otherwise inaccessible to public. As a foreigner, the fact that the author was able to get so up and close to most of these people and present a subtle unbiased expose is an achievement in itself.
The book starts with the suspenseful mention of a car accident involving one of the world’s most expensive supercars and one of its kind in Mumbai, Aston Martin Rapide, in the wee hours of the night followed by a quick transfer of the driver by security men to an SUV. The eyewitnesses, the driver of the Audi hit by the Aston Martin, CCTV cameras, nobody surprisingly seem to have noticed the driver, and the police and press also didn’t think it worth their attention. Rumor had it, the driver of the Aston Martin was Mukesh Ambani’s son, but the news died in no time and nobody saw that car again. What follows is a deep dive into his empire, the controversial Antilia and a description of the gaudy expenses as the book opens up to a chapter about Mukesh Ambani. In a similar fashion, the author takes us with him inside the homes, jets and boardrooms of various business tycoons and veterans of media and politics as he interviews them and gives a glimpse of how they became who they were combined with intriguing research.
“Too many businesses were accumulating wealth because of their ability to manage the government rather than manage innovation.”
The book talks about the extreme wealth disparity that exists in India, and insinuates the lack of conscience of the ultra rich as they bend rules along their way and the politics that enables it. What happened far below the tinted windows of glass towers to the common man seems something far-fetched. It succinctly captures how sometimes corruption has been actually used for public benefit, while at other times only the benefit of the select few were in the picture. The insane popularity of Jayalalitha as she became a godmother to a whole state, the ‘Branson of Bangalore’ who felt he was unfairly targeted in a system full of others with massive loans, the golden dust left behind by the IPL that left a bad taste in the mouth of cricket lovers, the ‘Andhrapreneurs’ who got into politics so they could help their businesses, the internal politics that Raghuram Rajan stirred as Governer that eventually led to his forced resignation, and which is something he openly remains bitter about but in a cryptic manner if you happen to listen to his interviews, these are just some of the topics among many others that have been discussed with some great research done by the author. You would already know about most of the issues and events that have been talked about if you follow news, but you most likely won’t know about them from the point of view of these personalities, which is the focus of the book.
“Unable to rely on India’s ramshackle infrastructure, he (Adani) built his own private railways and power lines. Lacking easy access to domestic coal, he bought mines in Indonesia and Australia, and took their contents back home through his port. In the process he built ‘a vertically integrated global supply chain reminiscent of when Henry Ford once owned Brazilian rubber plantations to supply his car factories.”
The book is an ambitious attempt and a fascinating read for anyone interested in knowing more about the nepotism, lobbying and personage prevalent at the upper levels of policy and deal making in India and how that has created the ultra rich of today. There are understandable gaps because there’s only as much a book can cover. It drags a bit at a few places when trying to provide too many facts and comparisons around certain events, but is a worthwhile read nevertheless. At its core, the book is about corruption and highlights the collusion between tycoons and politicians as he noted how an industrialist “hosted a giant victory party, ferrying guests around the grounds of his mansion in a fleet of white Mercedes saloons.” when his patron won the state election. Overall, this book will be enjoyed by anyone curious about the vivid Modern India and with the level of research it is in the same basket as Milan Vaishnav’s ‘When Crime Pays‘, which focused on the nexus of politics and criminals.