Book Review — The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree

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Yesterday’s evening, I finished reading The Billionaire Raj — A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree. James worked as the Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times for the better part of the 2010s.

This pulsating book outlines the three major challenges the Indian nation is grappling with — inequality and the new super-rich, crony capitalism, and the travails of the industrial economy.

James reveals a large and complex country. India has over 1.3 billion people; more than the population of Africa of 54 countries. It has 82 thousand newspapers, nearly 900 TV channels, and spends $5 billion on its elections. It has over 2200 political parties. It has about 3,000 castes and a further 25,000 sub castes. It churns out 10 million people a year into the job market. How does one man govern such a country?

A quick fact: Alcohol advertising is banned in India.

As a Nigerian, on more than a few occasions I was confused reading this book. Some of the experiences sounded eerily similar.

The prestigious, corrupt and hugely bureaucratic civil service. A system where some 500,000 apply each year for about a thousand slots.

It reveals the flamboyant and corrupt businessmen who while responsible for the public-private partnerships which birthed the infrastructural changes seen in India today have managed to pile on unsustainable debts through creative accounting in which the public banks, the ones the government has refused to privatize, are ill-equipped to address. It’s a case of the rich taking from the public purse and refusing to return while enriching themselves. A few cases of convictions and asset seizures, but relinquishing control of their badly managed organizations, the regulators have not been able to get them to do.

It reveals political leaders who have turned divisions into political strength. India’s public services are threadbare. Social welfare programmes meant to help the poor work badly. State schools and hospitals are typically dismal, while the state failed to provide basic services like running water and reliable power. This is where the crooked but savvy politician fits in. While the poor do not have the money to ‘purchase’ public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. In return the politician developed systems of patronage, helping constituents to find government jobs or receive welfare payments, or simply handing out cash. And to get the money to do this, as well as to fund election campaigns, the politicians needed the kind of cash that only very wealthy businesspeople possessed.

And this is partly the reason for the rise of right-wing politics culminating in the voting of Narendra Modi, a polarizing, sectarian, but competent administrator. He is much loved for his anti-corruption and economic reforms, yet loathed by liberals for his Hindu nationalism, which has led to the rise of Islamophobic thuggery in the country.

The similarity with Nigeria swiftly ends when it comes to the economic benefits the past years have brought. For all the grand corruption in the booming years, India was still able to lift over one hundred million of its people out of poverty. A significant number considering its history. With an estimated population of 1.7 billion by the middle of this century, it plans to bring more people into conditions of moderate prosperity than any country in history. The world looks forward to India fulfilling this destiny: to become history’s second democratic superpower and a beacon for free peoples around the world. But to achieve this, the country must solve the problem of cronyism, allow more economic freedom, and exploit its industries.

For all of the brilliance of this book, I would not be able to turn my eyes away from the occasional omissions of words. A few missing ‘of’, ‘the’ etc. is totally unexpected from such a well-regarded journalist of international repute who has written for global publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, New York Times, etc. It’s also obvious he holds the Ratan Tata family in high esteem as he remained silent on the corruption and political controversies the Tata group were embroiled in.

These notwithstanding, there is a reason the book was shortlisted for the McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award in 2018. It’s because it’s very detailed, informative and entertaining.

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