It has been five years since an Aston Martin, valued at $7,00,000, hit and spun an Audi A4 on to the opposite carriageway before a collision with another car had its front end crushed. No one was killed in the accident on December 8, 2013, but the identity of the driver remains an unresolved mystery. The case has long been buried, but the skeleton keeps on popping in people’s memory. The accident on Mumbai’s Peddar Road continues to evoke conspiracy theories even today, as the car belonged to the Reliance Industries, and none other than a young man from that business dynasty could have been at the wheel. The confession of a so-called driver claiming to be the one at the wheel during the late-night test drive is reflective of the tumultuous times when political and economic influence protects the rich.
Evoking Mark Twain’s ‘The Gilded Age’, when greedy, corrupt industrialists, bankers and politicians had ruled the US at the turn of the 20th century, the Financial Times’ former Mumbai correspondent, James Crabtree, provides a somewhat similar but unsettling portrait of the country that claims to uplift itself on the GDP curve, but at the expense of its poor and the vulnerable. In each portrait drawn by Crabtree, from Ambani to Adani and from Mallya to Reddy, none of the wealthy and opulent come out without their share of scams, scandals and erased crimes. The stories are only beginning to unfold in public.
The stories may sound familiar on surface, but the devil is in the details. The billionaire class may have painted a bright future for the country, but sanitised capitalism had left public sector banks holding at least $150 billion worth of bad assets in 2017. Was such a situation unexpected in a democratic set-up? Crony capitalism is at the core of an unholy nexus, which keeps the political machine suitably oiled to fulfil its electoral promises, for regaining power and returning favours back to the businesses. This unchecked cycle has led to the overnight ascent and dubious finances of the new billionaire class, leading to a shocking trend about the continuing purchase of politics by the wealthy.
Crabtree has captured what is often considered a given, but for him it is a curious case of a democracy being weakened at its core as the lines between politics and business get blurred to dangerous extremes. No wonder, the country has become a picture postcard story of wealth amidst poverty, marked by a growing economy that only widens income inequality. Part of the problem, argues the author, is that India itself, for all the lofty ideals of its Constitution, has never actually made the transition to becoming a full liberal democracy, with public institutions capable of guarding in every respect the civil and political rights of its people.
The Billionaire Raj is a telling account of the pleasures and possibilities of appropriating the state and its systems by an emerging class of political entrepreneurs. In a racy and engaging narrative, the author draws amusing caricatures of the Bollygarchs, a term coined to represent Indian oligarchs. And, these are not without context, as the colourful portraits also paint the dark side of the rich and the famous. “In his early forties, with swept-back black hair and the angle of a crooked nose incongruent with the face” and “a bulky man in a red polo shirt, with gold bracelets on each wrist and chunky diamond ear stud sparkling against his long, graying hair” help the reader see beyond the obvious.
Much of the foreign correspondent’s memoirs relate to the present political dispensation, on whom alone the blame may not rest, but which hasn’t done much to reverse the trend either. From the British Raj to the License Raj, and now the Resource Raj, the relentless growth has proved to be economically disruptive, socially bruising and environmentally destructive. Having moved to Singapore since completing the book, the author wonders if the country could be any different if it ignores the three major challenges—growing inequality, crony capitalism, and destructive development.
However, Crabtree is an optimist, as he draws reference to the Roosevelt-style progressive era, a moment in which anti-corruption campaigns had cleaned up politics and the middle-class had exerted control over government. For this to happen, a lot will need to be done to build state machinery able to create and implement wise public policies, while remaining impartial between different social groups. Without building state capacity, as Samuel Huntington had cautioned, rapid economic expansion can rip societies apart, resulting in social upheaval. The message cannot be more loud and clear!