Book Review: The Billionaire Raj

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded AgeThe Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book based on rave reviews and strong recommendations in certain websites. I wasn’t aware who James Crabtree was until I bought the book and checked out his super-strong credentials. This topic on Billionaire’s ruling India could have been picked by none other than the author himself. Written during an expat stint in India, while living in the most posh neighborhood in the rich city of Mumbai, he certainly was a “star”journalist and it was obvious from the interviews he managed to get from otherwise reluctant super-rich billionaires of India who don’t see any reason to be chatty with journalists of all people.

This book has grammatical mistakes in certain places. Not good coming from a powerhouse journalist and publishing house. James Crabtree starts with a dramatic Bollywood entry – a story of a crashed Aston Martin, and of course enough hints to show who was behind the wheels and the subsequent cover up by Asia’s richest man and business family. Everything else about the book is a drag on the reader. The author showcases the wealthy, describing their physical features (especially being fascinated by the puny little form of the billionaires of India as if that somehow mattered!?) and of course talking at length about their lifestyle. The little information he shares about what these billionaires did to create controversy, be it the exorbitant bank loans or favors from politicians, is just restricted to already available standard newspaper information. There is nothing investigative about an author who comes from an investigative journalistic creed. Maybe he was also bitten by the Indian bug of passive, judgmental, biased, superstar-image-conscious religion of journalism in India!?

The book is however entertaining to read as James Crabtree is still a good writer. If he wasn’t a “foreigner”in Indian shores, his understanding of the highly complicated economic-socio-political landscape of India would have been just stuff that could be huffed and puffed away. It is certainly impressive to see how the author has learnt so much about the dynamics of power play in India although I wouldn’t neglect the immense help he got for it from people he has acknowledged towards the end credits. But, what was he chasing beyond saying that Billionaires could ruin the fabric of the country? His long prose on the dangers to liberal democracy, cronyism and rising social divide are as old as the young nation- India. With nothing much to offer than just saying that banks were blind to giving loans after the economic reforms of 1991, no names of bank officers or politicians or bureaucratic babus revealed, it is at best a run of the mill emotional saga just like a boring Bollywood super hit movie.

In order to possibly compensate for this lost soul in the book, the author turns his attention with the usual libertarian flair of being on both sides of the fence while attacking the target on the right side of their personal wrong, and launches a two chapter attack on the ruling BJP party (since 2014), almost attacks the Congress party (left of center party) and more particularly on the Indian PM, Narendra Modi. It is easy for even a high school dropout to call out the vagaries of the politician, pracharack and prime minister that Mr. Narendra Modi effortlessly keeps switching between on the Indian landscape. Depending on how much you love or hate him, you can pick your choices from the vast buffet of choices he offers. The author is obviously baffled by this thin character and thick skin of India’s politicians. He chooses to see more of it in the PM and worries at end towards the fact that not much has been happening for the good of the country. Good for him, but the author also knows that India is a land where a day for Lord Brahma is the equivalent of a thousand years. What you can achieve as a nation in five years comes with timelines that don’t have an end date.

The author loses the plot the moment he becomes political in his commentary. What is this Billionaire Raj beyond a few businesses exploiting the situation? This is in no way as draconian and massively stupid as the socialist license raj of the past (and present) that was actually a political axe that landed blunt blows on the head of every Indian for more than sixty years. James Crabtree was inspired to call his book after the license raj (which he is also critical of) but the Billionaire raj is in no way a transition of the political movement in India that governs its people. It is a bad side effect and the author is quick to reveal that it almost ended and got killed once Narendra Modi came to power.

Overall, this book could have been a better potboiler. What about all the billionaire politicians in the spectrum of political parties in India and their “business-regulation” influence? This is by far more dangerous and exposing this link beyond a few references does a disservice to this genuine threat that the country faces. Even here, the author chooses safe names to reveal like mining baron Janardhan Reddy and others. Maybe the expat within him wanted an amicable exit from the country he seemed to love much without ruffling too many feathers.

Two stars for the impressive effort of James Crabtree to tackle a subject that others care not to talk much about. He does come out as honest in his opinions. But, that in itself doesn’t make this a bold effort to expose anything in India as some people have claimed the book does. Summarizing news reports of others and having inconclusive interviews with India’s billionaire businessmen doesn’t cut it. The country needs more journalists who are not verbal spatting goons of the billionaire raj. Maybe this book was meant for them to come out of their safe houses? Only time will tell.

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