The "Bollygarchs" are a new breed of rich, powerful menby Oliver Bullough / July 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
India has more than a billion people, but the title of James Crabtree’s book refers to just a handful of them: the ones who have more than a billion dollars. By telling the stories of how they acquired their wealth, he tells the story of modern India: how a planned but moribund economy started to transform in the 1990s due to market reforms, which turned the country into a globalised powerhouse. It is also the story of how a small clique of well-connected men swiped much of the gains.
In just a decade and a half, India went from being a country with egalitarian ideals to one with wealth inequality more dramatic than that of the United States. The consequences are still playing out, but include cron-yism, corruption and regulatory capture.
Crabtree, formerly of Prospect, is now a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, but before that was Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times. His old job allowed him to see the excesses of the “bollygarchs” close up. He drinks with them, sits in their lavish houses, and goes on the road to see their enormous investments, all the time probing for insights into where their money came from, and what they will do with it.
Looming over the whole tale is the figure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a new kind of leader for a new country—there is a particularly fine scene when he arrives at a rally in not one, but three, helicopters—but one who bears significant risks for its democracy. India, in Crabtree’s telling, increasingly resembles Russia rather than a country aiming to embed western norms.
Its politicians are for sale, its tycoons rely on political favours, and there’s always the chance of a comfortable exile in London for anyone who gets their sums wrong. Crabtree remains generous and enthusiastic in his treatment of the country, however. This is an eye-opening book from someone who clearly loves his subject.
The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree (Oneworld, £18.99)