“You are a brave journalist to write this book.” That was how Shekhar Gupta, perhaps India’s preeminent columnist, put it to me on Twitter earlier this week, about my book, The Billionaire Raj, which has just been released.
What Shekhar meant is clear enough. My book deals with India’s super-rich. More specifically, it deals with the dark side of India’s growth story. And you can see where i’m going from the front cover, which features the brightly lit outline of Antilia, the Mumbai home of billionaire Mukesh Ambani.
The book tells the story of the rise of India’s super rich over the last two decades, a story which began to captivate me when I moved to India to become the Mumbai bureau chief of the Financial Times in 2011.
Over the next five years I came to know India’s super-rich close up. I also learned about the huge increase in their size and wealth over the last three decades.
In the mid-1990s, according to Forbes, there were only a couple of billionaires in India. The latest figures suggested there are 119, more than any country bar America and China. Together they are worth around $450bn. The average Indian, meanwhile, earned $1,670 in 2016.
Yet it isn’t for that reason that Shekhar described me as “brave.” Rather, by this I think he meant that some of India’s billionaires — the ones sometimes known as “Bollygarchs” — have a reputation in India for being litigious and vindictive. Many in India might think twice before writing about them.
This did give me pause, I must admit. But in the end I felt this was a story I was well placed to tell. It is also a fascinating and important story, full of bold and brilliant characters, from Ambani himself to Gautam Adani, Naveen Jindal and Vijay Mallya.
The Billionaire Raj tells of three problems India faces: the inequality that came along with its new super-rich; the rise of crony capitalism; and the boom-and-bust cycle of its industrial model.
I argue all three are linked to India’s liberalisation and re-globalisation since the mid-2000s in particular. I believe India has a bright future, so long as it can tackle these three problems. And I hope that even those who appear in the book — The Bollygarchs themselves — will find their portrayals to be sympathetic too.
James Crabtree is an Associate Professor in Practice and a senior fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School, having joined from the Financial Times in 2016, where he was the paper’s Mumbai bureau chief, leading coverage of India’s business scene. His book, The Billionaire Raj, has just been released, and is available on Amazon.
He is discussing the book at various public events in Washington DC, including a launch and reception at Carnegie on Wednesday, July 11th, at 6pm. He will then will be “in conversation” with NPR’s Rachel Martin on Politics and Prose Sunday, July 15th at 1pm. In the Bay Area, he will be “in conversation” with Washington Post columnist Vivek Wadwha at Books Inc. in Mountain View at 7pm on Tuesday, July 17th.