BOOKS: James Crab­tree’s The Bil­lion­aire Raj. Lisa Bren­nan-Jobs’s Small Fry. Am­be­lin Kway­mul­lina and Ezekiel Kway­mul­lina’s Catch­ing Teller Crow.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

At 1.30am on a De­cem­ber night al­most five years ago in Mum­bai’s most ex­pen­sive res­i­den­tial area, a speed­ing As­ton Martin rammed into an­other car driven by a young woman. She told police the other driver, a young man, had quickly jumped into an es­cort­ing SUV and left the scene.

Mum­bai’s cops soon re­alised they had an awk­ward case. The As­ton Martin was reg­is­tered to the house­hold of Mukesh Am­bani, In­dia’s rich­est man, with as­sets of $US38 bil­lion. Am­bani’s 27-storey res­i­dence, named An­tilia after a myth­i­cal un­der­sea king­dom, tow­ered over the neigh­bour­hood. But it was all solved. A portly 55-year-old driver came down to the police sta­tion the next day and said he’d been the cul­prit. The young woman amended her state­ment to say that now she con­sid­ered it, the driver had in­deed looked like the older man.

This is the open­ing anec­dote in James Crab­tree’s en­ter­tain­ing ex­cur­sion around the new wealth of an In­dia where ac­cel­er­at­ing eco­nomic growth has seen many busi­ness ty­coons em­u­late the old ma­hara­jahs in con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion.

It might be con­trasted with an­other late-night car crash, in Bei­jing in 2012, when the son of a Com­mu­nist Party polit­buro stand­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber killed him­self and one of two naked Ti­betan women joyrid­ing with him in a Ferrari. The fa­ther was later purged and given a life sen­tence for cor­rup­tion. In China, get­ting in­cluded on the Hu­run rich list makes ty­coons ner­vous: the Party doesn’t like it. In In­dia, it still brings def­er­ence.

There had been an in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod be­tween the old and new wealth, when the state un­der Jawa­har­lal Nehru ap­plied the Harold Laski model of Fabian so­cial­ism to the nth de­gree, cre­at­ing what be­came the “Li­cence Raj” and eco­nomic stag­na­tion. That ended in 1991. Now, Crab­tree says, it has been re­placed by a “Bil­lion­aires Raj”.

In­dia has some 55 bil­lion­aires. As Fi­nan­cial Times cor­re­spon­dent in Mum­bai, Crab­tree mixed with sev­eral. Vi­jay Mallya, in em­u­la­tion of Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin, took the King­fisher brand of his fam­ily brew­ery to an air­line and pro­claimed him­self the “King of Good Times”. Gau­tam Adani built an em­pire of ports and power sta­tions in an as­ton­ish­ingly short time, and of course wants to open a mega coalmine in Queens­land. We meet a clutch from the south, all named Reddy after their caste. They splash money around, on cricket teams, TV net­works and, most lav­ishly of all, wed­dings for their kids.

Crab­tree draws on In­dian in­ves­ti­ga­tors, govern­ment au­di­tors and brave jour­nal­ists to sug­gest the list shows prin­ci­pally a ta­lent to work the reg­u­la­tory sys­tem in sec­tors such as telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, power, ports and avi­a­tion, and then get funds from the fear­ful bu­reau­crats run­ning the banks that Indira Gandhi na­tion­alised in 1969. This wealth is con­jured up in sym­bio­sis with rul­ing politi­cians, who need suit­cases of cash to win elec­tions.

He did not get to talk to the reclu­sive Am­bani, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion ty­coon whose late fa­ther cre­ated an oil-to-tex­tiles cash ma­chine and set the model of “reg­u­la­tory cap­ture”. Ini­tially lim­ited by a no­com­pe­ti­tion agree­ment with his brother in tele­coms, Mukesh Am­bani got into the sec­tor stealth­ily, gain­ing a li­cence for a na­tion­wide data ser­vice. A later rule change al­lowed him to add voice traf­fic. But fam­ily con­trol – the norm for In­dian firms – al­lows big gam­bles and long-term plans. In 2016, Am­bani launched his Jio mo­bile net­work, of­fer­ing six months’ free voice and data and vir­tu­ally free 4G hand­sets that don’t work with other providers. He now has 200 mil­lion sub­scribers.

Yet Am­bani still can­not get per­mis­sion from the In­dian Navy to land he­li­copters on the roof of An­tilia. The car crash shows him wary of scan­dal. For oth­ers, time at the top is of­ten short. Mallya is holed up, lux­u­ri­ously, in Lon­don, re­sist­ing ex­tra­di­tion over the crash of King­fisher Air­lines. An­other bil­lion­aire, jew­eller Ni­rav Modi, is there too, after de­fault­ing on loans. Mukesh Am­bani’s brother Anil is now fight­ing to save his part of the in­her­i­tance. De­spite his close­ness to Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, Gau­tam Adani is also on the de­fen­sive, after a se­nior fig­ure in Modi’s rul­ing party called him In­dia’s big­gest “trapeze artist” for his bal­anc­ing act with non-per­form­ing loans from the state banks.

The Bil­lion­aire Raj, it emerges, was ef­fec­tively over by 2014 when Modi’s Hindu na­tion­al­ists re­placed the in­dul­gent Con­gress Party govern­ment run by the Nehru–Gandhi fam­ily. Crab­tree’s book soon morphs into a more con­ven­tional po­lit­i­cal story, show­ing that In­dia’s in­sti­tu­tions and civil so­ci­ety even­tu­ally, if pre­car­i­ously, get the up­per hand.

Modi him­self is far from an eco­nomic lib­eral, Crab­tree says: “The longer he stays in of­fice, the clearer his com­fort with state power be­comes.” And he’s slow on deep re­form of the “scle­rotic” state. As put by a dis­il­lu­sioned stal­wart of Modi’s party, Arun Shourie: “... when all is said and done, more is said than done.”

In a too-short sum­mary, Crab­tree tries to draw lessons from this spurt of en­trepreneur­ship. He laments the lack of the East Asian model: not enough man­u­fac­tur­ing to em­ploy the de­mo­graphic youth surge, weak­ness of tax­a­tion and im­par­tial reg­u­la­tion, lag­ging ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion and wel­fare. But de­spite the ma­jori­tar­ian Hindu thug­gery of some of Modi’s sup­port­ers that he won’t con­demn, the sys­tem is sta­ble. Com­pared with China, “it is much eas­ier to imag­ine In­dia re­tain­ing roughly the same po­lit­i­cal set-up fifty years from now”. And vi­brant ser­vices, such as Am­bani’s Jio, point Crab­tree to con­clude that “In­dia must chart a hy­brid eco­nomic model of its own”. He might have looked to Mum­bai’s cel­e­brated tif­fin wal­lahs, de­liv­er­ing home-cooked lunches by train and bike across the city, as a pre­cur­sor to ecom­merce. JF

Oneworld, 320pp, $35

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