‘The Billionaire Raj’ explores India’s new wealth – and the corruption it breeds

Steve Donoghue in The Christian Science Monitor:

James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age devotes the bulk of its length to the new cadre of super-rich that has arisen in India’s newly resurgent economy, but it opens with an important point: India is still an intensely poor country. The average citizen earns less than $2,000 a year, and the low-end of what constitutes the richest one percent of the country is only around $33,000. The richest one percent of the country owns more than half the nation’s wealth; it’s a starker income disparity than virtually any other country on Earth.

As in most such cases, the income gap is braced and fueled by immense wide-scale graft, and readers at the outset of Crabtree’s book are left with no illusions about the state of the economy underlying this new oligarchy of super-wealth. “There is every reason to believe that, without intervention, the gap between India’s rich and the rest will keep widening,” Crabtree writes, pointing in every chapter to the symbiotic link between unregulated mega-wealth and rampant corruption. The balance between these two forces is the thematic balance of the entire book, and according to the author, it “lies at the heart of the struggles of India’s industrial economy.”

In fast-paced evocative prose, Crabtree, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times, describes some of the foremost players in that continuous struggle at the heart of India’s booming but troubled economy. For good or ill, the billionaires are the stars of this show – colorful, conflicted figures like “onetime billionaire brewer and airline magnate” Vijay Mallya, the self-dubbed “King of Good Times” who at his peak of power and infamy, “was ringmaster of his own circus: a bon vivant and hard drinker; a man of coteries and Gatsby-style parties and famously ill-disciplined timekeeping.” Mallya had once been India’s richest man, until forced into exile by corruption scandals.

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