The foreign correspondent’s memoir of an adventurous, exotic posting has become a kind of publishing standard. Awed by the drama of modern India, Crabtree joins tycoons on private jets, attends lavish parties and is charmed by the eloquent elites at the forefront of South Asia’s gilded age. These chapters sometimes read a bit like repurposed articles and strung-together profiles. While Crabtree’s book occasionally suffers from abrupt shifts in focus, it offers an excellent survey of India’s economic and political transformation. In crisp language designed for a general reader, The Billionaire Raj provides an overview of just how India became the world’s most coveted market after its independence from British rule ... There is too little attention paid to caste, gender and the environmental degradation facing many of India’s teeming cities, and the narration is sometimes too narrowly confined to the chandelier-strewn ballrooms of the country’s new palaces ... But the author’s first-hand journey into the dizzying heights and distressing recesses of Indian capitalism is a worthy addition to modern India’s story.
There have been scores of books about India that focus on its poverty, some sensitive and soulful, others frankly execrable. In contrast, very few offer a portrait of Indians with wealth ... In the mid-1990s, India had only two—repeat, two—billionaires, with a paltry $3 billion between them. By 2010, Forbes included 49 on its global list. Today there are over 100, more than any country bar the U.S., China and Russia. The wealth of India’s billionaires currently comprises 15% of the country’s GDP, up from 1% in 1995 ... (Mr. Crabtree) devotes his energies to a study of the Bad Billionaires, those who work in 'rent-thick' sectors where firms couldn’t possibly make money without access to government favors. The 'raj' in the title is intended to suggest a 'nexus'—a word beloved of Indian editorialists—between business and government, akin to the one that bound government to commerce during the state-controlled 'license raj' that prevailed before 1991. Mr. Crabtree describes in detail the manner in which the billionaires of this cohort got rich with the help of politicians and bureaucrats.
India is now one of the world’s economic hotspots. Stock images of starving children, miserable peasants and cheating shop owners have been augmented with those of high-tech development and booming cities. India is now the world’s fastest-growing economy. It is about to become the third-largest economy — at least in terms of purchasing power dollars if not yet real ones. Foreign investors are rushing in. In The Billionaire Raj, James Crabtree has written a compelling guide to what awaits them ... Crabtree gives entertaining portraits of some billionaires. The opening chapters cover Mukesh Ambani and his towering residential Antilla, the most expensive house ever built in India, which now dominates the Mumbai skyline; the fugitive Vijay Mallya, a drinks tycoon who was once known as the King of Good Times; the reticent Gautam Adani, an infrastructure entrepreneur who owns ports, mines and refineries (etc) ... Crabtree has given us the most comprehensive and eminently readable tour of economic India, which, as he shows, cannot be understood without a knowledge of how political India works.