Journalist James Crabtree spent about five years embedded in Mumbai, as a correspondent for the Financial Times. It was a period of massive churn. When he arrived, in late 2011, the growth surge of the early 21st century had lost momentum. As Crabtree settled into Colaba, with his wife and his two Maine Coon cats, the second UPA coalition was crumbling under the weight of massive scams and widespread outrage about the unabashed crony capitalism on display.

The BJP was already crafting a multi-level political campaign that took it, two years later, to the first Parliamentary majority in 30 years. At the top level, that campaign consisted of the florid operatic delivery of carefully scripted nationalist speeches, coupled with high-minded assurances that the BJP would bring development (vikas) for all. It helped that the Prime Ministerial candidate had a clean image and could credibly promise to punish the corrupt, and repatriate black money from overseas.

However, the bedrock of the campaign was outreach by local activists, who dog-whistled enthusiastically about minority and low-caste privilege. The BJP also relied on a strike force of social media trolls to spread fake news, vile rumours, and abuse political opponents in the filthiest terms.

Crabtree chronicled the BJP’s rise to power and consequent changes in the business and socio-political environment. He saw demonetisation and the 2017 UP elections, when the BJP’s political dominance reached a high-water mark.

Fresh perspective

As correspondent for one of the world’s most respected pink dailies, Crabtree had near-untrammelled access to the political and business establishment. He networked indefatigably through his India years, meeting people, storing up impressions and trying to make sense of it all. His book, The Billionaire Raj, is the result.

One of the problems with most books about India by foreigners is an imperative to explain what “every Indian knows”. This gets tedious but it’s considered essential to set the context for non-Indian readers. Indeed, it is forced on Indians as well by their editors when they write for foreign audiences, leading to places where the narrative pace is slowed by such enforced explanations. Being a perceptive man however, Crabtree looked at India with fresh eyes, and he has some unusual insights to offer.

One of the leitmotifs in the book is the rise of a new class of self-made billionaires, whose ascent coincided, not coincidentally, with the widening of income disparities. Crabtree remarks on the not-so-nuanced differences between the billionaires of the 1990s, and those who cracked the Fortune codex in the 2010s. The earlier lot were technocrats, who generated wealth by setting up businesses that avoided government interference. The second lot are crony capitalists, who have made fortunes by manipulating policy to get first dibs on resources. The book refers to them as “Bollygarchs” and draws attention to the parallels and correspondences with Putinist Russia, and with Tammany Hall, which set the gold standard for 19th century American cronyism. Unfortunately, those analogies ring true.

Thoughtful and comprehensive

Crabtree has a gift for writing readable and comprehensive profiles, weaving together narratives that offer the reader a sense of individuals, with their operating styles. There are well-fleshed out takes on members of the super-rich set. The Ambanis, Vijay Mallya, Naveen Jindal, Baba Ramdev, Gautam Adani, et al, make their appearances. So does Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and the late Jayalalithaa, as well.

There is also thoughtful commentary on the desi variations on cronyism, on widening income disparities and naked corruption, and on the gratuitous illegal funding of political parties. Naturally, since we’re talking about India, corruption and cronyism, there is a statutory chapter on cricket as well. Crabtree does lovely pen portraits of N Srinivasan and Lalit Modi as he discusses the IPL.

Another insight is the key difference between the Vindhyan style of cronyism and that of the cow belt. Southern cronyism resembles the East Asian model that delivered decades of high growth. A project is farmed out to some “friend” of the political establishment; it’s over-invoiced; there are kickbacks. But the contractor delivers acceptable quality and users are satisfied. In contrast, Northern cronyism usually consists of stealing from welfare schemes.

New developments

In his essay on Narendra Modi, Crabtree does point out that the supremo has failed to deliver on the bulk of his election promises. He also expresses regret at the lack of social liberalism in this government. But he could also claim at the time of writing, that Modi and the BJP remained relatively untainted by accusations of corruption, or cronyism. Post Rafale, and post Nirav Modi, that just draws horse laughs. The lynchings and the dog-whistling too have hit new high notes since the book went to print.

The media environment has changed dramatically as well. When Crabtree wrote the book, Arnab Goswami had just quit his job and was putting together the Republic Channel. Since then, Goswami has become a past master at parodying himself. Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari have been gunned down. And, as Crabtree himself has remarked on twitter, the quality of India’s democracy has descended sharply.

Those are the areas where the book feels dated for no real fault of the author. If he ever does a revised edition, I suspect those chapters will be rewritten extensively. Those bits apart, this book with its wealth of details, will age well.

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age, James Crabtree, HarperCollins India.