About the crazy, rich Indians!

By Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Published: Sep 05, 2018, 06:07 IST

Really, what's the point of India's Gilded Age, without its own The Great Gatsby. No?

James Crabtree's book The Billionaire Raj

Unsure of the outcome of a key business engagement, I hear the wife of an Indian business tycoon employs a rather unique way to appease the Gods, hoping that they would swing a decision/victory in her favour, as a result. The morning before each big day, I'm told, calling her glorified driver over, which in the case of crazy, rich Indians, would mean the pilot of the personal aircraft, she begins an actual parikrama of the 'char dhams' (four abodes) — hovering her plane over the holiest Hindu temple sites across the four corners of India: Badrinath, Puri, Dwarka, Rameswaram.

While the aircraft is positioned right over the temple, she performs a havan (sacred ritual), sitting on the plane's aisle (or the lobby, as it were), with priests humming in unison. She's back home by evening. Mostly, the Gods are happy; going by the results the next day. This deeply transactional relationship with religion isn't particular to rich Indians alone. But, as narrated in James Crabtree's book, The Billionaire Raj, the bit about Vijay Mallya, the 'king of good times', having each new plane from his now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines, fly over Tirupati, gliding close enough to the Venkateswara Temple to be blessed by priests standing on the tarmac, is just the sort of flight of imagination that makes India's billionaires quite out-of-the-world, I guess. Mallya's love for spirits and spirituality in equally high measure is well known.

Which isn't to suggest non-desi billionaires may be bereft of their own set of quirks. But, to start with, stunned by the Mukesh Ambani home, Antilia, that towers over South Mumbai (the billionaire's only home, as against a spate of debt-ridden Mallya properties across the globe), Crabtree, former India correspondent for Financial Times (FT), draws on an article by Jayant Sinha and Ashutosh Varshney in FT itself, to equate India's billionaires to the over-bloated plutocrats — Cornelius Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, John Rockefeller, Jay Gould — who dominated America's rampantly corrupt Gilded Age, "that ran from the end of Civil War (1865) to the turn of the century."

For one, as lifestyles go, measured relative to GDP, India is only second to Russia on the proportion of national wealth held by its richest. Two, as Crabtree argues, the wealth is chiefly built from sectors where access to politics, and government, reaps major rewards. Political risk-analyst Ian Bremmer defines an emerging economy as one where "politics matters as much as economic fundamentals, for market outcomes," referring obviously to 'crony capitalism', or "collusion among elites."

Is that always a terrible thing? Not according to the political-scientist Samuel Huntington, who claimed that top-level corruption could actually be a good thing, given countries like China, or East Asian 'Tigers', where high levels of graft, had sufficiently produced high growth rates. What's the difference between China, East Asia, and India though? That India is a democracy. And, as a result, currently, not just the largest, but also one of the world's most expensive one. As per an estimate cited by Crabtree, $5 billion, most of it obviously illegal, got spent in the 2014 general elections. Paid for by whom? Big conglomerates, if not crorepati politicians; who else? The stakes are too high. The price ought to be staggering.

How did we get here? Through registering, by far, the highest economic growth rate in independent India (eight-plus; even double digits), between mid to end 2000s, that famously inspired Tom Friedman to write The World Is Flat — a line coined by IT entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani — perhaps prematurely hailing a new era for capitalism, where global businesses were progressively becoming level-playing fields.Does The Billionaire Raj — with its own blingy term 'Bollygarchs' for India's ostentatious billionaires, a community gated by access to political patronage — a pessimistic response to The World Is Flat? Hard to say. Is it an essential read, like Edward Luce's In Spite Of The Gods, or Patrick French's India: A Portrait (two fantastic, relatively recent, and similarly, bedazzled, bird's eye view of India, which inevitably works, when the pair of eyes are freshly foreign).

Billionaire Raj, I guess, is far too routinely journalistic to capture an under-current of any sort. It works well as a quick recap of the India we casually negotiate on a daily basis (in news dailies, more so), with obviously no sense of disbelief whatsoever. Why did I excitedly pick it up? Hoping it'd give some fun, inside access to those golden gates, especially with stunning characters, like Sahara City's Subroto Roy, or the late Noida baron Ponty Chadha, who are touched upon, but hardly explored (presuming because that's outside the scope of the book). Goss (like the one about 'char dhams') is obviously better than gyan, which we can't do much about anyway. And, well, what's the point of India's 'Gilded Age', without its own The Great Gatsby. No?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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