James Crabtree’s exertions and excursions
James Crabtree’s book, ‘The Billionaire Raj’, is a useful reminder of the challenges that India faces
James Bond movies usually start with a car chase. James Crabtree’s book starts with a car crash. That is the big difference. One thing that is common to both, however, is that both of them maintain the tempo throughout. Crabtree came to India in 2011 and left in 2016. So, for three of the five years he spent in the country, the Congress party and its coalition partners ruled the country. But, you would not know it from reading the book. His remarkable reticence about the coalition that ran the Indian economy aground is striking because their contribution to the title of his book has been immense. If you have the Kindle version of the book, search for the word “UPA”. It appears four times in the prologue as part of the name, “Ruparel”. Similarly, in the chapter on Arnab Goswami,“Radiagate” gets only a cursory treatment.
Cronyism was the inevitable consequence of the licence-quota-permit Raj that the post-independence Congress government erected. The reforms of the 1990s and the rise of the information technology sector gave rise to the hope that a somewhat more meritocratic form of capitalism would emerge in India. But, rapid economic growth (which was expected to wash away all sins) and the return of the Congress government in a coalition arrangement ensured that cronyism resurfaced with a vengeance. Its most visible manifestation is the bad loan crisis in the Indian banking system that refuses to go away. Contrary to what Crabtree writes in his concluding chapter, its full dimension was not known in 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. In Chapter 8, he writes that the then Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan had told him that he himself did not realize the full contours of the problem until two years after he became the governor.
That the Congress seeded, nurtured and helped The Billionaire Raj to flourish is evident in the data available from the annual “Wealth Data book” compiled by the Credit Suisse Institute. The total wealth of the bottom 90% shrunk in India between 2010 and 2014 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.75% in dollar terms. It rose at a CAGR of 12.4% between 2014 and 2017. The wealth share of the top 1%, 5% and 10% increased between 2010 and 2014 and declined between 2014 and 2017. Median wealth per adult—a better measure of wealth inequality than mean wealth—declined between 2010 and 2014 from $1,300 to $1,006 (a big drop) and improved to $1,295 in 2017.
At the same time, cronyism became a global phenomenon, including in the West, in the new millennium. One of the reasons is the optimism on growth that felled many Indian businessmen and bankers except that it was called the “Great Moderation” in the West. Instead of the Billionaire Raj, the West had the Executive Compensation Raj. Instead of politicians favouring businessmen, it was policy elites helping corporate elites.
The chapter titled “The Tragedies of Modi” could, appropriately, have been titled “The dilemmas of Crabtree”. At heart, Crabtree seems a fair, reasonable and decent human being. At the same time, he is compelled to stick to the boilerplate template that Western journalists are expected to follow, when they report on “Hindu nationalist” politicians. He calls Narendra Modi a largely effective administrator, credits him with sincere commitment to development, with indefatigable energy committed to the cause of governance and a sense of purpose that transformed the country’s image overseas. Yet, his treatment of Modi in chapter 4 is unfair. There is no reference to the conclusions of the special investigation team that exonerated Modi from the charge of having orchestrated murderous attacks on Muslims. The investigations were conducted in the years that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in office. They did not leave too many stones unturned to paint him guilty. More disappointing is Crabtree casting doubt on the deliberateness of the event that triggered the riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Crabtree cites Mukul Kesavan distinguishing the Congress party’s opportunistic communalism from the BJP’s ideological communalism. Whether the BJP is ideologically communal or not, the question is which one is more dangerous? The one who wears his communalism on his sleeve and the one who practises it on the sly, unleashing it in unsuspecting and unexpected moments.
The political right—the BJP is allegedly in that quadrant—in India has very few core convictions, economic or sociological. In its four years in office, the BJP government has not addressed some of the legitimate demands of the Hindus. One is autonomy and freedom to manage their places of worship and the other is to be allowed to run educational institutions with the autonomy that minority-run institutions enjoy. Such bizarre reverse discriminations are rare in any society and, in the name of secularism, India practises them.
Crabtree writes well (“over-the-top wedding parties thrown by insalubrious hosts”) and two, he has not relied on his recollections of the gossip he had picked up from the cocktail circuits of Mumbai and Delhi to write the book. He has travelled widely in India. Third, he has the eye of a good journalist for details. Therefore, the book could have been a scholarly exercise even as it is an interesting read. Ultimately, the book is a useful reminder of the challenges that India faces. India is not unique in the share of those with myopic and selfish goals. India’s problem is that it has too few counterbalancing, long-term visionaries with broader perspectives.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is an independent consultant based in Singapore. He blogs regularly at Thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com. Read Anantha’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/baretalk
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