Book review- The Billionaire Raj - by James Crabtree
This book is longish and a mishmash about India's post independence development - and that's the problem with it because at the end you are left wondering what the book is fundamentally about? About crony capitalism, about globalisation, about the massive divide between the haves and the have nots, about corruption (Crabtree even lists out interesting variants of corruption.....about Modi? (There is a separate section on Modi and his 4 year performance as Prime Minister alone!!)
Even though all the above, in the ultimate sense, do overlap each other, you might still end up asking - So what is the book saying? What's its conclusion? It's a good book but not very well arranged.
The cover of the book has a photo of Antilia (Mukesh Ambani's residence) probably the most expensive private abode on earth. And the very first page of the book talks about the ruins of Ambani's Aston Martin Rapide (one of the most expensive luxury cars in the world) lying by the roadside near a police station under rotting plastic sheets, hidden from sight and remembrance!
So at the very start, what perhaps the author has wrapped his book around, is the fact that a tall, shining almost vulgarly ostentatious monument on the one hand and a battered, shapeless and hidden heap of scrap on the other can symbolise and define the reach of the powerful. It knows no limits and it permeates the entire spectrum of existence in India.
The book then swings its focus from the single digit to the next 99!
“In the mid-1990s just two Indians featured in the annual Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, racking up $3 billion between them.........Today, India’s most exclusive club has ballooned to over one hundred,” with Mukesh Ambani standing in the shimmering distance at the number 1 spot with $ 38 billion against his name (when last counted!)
The book takes its most interesting turn here because it reminds you that during this very period of the formation of the extremely exclusive and small 'billionaires club', i.e. from 2004 to 2010 India also enjoyed the fastest economic expansion in its history, averaging a growth of more than eight percent a year .......The implication is loud and startling and this implication connects up very well later in the book on the issue of corruption!
As stated above in a country with a population of 1.3 billion there are just a little over 100 billionaires! India's current prosperity flows just to its top one percent, or more specifically "the top fraction of that one percent.” The book's title is taken from this well known fact as you can see. The book states that alongside South Africa & Brazil, India is one of the world’s least equal countries.
Yet this fact has remained largely sidelined / overlooked/ downplayed by both the right and the left! Neither seems to focus on this 'inequality' and learn from history that unequal economies grow slower than all and are far more unstable. But for both the Right and the Left the gap between rich and poor has been secondary - the Right claiming that growth mattered more than its distribution and the Left hell bent on merely cribbing about the wretched conditions of the poor.
This then is the fundamental issue that a book of this genre should have focussed on, in my opinion. How should a democracy bring about a compromise between prosperity and its distribution. Unfortunately the author touches upon this aspect (as you can see in the following part of this review) but not solidly enough.
It's here that the author starts training his camera on the evolution of corruption. Can corruption be good or if that's too radical, is corruption necessary? This is a startling take on the 'c' word which is bound to make you stop and think. It's an independent subject in itself and I personally feel that James Crabtree (author) missed a trick here.
The redoubtable Arun Shourie once praised business tycoons with remarkable perspicacity for exposing India’s failing bureaucracy. “The Dhirubhais [of this world] are to be thanked, not once but twice over,” he argued. “They set up world-class companies [and] by exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations."
"Globalisation opened massive opportunities and money. In the early years after its 1991 reforms India’s new billionaires operated mostly in areas like IT services, which had little in the way of rent-seeking. But as the economy took off and globalisation jacked up demand for things like commodities and land, so the wealth of billionaires shot up most of all in rent-thick sectors, from mining and property to cement, infrastructure, and telecoms.” The population was massive. The money opportunities were massive but the strength of the politicians (who mattered) was just 500 odd (the strength of the Indian Parliament) and the business tycoons (as Ambani had torch lighted) could also be small. The two 'smalls' just had to meet up and the party could go on and on!!
This new system was far removed from the Nehruvian one which almost made one look at wealth creation as a sin. Nehru’s ideas set India on a path that rejected free markets for nearly half a century. "In 1947, Nehru inherited one of the world’s most globally integrated economies. Within two decades he and his daughter built one of the most rigidly closed.” The irony is that history has already started condemning Nehru and in time Ambani and his fellow billionaires may come to be remembered not for their shady collusion (crony capitalism) but for the scale and class of their achievements.
Corruption therefore was not simply an unfortunate side effect of economic development, but often a desirable one: “a welcome lubricant easing the path to modernisation........side payments on business deals encouraged bureaucrats and politicians to act in ways that in turn encouraged investment."
It's not that the author advocates corruption - far from it but raises the question about the role of corruption particularly in an evolving Democracy. There are no short cuts - he seems to suggest that you need corruption to kick-start growth and then find ways and means to distribute the benefits of growth more equitably.
Unfortunately he does not dwell on this aspect of the vicious cycle stemming out if the collusion among the two small clubs or elites - the politician and the tycoon. To be fair the author does offer a few leads but they are more peripheral than substantive. For example the author talks about the massive 2G scandal : this scandal cost "the state Rs1.8 trillion ($ 26 billion) in lost revenues..........when compared to what might have been raised had the license been auctioned." He further adds that the “ease of doing business” survey gave a stark reminder of how badly the state was performing under Modi. In 2016, the year in which Modi introduced demonetisation(a hasty step towards rooting out corruption in the context of the book), India came in a dismal 130th out of 190 countries.” Demonetisation did much to harm growth but little to curb graft. Corruption anxieties have depressed private sector investment rates too........“At its most basic level, graft is a function of growth, meaning that it will reemerge when the economy expands strongly. This is especially true in areas like infrastructure, where estimates suggest India must invest around $4.5 trillion over the next two decades. Without careful management, spending on this scale will provide ample scope for grand corruption to return."
The problem lay in the understanding of corruption. "The State (meaning the Centre) was competent in parts, mostly at its upper levels, but overwhelmed the further down you went.....in police, tax collection, education, health, power, water supply—in nearly every routine service there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence, and corruption."
So the reason for the failure of good intentions (like Modi's) to root out corruption lay in State inefficiency (by which I suppose the author means Public Sector management, administration and the State's bureaucracy). In Jharkhand, a poorer eastern state with abundant mineral resources, one study suggested that investment projects needed 240 layers of government clearance before beginning operation. Administrative paralysis took hold in New Delhi, as a wave of anti-corruption investigations shocked the political and business class. A great deal lot of economic activity came to a standstill. The head of a major infrastructure development company explained, "The demand-supply gap vanished. All of us as entrepreneurs, we took pains to set up all of these projects, looking at this (India's) growth potential, which never happened. If you can’t service the debt,” he said ruefully at one point, “the business goes down into the toilet.”
Just ten business companies taken together owed $84 billion, or more than an eighth of the amount lent out by the entire banking system. When deciding whether or not to provide a loan it turned out, the banks looked only at the health of the individual companies who wanted to borrow, rather than the total debt levels of the wider conglomerate. Many of the banks simply failed to notice that the tycoons had been quietly shuffling money around, building up far larger levels of overall debt than had previously been realised.
China and India both suffered severe corruption the author says, but only India was a democracy. “Modern academic models suggest that democracies rarely succeed in poor countries. Most wealthy countries are democratic, and most democratic countries—India is the most dramatic exception—are wealthy."
For a decade after 2004 it enjoyed rocketing growth but at the cost of sky-high corruption. More recently corruption has fallen, but growth has fallen along with it. Many now dream of rapid, graft-free expansion. But this is largely a fantasy. "There is likely to be a continuing trade-off, in which India will struggle to deliver the two things Modi has promised above all: very rapid growth and very little graft."
A better approach is to push institutional anti-graft reforms, such as the earlier decision to auction off rights to natural resources, which can help keep corruption under control while allowing growth slowly to return....A transition from a “deals-based” to a “rules-based” model of capitalism, meaning one whose rules allow little political and bureaucratic discretion over public resources or as the author puts it through "meritocratic twentieth-century public administration .....Bureaucrats in New Delhi need to get out of the business of owning airlines and coal mines, and into the business of regulating them. More generally, India’s state must become more skilled at creating and managing markets, while building the kind of infrastructure that can deliver basic public services....by developing an expertise in manufactured goods, and then exporting to world markets. India’s development has a back-to-front look to it, with its historically weak manufacturing but vibrant services, especially in areas like technology outsourcing. Modi’s attempts to rebalance this have made some headway, but replicating exactly the paths of countries like China still seems unlikely. Instead, India must chart a hybrid economic model of its own. Whatever happens, it cannot rely on a handful of profitable service sectors alone, a model that would leave it looking more like an oil emirate than an east Asian tiger."
India certainly has the potential to lead the second half of the Asian century—and indeed become the template of a more liberal and democratic world but this will largely depend on getting this transition right with the help and utilisation of its highly talented and burgeoning middle class. Transition is the key word the book suggests (as different from transformation) - the second half of this century don't forget is still 30 years away!