The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded


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  • The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age
  • James Crabtree
  • Anglais
  • 06 May 2017
  • 1524760064

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The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof CopyrightJames Crabtree It was a sunny December day when I found it, abandoned outside a Mumbai police station and draped in a dirty plastic sheet The silhouette revealed the outline of a car, low to the ground and beaten out of shape A chunky black tire was propped awkwardly against the chassis Thin white string tethered the sheet to a telephone pole, although this did nothing to stop me lifting it up and taking a peek below The scene underneath was a mess A tangle of metal erupted from the drivers side The bonnet was bent across the middle, pushed up by a violent impact Broken tubes stuck out from the engine Through a shattered windscreen I could see cramped rear seats, once plush red, now filthy and covered with dust But the passengers side was in better shape, revealing the classic lines of an Aston Martin Rapide, one of the worlds most expensive supercars The vehicle had met its demise late at night a few weeks earlier, in an incident whose mysterious aftermath stuck long in my mind as an exemplar of the power of Indias new super rich It had been roaring north up Pedder Road, a dual carriageway that separates two wealthy sections of the countrys financial capital To the left was Breach Candy, a plush enclave of residential towers offering pleasant views over the Arabian Sea Narrow lanes to the right led up to Altamount Road, where colonial era mansions hid behind high walls and iron gates It was roughly am when the Astons driver lost control, rear ending another car Jolted by the impact, the second vehicle, an Audi A, spun onto the opposite lane and clipped an oncoming bus A collision with a third car then crushed the Astons front end, sending it skidding across the road, where it crumpled to a halt in a whirl of smoke and glass No one was killed, but as her Audi came to a stop, Foram Ruparelayear old business school student, who had driven south earlier for dinnerrealized she was in a fix There were plenty of fancy cars in Mumbai, but Aston Martins remained rare Anybody owning one had to be richreally rich And that meant trouble What happened next is fiercely disputed Media reports said the Astons driver first tried to flee in his crippled vehicle Realizing it was too smashed up to drive, he jumped into one of two Honda sports utility vehicles that happened to have followed him down the road In seconds, there was a swarm of security men around the car and they bundled the driver into one of the SUVs and sped off, Ruparel told a local paper a few days later The security detail zoomed back down the road, heading towards the safety of a house just a few minutes drive away Although not visible from the crash scene, the building came quickly into view as they raced south A giant residential skyscraper called Antilia, it loomed high above the street, an unavoidable symbol of the prominence of its owner billionaire Mukesh Ambani, Indias richest man News of the hit and run filtered out quickly the next morning, Sunday, December ,The ruined Aston turned out to be owned by Reliance Ports, a little known subsidiary of Ambanis main Reliance Industries business, a giant conglomerate with interests stretching from oil refining and gas exploration to telecoms and television Later that afternoon, Bansilal Joshi, a portlyyear old driver employed by the Ambani family, presented himself at Gamdevi police station, about two kilometers from the crash site He had taken the car out for a late night test drive, he confessed, and had been behind the wheel when it crashed Then he fled the scene Ruparel told a different story, at least at first I could see in the rearview mirror the car was moving at a high speed, weaving left and right And then, in a flash, it hit my car, she told one local newspaper I had a decent look at the drivers face He was a young man In the days after the crash, rumors spread that the young man may have been a member of the Ambani family, the countrys preeminent business dynasty Yet over the next few weeks Ruparel had a change of heart Towards the end of December, she signed a statement in a magistrates court claiming Joshi had been the driver after all The Reliance Industries account of what happened that night may very well be true No one has been able to find out for sure The police said CCTV footage of the moments leading up to the crash was inconclusive Pedder Road is one of Mumbais busiest thoroughfares, teeming even late at night with roadside hawkers, pedestrians, and pavement dwellers trying to catch a few hours of sleep on cardboard mats Yet none of those at the scene caught a glimpse of the fleeing driver Indias usually tenacious media covered the story with caution too While the cops have maintained a stoic silence so have most of Indias leading television channels, a report in Forbes went so far as to put it later In spite of the denials, the article even named a member of the Ambani family on the basis of rife speculation online that he was allegedly involved in the smash up Curious to find out , I called a company spokesman in the days following the crash He told me it was perfectly normal for Reliance Ports, ostensibly a logistics and transport business, to own a sports car with a price tag in the region of , There was also nothing unusual, he said, in an employee taking such a car for a test drive in the small hours of the morning, or for him to be trailed by security vehicles The company firmly denied that anyone other than Joshi, its driver, had been involved In private, many of those I met over the following days were skeptical of elements of this story, although almost no one said anything in public Omar Abdullah, the outspoken chief minister of the state of Kashmir, was one exception, tweeting If friends in Mumbai are to be believed, it seems the only people who dont know who was driving the fancy Aston Martin are the Mumbai police Not long afterwards, I went to an evening reception in the seafront Taj Palace hotel, whose Gothic stone facade and pale red dome provide one of Mumbais most recognizable landmarks Darkness was falling outside as corporate luminaries gathered beneath glistening chandeliers in the main ballroom The lights of distant yachts glinted in the harbor Talk turned quickly to the mysteries of the crash, although only after much conspiratorial glancing over shoulders Reliance continued fiercely to deny any wrongdoing, but rightly or wrongly many of those I met seemed doubtful about the companys version of events Whatever the truth of the matter, the incident cast a revealing light on how billionaires were viewed in India That evening, I found myself playing devils advocate Both theories about what happened seemed questionable, I argued the Reliance account of the late night test drive on the one hand and the vague conspiracy and cover up theory on the other At one point at the Taj I told the head of a local bank that the Reliance story seemed thelikely of the two He shot me a look with which I would soon become familiar a combination of amazement and pity at the foreigners navet I realized then the mystery of who exactly had been driving was not the real issue Such was the mystique surrounding the Ambanis, and so comprehensive was the belief in their power, what mattered was that everyone thought they could, if needed, make such a scandal disappear A few days later I went to Gamdevi police station to find outIt was a dusty, chaotic old building, set back a few blocks from Chowpatty Beach and the Art Deco apartment blocks of Marine Drive, the citys crescent shaped promenade Bored looking officers napped on plastic chairs beneath slowly turning fans, guarding rooms filled with overflowing piles of paper The inspector was out, one told me He returned eventually and granted a cautious interview Where is the car now I asked It has been impounded For tests, he said And when will those tests be finishedIt will take some time As we spoke, my mind conjured up a scene from the television series CSI, in which the Astons ruined body had been carried to a spotless warehouse somewhere on the edge of town, where experts in overalls and white gloves were conducting a careful forensic examination It was only when I emerged blinking back into the sunlight that a silhouette wrapped in a gray sheet caught my eye, parked a short distance down the street No, I remember thinking It cant be Over the next year, I would stop by from time to time to see if the car was still there It always was The sheet got progressively dirtier, its topdeeply encrusted with bird shit But the car beneath never seemed to have been touched Sometimes I would stop by the police station and ask the officers how the investigation was progressing Ongoing, they told me, a code word we both understood to mean nothing whatsoever was happening Here was one of the worlds most expensive cars, belonging to one of the worlds richest men a feared tycoon whom no sensible person would want to cross a man whose power and influence, while enigmatic, was considered an inescapable fact of modern India And so the car itselfan awkward reminder of events that early December morningjust sat there, ruined, fully wrapped and half forgotten, as if all involved hoped they might wake one morning and find that a passing magician had whisked off the sheet, and made the wreckedvehicle conveniently disappearA lively and valuable blend of the empirical and the anecdotal The best parts of Mr Crabtrees book, however, arent his observations on the civic state of India although these are certainly valuable and wise They are his reportage, in which he relates his encounters with several of the men who are emblematic of the billionaire raj Tunku Varadarajan, Wall Street JournalThilling The Billionaire Raj does the great service ofshowing how Indias political system and its firms are symbiotically connected, in an entertainingand sometimes disturbingfashion The EconomistA nuanced portrait chock full of profoundly revealing vignettes from various corners of Indias endlessly diverse society and economy Jonathan A Knee, The New York TimesAn excellent survey of Indias economic and political transformation Crabtrees Indian story is a cautionary tale of globalizations excesses and the consequences for one of the worlds most unequal societiesThe Washington PostCrabtrees vivid portrayal of the corruption of politics is very informative, and thought provoking The most comprehensive and eminently readable tour of economic India Meghnad Desai, Financial TimesAn enlightening and engaging story of wealth and poverty in India, but also a sadindictmentof the power of inequity in subduing and overwhelming its areas of success Amartya Sen, winner of theNobel Prize in EconomicsJames Crabtree has written a lucid, detailed, and at times epic account of the new India, opening our eyes to the economic and social transformation that has quietly occurred there in recent years, behind the facade of the headlines A must read for all those interested in the political and economic destiny of the subcontinentRobert D Kaplan, author of The Return of Marco Polos World James Crabtree, once a hugely admired star foreign correspondent, has transformed himself into a brilliant writer and analyst of the Indian super rich This timely, fascinatingand eye opening book is alsoa rarity for a book about moneywonderfully witty and beautifully written William Dalrymple, author of The Last MughalJames Crabtree distinguished himself as the most insightful journalist writing for the Financial Timesfrom India It is not surprising therefore that he has now written a book that offers a splendid overview of the issues that have been raised concerning Indias spectacular growth since the reforms began inIt is bound to become a classicJagdish Bhagwati, co author of Why Growth MattersBillionaire watching may seem like voyeuristic fun, but it also provides serious insights about where a nation is headed James Crabtree does just that in The Billionaire Raj, as he traces the incredible rise of Indias new super rich and everything they reveal about the state of Indias political economy Mixing colorful anecdotes with serious analysis, Crabtree s urgent book gives us farthan just vicarious thrills about Indias new Gilded Age Ruchir Sharma, author of The Rise And Fall Of NationsWho are the Indian nouveau riche and what do they want James Crabtrees The Billionaire Rajwill prove the defining work on these questions It is a must read for anyone interested in wealth, inequality, India, or the evolution of capitalismTyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class A fascinating look into the world of the Indian business elitethe Bollygarchsand their political entanglements James Crabtree deftly explores the changing balance between big money and democratic accountability, shedding considerable light on whether the country will sustain the miracle that is the Indian democracy or go the way of populism and authoritarianism, as so many others have Dani Rodrik,author of Straight Talk on Trade Crabtree s stylish writing and sharp insights bring to life the extremes of a country changing with bewildering rapidity, and one the world will find increasingly hard to ignore The Billionaire Raj is an essential guide if you want to understand modern India, as you must Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the GodsA wonderful book It artfully weaves together lively stories of Indias billionaires while retaining a balanced perspective on the the big picture of the rise of India It is not easy to write contemporary history but Crabtree manages to get to the heart of the matterthe problem of Indias state capacity and the need to reform the institutions of governanceGurcharan Das,author ofIndia Unbound


About the Author: James Crabtree

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