Book Review: Two Journalists Look at How Modern India Works

Former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and others among the hundreds of guests at the Ambani family’s mind-blowing wedding celebrations last month that cost maybe as much as US$100 million, will not have been given a copy of The Billionaire Raj: a Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age, by James Crabtree.

Hilary Clinton with Mukesh and Nita Ambani

Mukesh Ambani, a top industrialist who revels in showing he is India’s richest man, treated the guests to massive pre-wedding parties in the Rajasthan desert city of Jodhpur and to the wedding ceremony at his (literally) over-the top 27-floor home in Mumbai (there was a later less glamorous reception for thousands of guests). But Billionaire Raj will not have been in the elite guests’ two-tiered invitation box, each rumored to have cost Rs300,000 ($4,300), nor on their bedside tables.

The six-page prologue of the book – and the most revealing of its 300 pages – tells of another side of Ambani’s life that he would rather not display. Indeed, it is remarkable that the various publishers of the book in the UK, US and India have not been forced to remove or at least tone down the six pages that explain how an Aston Martin owned by one of Ambani’s Reliance Industries’ companies had a spectacular 1.30 am crash in Mumbai in December 2014. The driver, described as a young man, was rushed away into the night by escort cars and a portly 55-year old Reliance driver claimed the next day that he had been behind the wheel.

Crabtree’s US edition cover shows the Ambani’s home towering above its surroundings

This is the world that Crabtree, a former Financial Times’ Mumbai correspondent, writes about, recounting tales of people he met, and some he didn’t – strangely it appears he did not interview Ambani, whose empire straddles oil exploration and refining to textiles and telecoms with significant (and useful) stakes in the media and even India’s iconic Oberoi hotel chain.

It is also the world that another former foreign corresponded, Dean Nelson of the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, explores in Jugaad Yatra, which describes the “fix-it” mentality that governs much of Indian life. The Ambanis’ father, Dhirubhai, built a wide-ranging successful business by mixing deft fixing of government policies and regulations with astute management, skills his son Mukesh has inherited and burnished. Nelson ranges widely with extensive original stories and research that reveal how Indians’ (and his own family’s) ability to make the most of scarce resources leads on to what is recognized internationally as laudable frugal engineering.

Jugaad came into action after the Ambani’s Aston Martin crash. The owner of another car in the accident, an Audi, told a local newspaper that the driver, who was bundled into one of the two escort cars, was a young man. Later however she signed a statement in a magistrates’ court that the 55-year old had, after all, been the driver. No one was hurt, so it was easy for the media to let the story fade away, unlike what happened in Delhi in a 1999 hit-and-run case when a BMW driven by the son of a prominent Indian Navy and defense agent family killed six people in the early hours. The son finished up in jail, but not before two witnesses changed their story saying it was a truck, not a BMW.

The identity of the Ambani car driver was widely gossiped about in Mumbai’s business community, but Crabtree doesn’t provide a name. Forbes’ on-line India edition however did do so, saying that “speculation online [with a link, now removed] has been rife that Akash Ambani, Mukesh’s older son was allegedly involved in the smash-up.” (He’s the brother of Isha Ambani, the bride in the recent wedding). Forbes’ veteran business writer, Naazneen Karmali, wondered in the article who bought new upgraded models for the owners of the Audi and another car in the crash, because insurance companies have said that they did not pay up.

Mukesh Ambani is basically a hardworking and focused businessman with extensive entrepreneurial and managerial skills that were displayed first on oil and gas projects and more recently on Jio, his latest mammoth venture that has changed the face of India’s telecommunications. The extreme extravagance on his daughter’s wedding seems out of kilter with this driven and ruthless entrepreneur, as does his multi-storey home.

Crabtree and Nelson both tell compelling stories about India’s business life, revealing how the country works. Crabtree has an underlying theme of extravagant wealth among widespread hardship, but mostly tours through examples of Mumbai’s “gilded age”. That is the subtitle of his book that draws parallels with America in the second half of the 19th century when it had ‘the great corporation, the crass plutocrat [and] the calculating political boss”, as one historian put it. Nelson burrows away in small towns as well as mega cities.

There’s a contrast in the characters they describe. Crabtree goes for the colorful, focusing for far longer than is deserved on the widely reported Vijay Mallya, who inherited a liquor business, expanded it and branched out into other businesses including an airline named after his Kingfisher beer brand. He managed by whatever means to elbow most other beers out of often government-controlled wine and beer shops, but his management style was far too unfocused and erratic for the airline which collapsed. He fled to Britain to escape court action and is now fighting extradition.

Crabtree spends considerable time on Mukesh Ambani, despite the lack of an interview, but there is no mention of many other stars of past and present business generations. Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata conglomerate, is only mentioned twice, including the astonishing line that he is “perhaps the only man to rival Mukesh Ambani’s stature in business.”

That remark requires a new definition of “stature” because Tata, while not always deserving the pedestal on which he is generally placed, is in a league that Ambani can never hope to match. Crabtree also brackets Mallya with Ambani and Gautam Adani as “self-evidently talented managers” when, if there was anything self-evident about Mallya, it was that he hadn’t a clue how to manage a business efficiently.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, the only surviving leading industrialist from the once sprawling Birla business clan, is only mentioned once, and the older business families such as Bajaj, Godrej, Kirloskar, and Singhania get rare mentions. The entrepreneurial characters who founded the highly successful IndiGo and currently-struggling Jet airlines, which survived when Kingfisher collapsed, do not appear, even though both are excellent examples (like Ambani) of mixing entrepreneurship with managing government relations. India’s internationally successful software companies get scant attention. Among market leaders, Infosys has less than half a page, while Wipro is amazingly not mentioned, nor is Tata’s TCS (along with most of the activities of India’s biggest group).

These lapses can be understood if one accepts that Billionaire Raj is not focused primarily on business, but goes instead for stories that bolster the image of a Western movie sort of swashbuckling corporate culture with a touch of the Mafia and Trump-the-businessman thrown in. That view is bolstered by the number of Indians in Forbes’s annual list of the world’s rising from just two in the mid-1990s to over 100 – without including hordes of illicit hidden wealth. Crabtree gives us a good informative read, with entertaining pen portraits of crony capitalists and others, and has useful chapters on how corruption works.

Nelson goes for slightly different jugaad “fix it” characters and appropriately chooses one of the controversial London-based Hinduja brothers, and a veteran of the Delhi-based cigarettes to cosmetics and education Modi family. The only businessman to figure prominently in both books is Anand Mahindra, a leading exponent of frugal engineering who runs the Mumbai based Mahindra group that for decades has been regarded as one of India’s most ethical groups.

When I wrote Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality in 2014 (there is a new updated edition out later this month), critics said I had failed to realize that India, with all its corruption and failings, was just going through a growth phase. To criticize it now, I was told, missed the point that it would come good, as America had done with a Progressive Era following the Gilded Age, and with the robber barons Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Carnegie becoming respectable.

Crabtree reflects a similar guarded optimism that India will replicate America progression, though there is little evidence of that. Nelson does not seem to think that the negative fix-it attitudes of jugaad will change. Even if characters like an Ambani, a Mallya, and an Adani follow the Rockefeller and Carnegie course, now or in later generations, there are hordes of new would-be crony capitalists (big and small) lining up behind them to fix and milk the system in league with greedy politicians and bureaucrats. With its speed of technological and social change, and an increasingly impatient youth, today’s India is far different from 19th century America.

The Billionaire Raj – A Journey Through India’s Gilded Age, by James Crabtree. Oneworld Publications (UK), Harper Collins (India), Penguin Random House (US), 2018

Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, by Dean Nelson. Aleph Book Company, Delhi 2018

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.