Author James Crabtree On India's Growing Income Divide And 'The Billionaire Raj'

Jul 9, 2018
Originally published on July 9, 2018 8:34 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The spirit of an age is often captured in its grandest buildings. That's a line from journalist James Crabtree's new book "The Billionaire Raj." In modern Mumbai, that building is Antilia, a skyscraper that looks like a game of Jenga.

JAMES CRABTREE: In there, you have a hotel-style ballroom in the basement. In the subbasement, you have an indoor football pitch and a basketball pitch. You've got six floors of parking for the family car collection. And then you go up and up and up through luxurious amenities - you know, gyms and saunas, hanging gardens, a fantastic roof terrace. But this is known colloquially in Mumbai as the billion-dollar home.

SHAPIRO: That's right - home. With all of its opulence and exuberance, Antilia is a single-family home built by India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani. He's just one of the billionaire tycoons rapidly reshaping modern India and contributing to one of the fastest-growing income divides in the world. When I spoke with James Crabtree about his book, I started by asking him about that divide.

CRABTREE: India remains a very poor country. And yet at the very pinnacle of society, you have people like Mr. Ambani who's not only the richest man in India, he's the richest man in all of Asia. And in many ways, this is quite similar to the phenomenon that happened in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Gilded Age where you have rampant corruption and cronyism in politics. The stages the two countries are at are very different in many ways, but they're going through a sort of similar period in their histories.

SHAPIRO: The Gilded Age in the United States ended at the turn of the 20th century with economic turbulence and reforms and the rise of labor unions. Do you think that India is headed on a similar trajectory?

CRABTREE: I think it certainly could. So that's the optimistic scenario. So in the U.S., you had many of these similar characteristics. So Mukesh Ambani bears some similarities to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was also, I mean, I think the richest man who had ever lived by the time that he died in the latter part of the 19th century. The U.S. example is a very positive one because you move from the Gilded Age to what tends to be called the Progressive Era. Gradually, corruption was driven out of politics. You move from a buccaneering, corrupt, rapacious society to one that was much more socially just.

And I think that's perfectly possible in India. But in order to get there, it doesn't happen by accident. You have to deal with deeply rooted inequality. You have to stamp out corruption. You have to have an industrial system where you can, you know, build infrastructure without corruption. And so the point is that India stands on the cusp of that change.

SHAPIRO: Is this a moment in India right now where everyone's life is improving and the growth is just most dramatic among the super-rich, or are the wealthiest people in India profiting at the expense of the poor?

CRABTREE: I think it's a little bit of both. India has had a reasonably positive record on poverty reduction. The image many people have of India is of grinding abject poverty when that's actually not really how things are anymore. Since liberalization, the rising tide is lifting all boats to some degree. It's just that the people at the top are shooting off into the distance.

SHAPIRO: You write that this is ultimately an optimistic book. And having read it, that is not obvious to me (laughter). So explain why you see it that way.

CRABTREE: I think we have seen many examples of countries that have come through this. If you were to have lived in the United States in 1880 and you were to have seen the mansions of Newport, R.I., and the slums of New York, you might not have been very optimistic about America's future. You might have said, you know, this is an endemically corrupt country run by complete scoundrels in which the rich are running away with everything. And yet, you know, within 10 or 20 years, you had the beginnings of a movement which changed the country very fundamentally.

And I think we in America and Britain, in the West have a great stake in this. I mean, India is going to be one of the world's fastest-growing economies for the next 20 or 30 years. But it's also a democracy at the time in which China is slipping backwards into a form of quasi-dictatorship. The same is true with Russia. You look around the world, it's not an optimistic picture.

We all have a huge interest in the success of India. If India can become a prosperous parliamentary democracy with something approaching a liberal market economy in which its various diverse peoples - Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian - can live together in some form of harmony, then this would be a wonderful thing for humanity.

SHAPIRO: James Crabtree, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

CRABTREE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: His new book is called "The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.