James Crabtree, formerly Mumbai bureau chief of the Financial Times, and currently holding a professorial position at the National University of Singapore, has recently released a much-noted book on the phenomenon of the ‘Billionaire Raj’ in India. There were only two billionaires in India in the mid-1990s, but now there are more than 100. This is the fastest growth, the author claims, in the size of the super-rich anywhere in the world. Crabtree regards them as today’s ‘bollygarchs’ – a nomenclature that represents a fusion between ‘Bollywood’ and oligarchy. ‘Antillia’ – the billion dollar plus private home of India’s richest man – Mukesh Ambani – represents the contentious icon of the Billionaire Raj. This is a far cry from the past when India was under the aegis of Nehruvian socialism. It was then a poor and relatively egalitarian society. Today, it is a lower middle income country that has enjoyed rapid growth for decades, but has also witnessed a sharp increase in inequality.
Branko Milanovic, one of the leading scholars of global inequality, argues that India represents a paradox. One the one hand, rapid growth over decades has enabled India to gradually converge towards the income levels of the richer parts of the world and, given its size, has played an important role in contributing to the reduction in income gaps between rich and poor countries. On the other hand, the rise in intra-country inequality that could be readily documented after income distribution data became available in 2004 has caused considerable anguish among analysts of Indian political economy.
Crabtree’s thesis of the Billionaire Raj has been explored by others quite extensively in recent years. Thomas Picketty, famous for his work on Capital in the 21st century, and his co-author Lucas Lancel also document India’s transformation from the British Raj to the Billionaire Raj. The 2018 World Inequality Report that Picketty coordinates with others classifies India as part of the ‘extreme inequality frontier’. This is defined as a situation where the top 10% own more than 50% of national income. Other countries/regions that belong to this extreme inequality frontier include Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil and the Middle East – see figure 1.
Crabtree –relying heavily on personal interviews with representatives of the super-rich – consider the emergence of the Billionaire Raj as the product of crony capitalism – where great wealth among a few were created through political connections. Despite this, he is hopeful that India might be able to forge a more progressive future of inclusive growth. Some reviewers of Crabtree’s work consider this as naïve optimism. The work of Lydia Assouad et al seem to support this contention. They conclude that ‘extreme inequality in India derives directly from the caste system that institutionalized socio-economic, legal and political disparities among citizens’. These historically entrenched sources of inequality were exacerbated as a generation of policy-makers progressively engaged in deregulation, privatization and global economic integration. These initiatives have produced mixed blessings: rapid growth, significant reductions in extreme poverty but also the rise of extreme inequality.
Iyanatul Islam is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and former Branch Chief, ILO, Geneva.