Tycoon tower: the 27-storey Antilia, Mumbai residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, has come to symbolise Indian wealth disparity. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Slumdog billionaires: the rise of India’s tycoons

New non-fiction books by the novelists Arundhati Roy and Rana Dasgupta examine India’s troubled relationship with capitalism and the blurred links between political and business elites. 

Capital: a Portrait of 21st-Century Delhi
Rana Dasgupta
Canongate, 512pp, £25

Capitalism: a Ghost Story
Arundhati Roy
Haymarket Books, 125pp, $14.95

Midway through India’s recent election, I watched Meera Sanyal talk at a campaign event about a crisis in her country’s system of capitalism. It seemed an odd topic, given that Sanyal spent almost her entire professional career in finance. But late last year she quit her job as a senior banker, joined the newly formed anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (or “common man”) Party (AAP), and announced plans to run for parliament in the south of Mumbai, the financial capital.

India’s troubled capitalism was a central theme of the poll, which ended on 16 May with an overwhelming victory for Narendra Modi of the opposition centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party. When voting began in early April, the AAP launched a series of attacks on the close links between India’s business and political elites, alleging that big conglomerates had received regulatory favours in return for funnelling money to the two establishment parties: Modi’s BJP and the then-ruling Congress. Yet, in trying to distil the anger felt by many at the behaviour of the wealthy, Sanyal turned not to a company, nor to an individual, but to a house: a giant residential skyscraper in Mumbai called Antilia, which belongs to the billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India.

“You walk around the streets of this city, and the amount of rage at Antilia has to be heard to be believed,” Sanyal said, detailing allegations that the 27-storey building had been built on land owned by a local orphanage but bought for well below market rates – allegations its owner refutes. As it was built, the high-rise mansion – a vertical palace, fit for a modern maharaja – came to symbolise an Indian elite set apart. “At first I just thought of it as a terribly ugly structure, a blight on the face of Mumbai, but you see what people say about it,” Sanyal said. “It’s not good for the country when you have crony capitalism of that nature.”

Raising these concerns did little to help the Aam Aadmi’s cause: Sanyal lost easily and the party won only a handful of seats, in a result even its leaders admitted was a great disappointment. Modi, who was sworn in as prime minister on 26 May, won in part because of his own promises to tackle corruption. On the stump, he lambasted his Congress opponents for presiding over a spate of rollicking scandals as well as plummeting growth. He has since pledged action on both fronts. Yet even if he makes early progress, India faces a more profound problem, of which Antilia is just the most visible symbol: a rapid increase in national wealth that appears to be enjoyed disproportionately by figures such as Ambani and his fellow heads of family-controlled businesses, leaving behind a country that is becoming more troubled and less equal.

Such is Antilia’s status as the icon of India’s new Gilded Age that it is hardly surprising to see it pop up at the opening of Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: a Ghost Story. Best known for her early novel The God of Small Things, Roy has become a strident political activist and critic of India’s system of government, battling for causes ranging from Kashmiri separatism to caste and environmental justice. The supposed villainy of India’s tycoon class is her latest target, as she attacks the perfidy of industrial giants such as the Tata, Birla and Jindal groups of companies – as well as Reliance Industries, the conglomerate with interests from oil refining to retail whose profits funded Ambani’s luxurious home.

Reliance “is one of a handful of corporations that run India”, Roy says, through a mechanism she characterises as “gush-up” economics, rather than the more familiar conservative, trickle-down variant. “A Gush-Up concentrates wealth on to the tip of a shining pin on which billionaires pirouette; tidal waves of money crash through the institutions of democracy – the courts, the parliament – as well as the media, seriously compromising their ability to function,” she writes. “The noisier the carnival around election, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.”

At fewer than 150 pages, Capitalism is more a polemical essay than a book, albeit one that makes a fair point about wealth. It cannot be denied that the fortunes of India’s 1 per cent are rising. By some measures, the country comes close to rivalling Russia for the concentration of financial resources in the hands of its cadre of billionaires. Yet Roy provides an uneven blast against this trend. Her style is grating, especially her fondness for capitalised sloganeering – “the Gush-Up Gospel”, “the Privatisation of Everything”, and so on. The procession of the book’s argument is curious, too, moving from commentary on the tycoons into detours attacking the role of foreign charities in India, as well as domestic companies that set up less-than-sincere corporate social responsibility projects. Of all the faults displayed by India’s business elite, these can hardly be the most severe.

Roy is equally critical of the anti-corruption movements that gave birth to the AAP over the past three years, describing the party as an essentially middle-class affair that did little to challenge corporate power. This seems hard-hearted, especially as the AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has become the country’s most trenchant critic of business corruption – precisely the type of crime that Roy abhors.

India’s wealthy industrialists are unques­tionably powerful, but Roy’s depiction of them as wielding unbridled influence seems at best half accurate. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance is a case in point: it operates a giant gas field in eastern India that is stuck in endless regulatory delays. Where once India’s tycoons may have been unfettered, they often seem constrained now, not least because of those same middle-class anti-corruption campaigns that Roy disdains, which have made it more difficult for business to work the political system to its advantage.

Ultimately, however, the problem with Roy’s account is her unwillingness to acknowledge any of the good that has come with India’s recent economic development: the tens of millions moved out of basic poverty, or the rising incomes spent on education, housing and food, as well as television sets and fridges. A fairer description would note that these benefits have emerged through a process that has proved wrenching, uneven and environmentally problematic, as a long-closed society opened up in two short decades.

Where Roy’s work is slight and frequently shrill, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital provides a larger and more thoughtful canvas from which to show India’s upheavals. Dasgupta moved from New York to India in 2000, having grown up in England, his journey the reverse of the one undertaken a generation earlier by his father, who left a precarious life in his home country to become a professionally successful immigrant in Britain. Capital is also the author’s first work of non-fiction, after one previous collection of stories and a novel.

Dasgupta’s concern is partly geographic, because he moved to New Delhi, India’s most sprawling metropolis. Here, empires have come and gone, from Mughal courts and British colonialism to Nehruvian autar­chy. Yet in the past decade there has been an especially forceful tearing down and refashioning as a swift but muddled growth-fuelled expansion has taken place. Capital is equally concerned with the psychological effect of these changes and more broadly with the tide of money that has flooded through the country since the liberalisation of its economy. This has left its upper middle classes in particular suffering from a kind of developmental vertigo, which Dasgupta describes simply as “trauma”.

Delhi is a depressingly appropriate lens through which to view modern India. As the national economy has grown, so the importance of political power, and the financial rewards for controlling that power, have grown, too. Thus, the capital has acquired a dubious double reputation. It is a locus for colossal corruption, a place where fortunes are amassed ruthlessly and efficiently by back-scratching politicians and industrialists. Yet it is also marked by inaction and decline: an Indian synonym for Washington, a place known for its useless dysfunction.

Delhi is also the most obvious focus for the brewing rage that Dasgupta sees as a response to the repeated rents in the fabric of India, a problem most starkly evident in a series of high-profile sexual attacks. “Violence against women in the changing world of post-liberalisation India came not just from a variety of uncultured misfits . . . it came from the mainstream, and from every social class,” he writes. The old family-based culture struggled to adapt to the speedy shifts in gender attitudes brought about by economic reform.

Dasgupta’s style is thickly descriptive, often devoting entire chapters to individ­ual conversations or single scenes as he journeys around the city meeting minor tycoons, troubled wives, worried hospital patients and impoverished migrants. This approach occasionally leaves his narrative feeling ponderous. Nor is he an economist, and so Capital’s interest in finance is often more sweeping than precise, leaving a sense that the book’s undeniable distaste for Indian modernity stems in part from its author’s essentially conservative concern with the inappropriate influence of money.

For all that, Capital is a remarkably ele­gant work whose rich style and sweep often brings to mind V S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now, which provided a similarly engrossing portrait of pre-liberalisation urges in India during the 1980s. It is also perhaps the best-written description of India’s changing face since Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City a decade ago: a book that was a hymn to modern India’s other great and troubling city, Mumbai.

Yet, for all the financial energy of Mumbai, India’s ambitions for justice and development will be realised only through political renewal in Delhi. Here, both Roy and Dasgupta sound pessimistic, the latter occasionally echoing the views of another recent, much-discussed book on capital, by the French economist Thomas Piketty. The likes of India “missed out on international capitalism’s mid-20th century – its moment of inclusiveness and hope”, Dasgupta writes. He suggests these places now have little prospect of rescuing citizens scarred by their nation’s dizzying transition.

This conclusion may be too gloomy. For all Delhi’s dysfunction, there are signs of promise in its recent anti-corruption and anti-rape movements, and the efforts of some of its admittedly flawed democratic institutions, from the Supreme Court to government auditors. That these efforts have been patchy only serves to underline what is at stake following the election. Having won, Narendra Modi faces profound choices, not only about the best way to restart stuttering national growth, but also about how to move the country on to a more egalitarian, less traumatic path to development.

In his first days as prime minister-elect, Modi spoke movingly of his plans, saying his government would “be dedicated towards the poor”. But although he is fond of fulminating against corruption, he has so far shown few signs of wanting fundamentally to reorder the broken relationship between Indian business and politics, or to curb the power of the tycoons. That does not mean that such things are impossible, however. America’s original Gilded Age was followed by a progressive era, which tamed monopolies and gradually developed a welfare state. The same things can happen in India. At one point Dasgupta notes that the country’s middle classes often try to imagine ways of improving the lot of the vast Indian underclass – only to give up, confounded by the complexity of the task. For their country, this would be the worst outcome of all.

James Crabtree is the Financial Times’s Mumbai correspondent

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era