Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Does India Have Too Many Billionaires?

In my column in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal Asia, I wade into a debate about whether India’s burgeoning population of billionaires, 55 individuals or families at last count, is something the country needs to worry about. Since last year, growing disquiet over corruption in public life has tarnished the reputation of some of India’s best known businessmen, and led to calls for India to “rein in its robber barons.” As the argument goes, something is wrong with the fact that India, with barely 2 percent of the world’s GDP (in dollar terms) houses nearly 7 percent of the world’s billionaires.

To begin with, worrying about “too many billionaires” in a land long defined by its poverty strikes me as somewhat absurd. More substantively, I argue that if corruption is the issue, then it’s excessive government interference in business that needs reining in.

India’s incipient anti-business rhetoric misdiagnoses both the problem and the solution. Unlike Suharto’s Indonesia or post-Soviet Russia, India’s business landscape is not dominated by classic crony capitalists, but by genuine businesses that need more than the right connections to thrive. And as shown by the dodgiest sectors of the economy—real estate and telecom—India’s trouble is not too much capitalism, but too much government control.

Going by the response thus far on Twitter, readers are divided on this issue, with many leaning toward a view that business is a large part of the problem in India. In a broader sense, the debate about billionaires cuts to the heart of different ways of viewing inequality, opportunity, and free enterprise. The long-term challenge for India remains getting more of its people to shed destructive ways of thinking about wealth that have almost become habit after decades of socialism.

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