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It was a big, fat Indian wedding to beat them all.
Mining magnate and former politician Gali Janardhana Reddy had invited 50,000 of his dearest friends to Bangalore Palace for the five-day marriage feast of his 21-year-old daughter Brahmani in 2016.
Film-set designers transformed 36 acres of the expansive palace grounds into a perfect replica of the temples and palaces of Hampi, the medieval capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. Costumed actors wandered about to add authenticity. Animatronic elephants guarded the outer gates. Drummers, musicians and dancers, including a troupe flown in from Brazil, paraded and performed.
The bride wore a blood-red couture wedding sari rumored to have cost $3 million. Strand upon strand of dazzling diamonds — $16 million worth — encircled her neck, waist, wrists and head.
The tented dining hall, seating hundreds at a time, served up dishes from all across the subcontinent on banana leaves. The cavernous space could barely handle the crush; dozens of guests pressed behind each diner’s seat, impatiently waiting their turn. A phalanx of 3,000 security guards struggled to keep order.
“It seemed to be a Niagara Falls of spending,” one guest said.
At an estimated $85 million, the Reddy wedding would have been over-the-top under any circumstances.
But the celebration began two days after populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought India’s cash-based economy to near collapse with a sudden “demonetization” program. Overnight, 85 percent of the nation’s currency was deemed illegal.
What was meant as an anti-graft measure targeted at gangsters and bribe-taking civil servants caused chaos as 1.2 billion Indians found their hoarded funds to be worthless.
The timing for an extravagant wedding couldn’t have been worse, but Reddy still went ahead with the event and spared no expense.
The media had a field day. Reddy “impelled public outrage at a time when so many are struggling to find the cash to buy food,” New Delhi Television reported. “A sheer obscene display of wealth,” railed a rival politician.
As one of the nation’s “Bollygarchs,” Reddy was an extreme example of how massive wealth had become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, as India boomed in the era of hyperglobalization. In 2017, the country boasted more than 100 billionaires, fewer only than the United States, Russia and China. Meanwhile, the average Indian earned less than $2,000 a year — making the wealth gap between the nation’s top 1 percent and the rest of its people one of the most lopsided on earth.
James Crabtree traces the resulting tensions in “The Billionaire Raj” (Tim Duggan Books), out Tuesday, with profiles of the high-flying tycoons who flaunt their extreme wealth right in front of the world’s poorest.
The divide between rich and poor is most stark in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, where 22 million people crowd a narrow peninsula. Nine million live in shanty filled slums like the infamous Dharavi, Asia’s largest and densest ghetto, with a staggering 700,000 humans per square mile.
Meanwhile, just five people reside in a 525-foot single-family skyscraper that surveys the teeming city like an aerial fortress. The modernist, cantilevered tower — called Antilia — is the billion-dollar home of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. His $40 billion fortune places him at No. 19 on Forbes Magazine’s wealthiest people list.
“Money means nothing to me,” he said in 2017. “My father used to tell me, ‘All of us eat the same dal-roti.’ ”
Ambani, whose sprawling business empire includes petroleum, energy, retail and telecom ventures, completed the extravagant glass-and-steel residence in 2010. Its upper floors, draped with lush hanging gardens, contain apartments for his wife and himself, along with their three 20-something children. Their private floors offer sweeping views of the Arabian Sea less than a mile away.
Six floors of garages house the family’s massive car collection, which includes a Rolls-Royce Phantom, an Aston Martin Rapide, an armored BMW 760i, and a Maybach 62. There’s a separate floor where staff mechanics keep the vehicles in top shape.
Family members can get a workout in the building’s two floors of gyms, with a yoga studio, pool, basketball court, basement soccer field — and an “ice room,” where artificial snow flurries stave off the tropical heat.
The ground floor contains a grand ballroom where Ambani hosts company functions, charity balls and weddings for favorite relatives. “It’s all very bling,” one guest reported. “Lots of chandeliers. The chandeliers have chandeliers.” A single month’s energy bill in 2010 came to $109,000, an enterprising reporter found — jaw-dropping in a country where hundreds of millions live with no electricity at all.
This temple of wealth hasn’t gone unnoticed by the hoi polloi. “The amount of rage at Antilia has to be heard to be believed,” one local anti-corruption activist said. That might explain Ambani’s bulletproof BMW.
Ambani, who rarely engages with the press, has not commented on the backlash, but his wife Nita shrugged it off. “There have been exaggerated reports in the media about it, I must say,” she said in 2012.
Just as an industrializing America produced a crop of Gilded Age robber barons in the late 19th century, post-socialist India gave rise to the Bollygarchs at the end of the 20th.
Reformers launched a deregulation program in 1991 to undo the post-independence “License Raj,” when the government granted licenses allowing businesses to operate. Mukesh Ambani’s father founded the family empire on his ability to work the bureaucrats under this “crony socialism.”
The system that took its place soon after became a type of crony capitalism, as politicians and industrialists divvied up assets like mining and telecom rights. Many businessmen, like Reddy, took political side gigs as state ministers or members of Parliament to gain even more control. India’s billionaire explosion began.
“Your skill set was managing the government in those days,” fabric billionaire Gautam Hari Singhania says.
The giveaways and bribes began coming to light in 2010, in what became known as the “season of scams.” Years of investigations and prosecutions stoked a simmering anti-government fury that erupted in the 2014 election of Modi — a populist backlash that presaged the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
Some of the Bollygarchs’ garish projects were too far along to be stopped. Singhania, for example, completed his 36-story Mumbai home, JK House, in 2016. At 476 feet, it is the city’s second-tallest family residence. The two-level flagship Raymond retail store, the nation’s largest chain of men’s clothing shops, occupies the building’s lower floors. Above, the skyscraper holds two swimming pools, 16 floors of apartments, and a private museum devoted to the family’s century-old fabric business, the world’s largest producer of wool suiting and the primary source of Singhania’s fortune.
Singhania’s main passion, however, is for speed. He established India’s first super car club and built the nation’s first drift track for the competitive sport of stylish sideways driving. His huge collection of sports cars includes a flashy Lamborghini Gallardo and a Lotus Elise convertible. In 2015 he became the first Indian to win a race in the Ferrari Challenge Europe series, a 15-race cycle for amateur drivers, at the wheel of a Ferrari 458 that sported India’s tricolors of orange, white and green.
The textile tycoon takes his swanky taste to the sea, too, with a fleet of flamboyantly named vessels, including the speedboats GoldenEye, Goldfinger, Octopussy and Thunderball. His sleek 164-foot yacht Moonraker sleeps 10 and includes a gym, a movie theater and “emotional showers” that combine aromatherapy, colored lights and water temperature to affect mood. He also owns a rare all-teak yacht, the Ashena, decorated with luxe pieces like a marble-topped bar supported by seven silver elephants.
Singhania keeps his 30,000 factory employees on salary rather than paying them for piecework, a generous policy by Indian standards. But their starting pay of 14,000 rupees a month — about $206 — reflects the yawning gulf between the workers and the billionaire raj.
The brazen billionaire who set the trend of conspicuous consumption that later Bollygarchs followed was the self-proclaimed “King of Good Times,” Vijay Mallya, who spun out an impossibly luxe life of super-yachts and Formula One race cars to a dangerous extreme — all, he insisted, for the good of the business.
Mallya inherited United Breweries in 1983 at age 27, after his father’s sudden death. The company’s signature brand, Kingfisher Beer, was on its last legs, thanks in part to India’s strict rules outlawing alcohol advertising.
“I did what [Richard] Branson does,” he said, taking his cue from the playboy Virgin CEO. “I lived the brand.”
Mallya made headline-grabbing behavior his mission, pursuing it with a vengeance around the world. He bought multiple luxury homes — from an apartment in Trump Tower to a South African game preserve — and globe-trotted relentlessly, plying guests with his products all the way.
He cruised in a 165-foot Edwardian yacht, the Kalizma, that actor Richard Burton had presented as a gift to Elizabeth Taylor in 1967. He collected dozens of classic cars, stashing them at his various properties. He bought a cricket franchise in the Indian Premier League, naming them the Royal Challengers Bangalore after his own brand of whiskey.
His branding turned Kingfisher into a big seller, which he leveraged to continually expand his conglomerate — taking on ever riskier debts to fund ever more dubious ventures, and eventually seizing a seat in Parliament to bend regulations in his favor.
One of his brands, the low-price but luxe Kingfisher Airlines, never turned a profit in seven years. When regulators yanked its licenses in 2012, Mallya’s overinflated empire began to collapse. By 2016, $2 billion in debt to suppliers, bankers and former employees, he had a new nickname: the “poster boy of loan default.”
With Modi’s government threatening criminal fraud charges, Mallya fled to London, where he lives in luxurious exile with the remains of his fortune, a Maybach behind his mansion town house and an estate in the country — still fighting the extradition order that would land him in a New Delhi prison if he ever returns to India. His next court date is July 31.
Modi seems intent on making an example of Mallya. The former tycoon’s extradition was a prime topic of discussion when the Indian leader met with British Prime Minister Theresa May last month.
“The fact is that the law is catching up with those who felt entitled to play with the law,” a Modi spokesman said Wednesday — a signal, perhaps, to the Bollygarchs that the cronyism that made their fortunes might finally be spent.
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