In 2018, James Crabtree, wrote a tome on India entitled ‘The Billionaire Raj’. His concern was that India, characterized by an egregious degree of inequality where the top one percent owned most of the country’s wealth, presented a development challenge despite its rapid growth and relatively well-established democratic governance. The card-carrying members of the top one percent formed the ‘Billionaire Raj’ with close links with the government. These links were bipartisan. They were nurtured and nourished for decades by the key political parties (Congress and BJP) that ruled India after the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s.
One of the most prominent members of this Billionaire Raj is Gautam Adani from Gujrat (pictured above). A college drop-out, he rose from modest beginnings to become Asia’s richest man and, for a while (September 2022), was ranked by Forbes as the second richest in the world.
Adani reigns over a vast and diversified business empire cutting across energy, aviation, ports and more. He is regarded as ‘…the largest private developer of coal power plants and coal mines in the world’. Is Adani’s astounding ascent (see Figure 1) the result of unusual business acumen or was it because he was the ultimate crony capitalist? He became so close to Modi that the current Prime Minister decided to travel to Delhi in Adani’s private jet when he won the national election for the first time in 2014. Crabtree himself is equivocal, noting controversies surrounding the ‘quiet tycoon’, but without condemning Adani or even criticizing him in forthright terms.
Figure 1: Adani’s wealth history reveals his astounding ascent
The controversies surrounding Adani are not limited to India. He is well known to an Australian audience because of the contentious Carmichael mine and rail project located in Queensland that has spawned a ‘Stop Adani’ campaign.
Thanks to the moral courage of a veteran Indian journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and his co-authors, we know a lot more about the helping hand of the government that enabled Adani’s rise through a series of articles that the distinguished journalist wrote between 2014 and 2020. Sadly, Thakurta has been hounded by the Adani group through the Indian legal machinery causing him to resign from his editorship of the venerable publication Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in July 2017. He has been placed on a ‘gag order’ by a court in Ahmedabad. More than 150 prominent academics, including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, wrote an open letter to the publisher of EPW that it should not have succumbed to legal intimidation to silence the voice of a noted critic of a corporate giant.
While Thakurta could be easily victimized, Gautam Adani did not anticipate that an esoteric entity from India’s close ally the United States would emerge as ‘Thakurta Mark II’. The US-based Hindenberg research (henceforth HR), which describes itself as a ‘short seller’, specializes in investigating firms whose stock prices are overly inflated and therefore ripe for a substantial downgrade. On January 24, 2023, HR claimed:
Today we reveal the findings of our 2-year investigation, presenting evidence that the INR 17.8 trillion (U.S. $218 billion) Indian conglomerate Adani Group has engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades.
HR highlighted the role of Vinod Adani, Gautum Adani’s brother, who ran a suite of shell companies in a tax haven to channel funds to the Adani group. HR also contends that the Adani group of listed companies is overvalued by 85 percent based on ‘market fundamentals’.
The HR report unleased a stock market rout of the Adani group of companies that is still reverberating through India’s corporate landscape (see Figure 2). Adani Enterprises, the parent company lost over 100 USD billion in a week, while Gautam Adani’s personal fortune took such a hit that he lost his rank as the second richest man in the world – and the richest in Asia – and is now ranked the 18th richest man in the world. That still makes him fabulously wealthy, while his listed companies are still rather large by both Indian and global standards.
Figure 2: The hit to Adani’s fortune
Adani has offered a rebuttal of HR’s provocative proclamations, threatened legal action, and even sought to ignite patriotic fervour by arguing that an attack on Adani is an attack on India. HR remains undeterred and has stood by its findings.
Actions speak louder than words. Adani has been forced to withdraw the secondary sale of shares of his listed companies, refunded billions to existing buyers, committed to prepaying debts and quietly accepted the fact that Adani securities as collateral for margin loans are now deemed worthless by several redoubtable financial institutions.
Thakurta was brave enough to document how the government aided and abetted the rise of Adani, while HR has added a new dimension to this thesis by highlighting internally generated sources of corporate malfeasance. The Thakurta thesis and its sequel by HR represents a damning indictment of one of the leading members of India’s Billionaire Raj. Yet, the regulatory authorities have either maintained discreet silence or made tepid statements. Modi himself has not spoken a word, as is his wont when he faces controversies. His finance minister (Nirmala Sitharaman) presented the annual budget as if nothing has happened. Some seasoned Indian commentators, such as Shekhar Gupta, regards such silence and lack of action as representing the pragmatism and maturity of ‘Indian capitalism’. Others are much less sanguine. A New York Times columnist regards this silence as ‘other worldly’, while Opposition politicians have been clamouring incessantly for an independent investigation of the claims made by HR. It remains to be seen how the Adani saga and its ramifications will be resolved.
Yan Islam is currently Adjunct Professor, Griffith Asia Institute and former Branch Chief, ILO, Geneva. The views expressed here are strictly personal.