Arundhati Roy - -
India’s prime minister and the billionaire Gautam Adani each benefited from the other’s rise – now their relationship is under scrutiny
Sat 18 Feb 2023 06.00 GMT
India is under attack by foreign powers. Specifically the United Kingdom and the United States. Or so our government would have us believe. Why? Because former colonialists and neo-imperialists cannot tolerate our prosperity and good fortune. The attack, we are told, is aimed at the political and economic foundations of our young nation.
The covert operatives are the BBC, which in January broadcast a two-part documentary called India: The Modi Question, and a small US firm called Hindenburg Research, owned by 38-year-old Nathan Anderson, which specialises in what is known as activist short-selling.
The BBC-Hindenburg moment has been portrayed by the Indian media as nothing short of an attack on India’s twin towers – Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and India’s biggest industrialist, Gautam Adani, who was, until recently, the world’s third richest man. The charges laid against them aren’t subtle. The BBC film implicates Modi in the abetment of mass murder. The Hindenburg report, published on 24 January, accuses Adani of pulling “the largest con in corporate history” (an allegation that the Adani Group strongly denies).
Modi and Adani have known each other for decades. Things began to look up for them after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, which raged through Gujarat after Muslims were held responsible for the burning of a railway coach in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive. Modi had been appointed chief minister of the state only a few months before the massacre.
At the time, much of India recoiled in horror at the open slaughter and mass rape of Muslims that was staged on the streets of Gujarat’s towns and villages by vigilante Hindu mobs seeking “revenge”. Some old-fashioned members of the Confederation of Indian Industry even made their displeasure with Modi public. Enter Gautam Adani. With a small group of Gujarati industrialists he set up a new platform of businessmen known as the Resurgent Group of Gujarat. They denounced Modi’s critics and supported him as he launched a new political career as Hindu Hriday Samrat, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts, or, more accurately, the consolidator of the Hindu vote-bank.
In 2003, they held an investors’ summit called Vibrant Gujarat. So was born what is known as the Gujarat model of “development”: violent Hindu nationalism underwritten by serious corporate money. In 2014, after three terms as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was elected prime minister of India. He flew to his swearing-in ceremony in Delhi in a private jet with Adani’s name emblazoned across the body of the aircraft. In the nine years of Modi’s tenure, Adani’s wealth grew from $8bn to $137bn. In 2022 alone, he made $72bn, which is more than the combined earnings of the world’s next nine billionaires put together.
People watching the BBC documentary 'India: the Modi Question'
What is the BBC Modi documentary and why is it so controversial?
The Adani Group now controls a dozen shipping ports that account for the movement of 30% of India’s freight, seven airports that handle 23% of India’s airline passengers, and warehouses that collectively hold 30% of India’s grain. It owns and operates power plants that are the biggest generators of the country’s private electricity. The Gujarat model of development has been replicated at scale.
“First Modi flew in Adani’s plane,” the bitter joke goes. “Now Adani flies in Modi’s plane.” And now both planes have developed engine trouble. Can they get out of it by wrapping themselves in the Indian flag?
Episode one of the BBC film The Modi Question (I appear briefly in the documentary as an interviewee) is about the 2002 Gujarat pogrom – not just the murdering, but also the 20-year journey that some victims made through India’s labyrinthine legal system, keeping the faith, hoping for justice and political accountability. It includes eyewitness testimonies, most poignantly from Imtiyaz Pathan, who lost 10 members of his family in the “Gulbarg Society massacre”, which was one of several similarly gruesome massacres that took place over those few days in Gujarat.
Pathan describes how they were all sheltering in the house of Ehsan Jafri, a former Congress party member of parliament, while the mob gathered outside. He says that Jafri made a final, desperate phone call for help to Narendra Modi, and when he realised no help would come, stepped out of his home and gave himself up to the mob, hoping to persuade them to spare those who had come to him for protection. Jafri was dismembered and his body burned beyond recognition. And the carnage rolled on for hours.
A Bajrang Dal Hindu nationalist brandishes an iron rod in Ahmedabad in 2002..
A Bajranj Dal Hindu nationalist brandishes an iron rod in Ahmedabad in 2002 Photograph: Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/Getty Images
When the case went to trial, the state of Gujarat contested the fact of the phone call, even though it had been mentioned not just by Pathan but several other witnesses in their testimonies. The contestation was upheld. The BBC film clearly mentions this. Vilified though it has been by the BJP government, the film actually goes out of its way to present the BJP’s point of view about the pogrom, as well as that of the Indian supreme court, which on 24 June 2022 dismissed the petition of Zakia Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s widow, in which she alleged there was a larger conspiracy behind the murder of her husband. The order called her petition an “abuse of process”, and suggested that those involved in pursuing the case be prosecuted. Modi’s supporters celebrated the judgment as the final word on his innocence.
The film also showcases an interview with the home affairs minister, Amit Shah, another old pal of Modi’s from Gujarat, who compares Modi to Lord Shiva for having “swallowed poison and held it in his throat” for 19 years. After the supreme court’s “clean chit”, the minister said: “Truth has come out shining like gold.”
The section of the BBC film that the government of India has acted most outraged about was the revelation of an internal report commissioned by the British Foreign Office in April 2002, so far unseen by the public. The fact-finding report estimated that “at least 2,000” people had been murdered. It called the massacre a preplanned pogrom that bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing”. It said reliable contacts had informed them that the police had been ordered to stand down. The report laid the blame squarely at Modi’s door. It was chilling to see the former, but obviously still cautious, British diplomat who was one of the investigators on the fact-finding mission choosing to remain anonymous, with his back to the camera.
Narendra Modi receives a garland as he campaigns during the Gujarat state legislature elections last year.
Narendra Modi receives a garland as he campaigns during the Gujarat state legislature elections last year. Photograph: Ajit Solanki/AP
Episode two of the BBC documentary, less seen but even more frightening, is about the dangerous divisiveness and deep fault lines Modi has cultivated during his tenure as prime minister. For most Indians it’s the texture of our daily lives: sword-wielding mobs, saffron-clad god-men routinely calling for the genocide of Muslims and the mass rape of Muslim women, the impunity with which Hindus can lynch Muslims on the street, and not only film themselves while doing it but be garlanded and congratulated for it by senior ministers in Modi’s cabinet.
Though The Modi Question was broadcast exclusively for a British audience, and limited to the UK, it was uploaded by viewers on YouTube and links were posted on Twitter. It lit up the internet. In India, students received warnings not to download and watch it. When they announced collective screenings in some university campuses, the electricity was switched off. In others, police arrived in riot gear to stop them watching. The government instructed YouTube and Twitter to delete all links and uploads. Those sterling defenders of free speech hurried to comply. Some of my Muslim friends were baffled. “Why does he want to ban it? The Gujarat massacre has always helped him. And we’re in an election year.”
Then came the attack on the second tower.
The 400-odd-page Hindenburg report was published on the same day the second episode of the BBC film was broadcast. It elaborated on questions that had been raised in the past by Indian journalists, and went much further. It alleges that the Adani Group has been engaged in a “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme”, which – through the use of offshore shell entities – artificially overvalued its key listed companies and inflated the net worth of its chairman.
According to the Hindenburg report, seven of Adani’s listed companies are overvalued by more than 85%. Based on these valuations, the companies reportedly borrowed billions of dollars on the international markets and from Indian public sector banks such as the State Bank of India and the Life Insurance Corporation of India, where millions of ordinary Indians invest their life savings.
The Adani Group responded to the Hindenburg report with a 413-page rebuttal. It claimed the group had been cleared of wrongdoing by Indian courts and that the Hindenburg allegations were malicious, baseless and amounted to an attack on India itself.
This wasn’t enough to convince investors. In the market rout that followed the publication of the Hindenburg analysis, the Adani Group lost $110bn. Credit Suisse, Citigroup and Standard Chartered stopped accepting Adani bonds as collateral for margin loans. The French firm TotalEnergies has paused a $4bn green hydrogen venture with the Adani Group. The Bangladesh government is reportedly seeking a reworking of a power purchase agreement. Jo Johnson, a former minister in the British government, and former prime minister Boris Johnson’s brother, resigned as a director of London-based Elara Capital, one of the companies mentioned in the Hindenburg report as tied to the Adani Group.
The political firestorm caused by the Hindenburg report brought squabbling opposition parties together to demand an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee. The government stonewalled, alarmingly indifferent to the concerns that managers of international finance capital might have about India’s regulatory systems. In the continuing budget session of parliament, two opposition party MPs, Mahua Moitra of the All India Trinamool Congress, and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, both of whom have raised questions about the Adani Group years before the Hindenburg report, stood up to speak.
Among the questions Moitra raised were: how did the home ministry give security clearance to the “A” Group for operating ports and airports while refusing to divulge the identity of one of its shareholders? How did the group amass about $5bn in foreign portfolio investments from six Mauritius-based funds, all which have the same address and company secretary? On what grounds did the public sector State Bank and the Life Insurance Corporation continue to anchor investments in the group?
For his part, Gandhi noted the prime minister’s travels to Israel, Australia and Bangladesh, and asked: “In how many of these countries that you visited did Adani-ji get a contract?” He listed some of them: a defence contract with Israel, a billion-dollar loan from the State Bank of India for a coalmine in Australia, a 1,500MW electricity project for Bangladesh. Last, and most pertinently, he asked how much money the BJP received from the Adani Group in secret electoral bonds.
This is the nub of it. In 2016, the BJP introduced the scheme of electoral bonds, which allow corporations to be able to fund political parties without their identities being made public. Yes, Gautam Adani is one of the world’s richest men; but if you look at its rollout during elections, the BJP is not just India’s, but perhaps even the world’s, richest political party. Will the old friends ever let us look at their account books? Are there separate account books?
Moitra’s questions were ignored. Most of Gandhi’s were expunged from parliament records. Modi’s reply lasted for a full 90 minutes.
He did what he does best – cast himself as a proud Indian, the victim of an international witch-hunt that would never succeed, because he wore the protective shield made up of the trust of 1.4 billion people that the opposition could never pierce. This figure (a politician’s equivalent of inflating the value of his shares) peppered every paragraph of his spongy rhetoric, ridden with derision, barbs and personal insults. Almost every sentence was greeted with desk-thumping from the BJP benches accompanied by the chant of “Modi! Modi! Modi!”
He said that however much filth was thrown at the lotus – the BJP’s election symbol – it would bloom. He never mentioned Adani once. Maybe he believes it’s not a debate that should concern his voters because tens of millions of them are unemployed, live in abject poverty on subsistence rations (delivered with his photograph on the packaging) and will not remotely comprehend what $100bn even means.
Most of the Indian media reported Modi’s speech in glowing terms. Was it a coincidence that in the days that followed a number of national and regional newspapers carried a front-page advertisement with a huge photograph of him announcing another investment summit, this one in the state of Uttar Pradesh?
BBC offices in India raided by tax authorities weeks after Modi documentary released – video report
BBC offices in India raided by tax authorities weeks after Modi documentary released – video report
Days later, on 14 February, the home minister said in an interview, on the Adani matter, that the BJP had “nothing to hide or be afraid of”. He once again stonewalled the possibility of a joint parliamentary committee and advised the opposition parties to go to court instead.
Even as he was speaking, office premises in Mumbai and Delhi were being surrounded by police and raided by tax officials. Not Adani’s offices: the BBC’s.
On 15 February, the news cycle changed. And so did the reporting about the neo-imperialist attack. After “warm and productive” meetings, Modi, President Joe Biden and President Emmanuel Macron announced that India would be buying 470 Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Biden said the deal would support more than a million American jobs. The Airbuses will be powered by Rolls-Royce engines. “For the UK’s thriving aerospace sector,” Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said, “the sky is the limit.”
So the lotus blooms on, in a bog of blood and money. And the truth most definitely shines like gold.
Arundhati Roy is a novelist and writer. Her novel The God of Small Things won the Booker prize in 1997
courtesy- the guardian