Is Gautam Adani, India's richest man, hedging his political bets?

The question is whether Adani, also the world's third richest man, is also sensing shifting political sands in India and is preparing to stabilize himself so as not to trip if such an eventuality comes to be. The answer will unfold over several months until 2024.

Mayank Chhaya Jan 02, 2023
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Gautam Adani and his Ahmedabad headquarters (Photo: Twitter)

When Gautam Adani, India's  richest person who heads the country's second most valuable conglomerate, says his rise as an entrepreneur predates the rise of Narendra Modi as prime minister by 30 years he is wittingly or unwittingly knocking the bottom off the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) central political posturing - the assertion that nothing of note happened in India before 2014.

The BJP’s popular albeit absurd claim that before Modi came to power in 2014 India saw next to no economic development was systematically demolished by Adani during his interview with India Today’s editorial director Raj Chengappa. That may not have been Adani’s calibrated intention but his attribution of his entrepreneurial success to policy and institutional and policy reforms put in place since 1984, a good 30 years before Modi’s election as prime minister, has the clear effect of negating the ruling party’s plank. The claim that India was a laggard for 67 years prior to 2014 crumbles by at least 30 years going by the observations made by the BJP’s favorite businessman.

“My professional success is not because of any individual leader but because of the policy and institutional reforms initiated by several leaders and governments during a long period of three decades,” Adani said. Quite clearly, Adani was attempting to separate himself and his success from his much talked about political proximity to Prime Minister Modi personally. His detailed if clearly managed response flies in the face of the claim aggressively repeated by the BJP’s vocal social media constituents.

Beneficiary of reforms

Adani specifically credited his successful initiation as an entrepreneur to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who ruled between 1984 and 1989. “Many will be surprised to know that it all began during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister when he first liberalized the EXIM (export-import) policy and for the first time several items were brought in the open general license list. That is what helped to start my export house. But for Rajiv Gandhi my journey as an entrepreneur would never have taken off,” he said.

That statement also appeared to serve the dual purpose of not just projecting his success as a result of decades of hard work made possible by economic reforms under two central governments before Modi but also challenge accusations that he is a poster boy of “crony capitalism” practiced by the Modi government.

In attributing his first success to Rajiv Gandhi, Adani also seemed to counter his son Rahul Gandhi’s repeated comments that the businessman’s success comes almost entirely from his access to Modi. Adani also credited “sweeping economic reforms” introduced in 1991 by Gandhi’s Congress Party successor, the late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

“Just like many other entrepreneurs I too was a beneficiary of those reforms,” he said.

Rise of Modi 

In the specific context of his home state of Gujarat, where his success began, he also credited policy changes introduced after Keshubhai Patel took over as chief minister in 1995. “Until then all industrial development in Gujarat was only around National Highway 8 from Mumbai to Delhi. He (Patel) was a visionary and focused on coastal development. It was that policy change that took me to Mundra and prompted me to build out first port,” Adani said.

He called the rise in 2001 of Modi as Gujarat’s chief minister the fourth turning point for him as an entrepreneur.

It is tempting to read into Adani’s observations subtle intimations of a possible political change in the 2024 general election. Although so far, the popular wisdom is that eventually Modi will triumph handily for the third time in 2024, there are those who say headwinds have begun to buffet the prime minister.

Gandhi’s current ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ or March to Unite, is being increasingly seen as part of his party’s strategy to unseat Modi. Of course, Gandhi and his colleagues have not just dismissed that view but even derided it saying their overarching purpose is not electoral but to rejuvenate harmonious relations among communities broken by the BJP’s politics of resentment and hate.

Shifting political sands?

It is easy to read into Adani’s comments that he too is positioning himself for any change in the political dispensation in the country come 2024. As an entrepreneur on whom hundreds of billions of dollars ride, a huge percentage of it in debt, he can hardly afford not to hedge his bets. He is a businessman whose motivations are not necessarily ideological or political but broadly driven by his business’s bottom line.

The question is whether Adani, also the world's third richest man, is also sensing shifting political sands in India and is preparing to stabilize himself so as not to trip if such an eventuality comes to be. The answer will unfold over several months until 2024. 

(The author is a Chicago-based journalist, author,  and filmmaker. Views are personal. He can be reached at mcsix@outlook.com)

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