Vol. 45 No. 9 · 4 May 2023

The Big Con

Pankaj Mishra on Modi’s India and the New World Order

3349 words

Early​ in January, Gautam Adani, an Indian businessman and associate of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was the world’s third richest man. By the end of the month he had lost much of his fortune, after being accused by the US-based research investment firm Hindenburg Research of pulling the ‘largest con in corporate history’. Facing allegations of fraud and a stock-market rout, he appeared in Haifa on 31 January, smiling for pictures with Benjamin Netanyahu and hailing the Abraham Accords brokered by Jared Kushner as a ‘gamechanger’, as he took charge of Israel’s largest port. Adani’s ‘liberation’ of Haifa, as Netanyahu put it, brings closer the prospect of a rail link between Israel and its new friends in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. His ‘strategic purchase’, for which he paid a staggering $1.2 billion, also limits Chinese influence in the region. And Adani had his own reasons to smile. Standing next to Netanyahu, who had just name-checked his ‘good friend’ Modi, Adani was showing that he still had allies in high places.

The day before, a company controlled by Abu Dhabi’s royal family had pledged to invest a further $400 million in his floundering flagship business, Adani Enterprises Ltd. He hoped to raise $2.5 billion through a stock offering: Indian tycoons close to Modi had promised to buy shares, although mutual funds and retail investors were keeping a fastidious distance. Modi stonewalled questions in parliament about his partnership with Adani, which began decades ago in Gujarat; regulatory agencies in India conspicuously failed to investigate Adani’s use of offshore shell companies; and his supporters took to the airwaves to allege that white people just couldn’t bear to see India make progress.

In the weeks since then, Adani’s spectacular fall has continued: among other reverses, he had to cancel the $2.5 billion share sale, and no longer sits near the top of the list of the world’s richest men. In his glory days, he would tweet that it was ‘Fascinating to hear from Prez @EmmanuelMacron at Chateau Versailles’ or that he was ‘Honoured to host @BorisJohnson, the first UK PM to visit Gujarat, at Adani HQ’. His social media feeds have now gone quiet. Adani was not only a beneficiary of the new political and economic order devised by Modi to consolidate Hindu supremacism in India. The neglected details of his frictionless rise show that after their calamitous romance with Russia’s oligarchy, Western politicians, journalists and bankers facilitated the ascent of another hyper-nationalist elite with dubiously sourced wealth and an extreme aversion to the rule of law and civil liberties.

A day after Adani showed up in Haifa, Jo Johnson – Boris Johnson’s brother and a former Financial Times journalist, who was elevated to the House of Lords in 2020 after a decade in the Commons – abruptly resigned from Elara Capital, a UK investment firm that according to Hindenburg Research is complicit in the Adani Group’s practice of inflating stock prices through shell companies in Mauritius. Johnson isn’t the only one afflicted with buyer’s remorse. Norway’s largest pension fund, KLP, recently abandoned all its shares in Adani Green Energy Ltd. France’s TotalEnergies, Adani’s largest European collaborator and the main source of his credibility among foreign investors, has put a green hydrogen partnership with him on hold. The asset management unit of J.P.Morgan Chase has, in Bloomberg’s words, ‘wiped its ESG portfolios clean of their exposure to the Adani empire’. Bangladesh, which had agreed to pay dramatically high prices for electricity from Adani’s tax-free coal-fired power station in India, is now asking to renegotiate.

Prompted by these developments, Western journalists have been busy investigating Adani, looking into the opaque sources of his funding in offshore entities in Mauritius, the Bahamas and Cyprus, and the role of his ‘elusive’ older brother Vinod. At least some of these facts have been known for a long time. For two decades, Indian journalists have faced down legal threats in order to track the intertwined rise of Modi and Adani. When Modi was barred from travelling to the United States and the European Union because of his suspected complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, and many Indian businessmen recoiled from him, Adani worked hard to rehabilitate his associate. Since becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has repaid the favour: he turned Adani into India’s biggest operator of private airports and ports, as well as its leading producer of power from coal-fired plants. While presiding over an environmental crisis – India suffers from toxic smog, heatwaves, dry riverbeds, falling groundwater reserves and land subsidence – Modi has helped Adani, a fossil fuel tycoon, position himself as India’s champion of decarbonisation.

Last year the head of Sri Lanka’s largest electricity board was forced to resign after confessing to parliament that Modi had put ‘pressure’ on the island’s then president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to award a renewable energy project to Adani. A jaunt to Australia alongside Modi expedited Adani’s plan to open a huge coal mine – and secured him the promise of a massive loan to enable this from India’s biggest bank. The Wangan and Jagalingou Indigenous peoples, who live near the proposed mine, warned many Western financial institutions against investing in the site, with the help of an online campaign, #StopAdani. But Adani still managed to fund it – in part, it has recently become clear, by using stock from his ‘green’ companies as collateral. A visit to Dhaka with Modi resulted in the deal to sell electricity – generated by burning his Australian coal at his environmentally hazardous plant in India – at inflated prices to Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Modi has counted on sympathetic journalists and financial speculators in the West to cast a seductive veil over his version of political economy, environmental activism and history. ‘I’d bet on Modi to transform India, all of it, including the newly integrated Kashmir region,’ Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote in 2019 after Modi annulled the special constitutional status of India’s only Muslim-majority state and imposed a months-long curfew. McKinsey’s global managing partner, Bob Sternfels, recently said that we may be living in ‘India’s century’. Praising Modi for ‘implementing policies that have modernised India and supported its growth’, the economist and consultant Nouriel Roubini described the country as a ‘vibrant democracy’. But it is becoming harder to evade the reality that, despoiled by a venal, inept and tyrannical regime, ‘India is broken’ – the title of a disturbing new book by the economic historian Ashoka Mody.*

The number of Indians who go to sleep hungry rose from 190,000,000 in 2018 to 350,000,000 in 2022, and malnutrition and malnourishment killed more than two-thirds of the children who died under the age of five last year. Meanwhile, Modi’s cronies have flourished. The Economist estimates that the share of wealth held by billionaires in India that derives from cronyism has risen from 29 per cent to 43 per cent in six years. According to a recent Oxfam report, India’s richest 1 per cent owned more than 40.5 per cent of its total wealth in 2021 – such statistics are more often associated with the notorious oligarchies of Russia and Latin America. The new Indian plutocracy owes its swift ascent to Modi, who audaciously clarified the quid pro quo. Under the ‘electoral bond’ scheme he introduced in 2017, any business or special interest group can give unlimited sums of money to his party and keep the transaction hidden from public scrutiny.

Modi ensures his hegemony by forging a public sphere where sycophancy is rewarded and dissent harshly punished. Adani last year took over NDTV, a television news channel that had displayed a rare unwillingness to broadcast hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories. Human Rights Watch has detailed Modi’s onslaught on democratic rights: ‘the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government used abusive and discriminatory policies to repress Muslims and other minorities’ and ‘arrested activists, journalists and other critics of the government on politically motivated criminal charges, including of terrorism’. In February, as the BJP’s official spokesperson denounced the BBC as the ‘most corrupt’ organisation in the world, tax officials launched a sixty-hour raid on the broadcaster’s Indian offices in apparent retaliation for its two-part documentary on Modi’s role in anti-Muslim violence.

In March, the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, was sentenced to two years in prison and expelled from parliament in an attempt to put a stop to his persistent questions about Modi’s relationship with Adani. Such actions are at last provoking closer international scrutiny of what Modi likes to call the ‘mother of democracy’, though they haven’t come as a shock to those who have long known about his lifelong allegiance to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation that was explicitly inspired by Nazism and culpable in Gandhi’s 1948 assassination. The defamation campaign against George Soros and the conspiracy-fuelled crackdown on India’s leading think tank, the Centre for Policy Research, are only the latest in a series of measures – bribing opposition politicians to defect; unleashing mobs to attack opponents on the streets and on social media; subverting the judiciary and the education system; denouncing same-sex marriage as a cause of ‘complete havoc’ – that are making India safe for oligarchy and unsafe for nearly everyone else.

There is nothing unique about this amalgam of domestic repression, ideological messianism and state-pampered oligarchy, or its legitimation by Western political and financial institutions. In Russia, despotic rulers helped loyalists amass vast private fortunes by showering them with privatisation deals, banking privileges, government contracts, and tax and trade concessions. Western corporations and banks channelled tainted Russian money into the pool of global capital, and law firms and PR companies made New York and London safe for Russian oligarchs. Bill Clinton’s secretary of state complimented Boris Yeltsin on his ‘superb’ work after he ordered tanks to fire on the Russian parliament in 1993. George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi helped launder the blood-stained record of Yeltsin’s chosen successor. In 2001, Blair told the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had been investigating Putin’s war crimes in Chechnya, that ‘it’s my job as prime minister to like Mr Putin.’ (Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow in 2006, on Putin’s birthday.) In Putin’s People, Catherine Belton describes many occasions when the Russian president was confirmed in his assumption that the West’s ‘financial interests would outweigh concerns about his regime’s abuse of the law and democracy’.

Those interests account for another ethical and cognitive breakdown. Visiting New Delhi in December to explain to readers of the New York Times why ‘Russia’s war could make it India’s world,’ Roger Cohen quoted Arundhati Roy – ‘Hatred has penetrated into society at a level that is absolutely terrifying’ – then glossed: ‘That may be, but for now, Modi’s India seems to brim with confidence.’ The Western rush to embrace Mr Modi’s India isn’t only fuelled by the profit motive. The mollycoddling of yet another exponent of crony capitalism and ethnic-racial supremacism is increasingly driven by the imperatives of the new Cold War: the Biden administration’s resolve, deepened by the war in Ukraine, to contain China. Adani’s lavish purchase of the port of Haifa came after the US put pressure on Israel to forbid his Chinese rival, the Shanghai International Port Group, from managing a port frequented by the Sixth Fleet of the US navy.

A persistent problem, however, for strategists and propagandists of the new Cold War is that Modi’s path to power was paved by grisly – and well-documented – violence. The Foreign Office was not alone in concluding in 2002 that he was ‘directly responsible’ for the killing of more than a thousand Muslims in Gujarat. In 2005, George W. Bush’s State Department invoked the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to deny Modi’s diplomatic visa application and revoke his business visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act. In April 2012 the then State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland upheld the ban. Yet by September 2014 he was being shown round the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington DC by Barack Obama, and in June 2016 he addressed a joint session of Congress on the subject of his and America’s shared ‘philosophy of freedom’.

Rupert Murdoch anointed Modi as India’s ‘best leader with the best policies since independence’. Addressing packed stadiums in India and the US with his ‘loyal friend’, Donald Trump confirmed Modi’s place in a global far-right constellation. But it was liberal and centrist politicians, businessmen, economists and journalists in the West who piled up casual untruths about Modi and his India. ‘There is something thrilling about the rise of Narendra Modi,’ Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, wrote in April 2014. As Modi arrived in Silicon Valley in 2015, just as his government shut down the internet in Kashmir, Sheryl Sandberg declared she was changing her Facebook profile to honour him. In 2019, Bill Gates ignored a letter from three Nobel Peace Prizewinners, including Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, protesting against his decision to ‘give a humanitarian award to a man whose nickname is the “Butcher of Gujarat”’. In January, Twitter and YouTube agreed to enforce the Indian government’s ban on the BBC documentary on Modi’s complicity in anti-Muslim violence.

For Time’s 2015 list of the hundred most influential people, Obama recalled talking to Modi about the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He described Modi as if he were a character in a Horatio Alger story: born in modest circumstances but now the leader of the ‘world’s largest democracy’, Modi reflected ‘the dynamism and potential of India’s rise’. Obama, the first Western leader to embrace Modi, became the only American president to visit India twice, once as chief guest at the Republic Day parade. Less than a year after leaving the White House, he was back in India on a speaking tour, praising Modi’s Adani-fied efforts against climate change at a ‘leadership summit’ organised by a pro-Modi newspaper (the same shindig recently paid Boris Johnson £260,000 for a speech, no doubt its bargain basement rate).

Like​ the Russian elite, Modi and Adani have succeeded in bending the moral arc of politics and journalism towards greed. Jo Johnson, who had to disentangle himself with haste from Adani’s global cash nexus, was, as a reporter for the Financial Times, a rare practitioner of sober Western journalism on India, at a period when opinion-making periodicals such as Time, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek and the Economist were hailing the country as a ‘roaring capitalist success story’. ‘Unless India makes a dramatic investment in its human capital,’ Johnson wrote in 2006, ‘its demographic advantages will turn into a demographic disaster in the form of a massive unemployable labour force.’ His prognosis has become even more menacing today as the country’s population overtakes China’s, the scope for labour-intensive jobs in Indian industry shrinks further, the large middle class long fantasised about by foreign corporations stubbornly fails to materialise, and private investment keeps falling despite lavish government spending on infrastructure. Modi’s government has not spent the sums on public health and education that, as Johnson observed, would be necessary for securing a demographic advantage. Instead, it has sought to deploy many of the ‘unemployable labour force’ as stormtroopers of Hindu supremacism, indoctrinating them in a garishly fabricated version of the Indian past and equally kitsch daydreams of its future as a world guru. In his later avatars as a Tory MP, a science minister in David Cameron’s cabinet, Baron Johnson of Marylebone, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a dabbler in Adani’s honeypot, Johnson turned instead to describing how the ‘new India’ was ‘helping shape this young century’.

Such U-turns occur frequently in the global networks of journalistic, academic, business and geopolitical opportunity forged by Modi and his oligarchs. (The crudity of manoeuvre can still be breathtaking. While visiting Adani at his headquarters in Gujarat last year, Jo Johnson’s brother Boris took time off to plug JCB, the day after the company’s bulldozers were photographed demolishing Muslim-owned properties in Delhi. JCB’s owners paid for some of Johnson’s wedding last year and the disgraced former prime minister currently lives in a £20 million house in Knightsbridge owned by the wife of the company’s owner, Anthony Bamford.) Yet private avarice, which Putin identified as central to public life in the West today, does not entirely explain the whitewashing of Modi or the greenwashing of Adani. Ideological delusion also plays a role. In the mainstream Western narrative shaped during the Cold War, India – with its regular elections – starred as a counterexample to many authoritarian and anti-Western countries. The tattered fable about Indian democracy is being urgently revamped as the Biden administration pursues its new Cold War against Chinese and Russian autocracy. Walter Russell Mead, a leading foreign policy commentator, argued in the Wall Street Journal in March that the US should pursue greater intimacy with Modi’s party since it ‘will be calling the shots in a country without whose help American efforts to balance rising Chinese power are likely to fall short’.

As in the first Cold War, such strategic calculations, while keeping arms manufacturers and Beltway think tanks busy, are impervious to observable facts. Over the last year, while the West repeatedly sanctioned Russia, Modi turned the despoiler of Ukraine into India’s biggest supplier of oil as well as military hardware; his government has urged state-owned corporations to explore the possibility of buying stakes abandoned by Western companies in Russian energy concerns. In recent months, India has also suffered humiliating military defeats and losses of territory to China while becoming economically ever more dependent on imports from that country. No matter: India is now firmly fixed in the Cold War imagination as a military as well as democratic counterweight to the free world’s autocratic adversaries, and Western policymakers and commentators trumpet the country’s virtues even more loudly.

Speaking at a meeting last year of the anti-China military coalition QUAD, Biden complimented Modi for ‘making sure democracies deliver, because that’s what this is about: democracies v. autocracies’. Attending Biden’s Summit for Democracy with Netanyahu in March, Modi invoked ‘our sacred Mahabharata’ and ‘our sacred Vedas’ while insisting once again that ‘India indeed is the mother of democracy.’ As New Delhi prepares to host a G20 summit in September, Western officials and opinion-makers echo his claims for India’s democracy, using words like ‘largest’ and ‘vibrant’. Both adjectives were deployed by a State Department spokesperson as he tried to avoid commenting on Modi’s crackdown on the BBC. Visiting India in early March, Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, described Modi as the ‘most loved of all world leaders’. Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, joined him in a lap of honour in an improvised chariot at the new Narendra Modi cricket stadium in Gujarat.

Such flattery helps Modi to project himself domestically as a universally revered icon, and further demoralises the political opposition. It encourages his fan base to think that Hindu superpowerdom is imminent – a demagogic vanity that is certain to be disappointed and to degenerate into vengeful xenophobia of the kind that fuels Putinism. Fawning on a Hindu supremacist even as his supporters clamour for a genocide of Muslims in India also helps to entrench lies and propaganda in the public life of Western societies. Adani’s business empire may or may not turn out to be the largest con in corporate history. But far greater threats to civic morality, let alone to democracy and global peace, are posed by those who peddle the gigantic hoax of Modi’s India – the first big fraud of the new Cold War.



Listen to Pankaj Mishra discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast



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