Beginning with a lecture as a visiting fellow at Cambridge University’s eminent Judge Business School through four public events in London, India and the world—in this age of video streaming—witnessed Rahul Gandhi reiterate a core message in England. That democracy is under attack in India from the RSS, the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that they have captured vital, hitherto independent institutions; and while it is India’s problem and responsibility to conjure a solution, Western democracies would do well to be concerned about the gravity of the current state of affairs in India.
At his alma mater Cambridge, he was attired in a trendy brown suit and tie, his Marxist beard now trendily trimmed. At an interface with the 75-year-old Britain-based Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA) and an Indian Overseas Congress rally, in white, khadi kurta and pyjama and a black Indian-style waistcoat. Finally, at a reception at the Palace of Westminster, the UK’s Houses of Parliament, and the 103-year-old Royal Institute of International Affairs, popularly known as Chatham House, in black bandgala and trousers. A woman IJA member could not help remaining detached as she swooned on Facebook: “The fabulous and eloquent Rahul Gandhi.”
But the cosmos was denied a glimpse into the goings-on behind the scenes. Rahul in-camera, in closed-door conferences. There were at least three such seminars at Cambridge alone; the Indian politician, 52, standard-bearer of a now slightly faltering Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty—which the writer Salman Rushdie once said “made the Kennedys look like amateurs”—was unassumingly back to school. To “listen and learn”, as he repeatedly told his riveted audiences, was a big takeaway from his epic 3,600-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra. Back at his old university, he listened attentively to expositions on ‘Big Data’.
The application of Big Data has come to be recognised as omnipotent. “Our unprecedented ability to collect, store and analyse data is opening up new frontiers” is Cambridge scholars’ view. Rahul processed in his mind how possession of such data could assist Congress governments in India in tackling poverty, unemployment, and climate change, build smarter, more sustainable infrastructure, introduce innovative farming, utilise artificial intelligence in medicine and prevent pandemics. The asset of Big Data to win elections would not have escaped his grasp either.
Rahul was received at their offices by senior editors of the internationally respected business daily Financial Times. The FT has seized on the New York-based short-seller Hindenburg Research’s scathing 24 January report on the Adani Group titled: “How The World’s 3rd Richest Man Is Pulling The Largest Con In Corporate History” with follow-up stories. The affair’s footprint envelops British soil. The editors wanted to know more from Rahul about the murky matter. They did not obtain much, other than what the Congress MP had already stated in his speech in the Lok Sabha last month.
London-based Elara Capital Plc was identified by Hindenburg as operating the Mauritius-based ‘India Opportunities Fund’ and ‘Vespera Fund’. As of December 2022, Hindenburg assessed, the India Opportunities Fund had a total market value of $3.04 billion, of which as much as $3.01 billion, or 98.78 per cent, was invested in three Adani stocks. In other words, Elara has practically been a special purpose vehicle to invest almost all its resources into the Adani group.
The short-seller claimed in its expose: “A former trader for Elara, an offshore fund with almost $3 billion in concentrated holdings of Adani shares, including a fund that is 99 per cent concentrated in shares of Adani, told us that it is obvious that Adani controls the shares. He explained that the funds are intentionally structured to conceal their ultimate beneficial ownership.”
It added: “Leaked emails show that the CEO of Elara worked on deals with Dharmesh Doshi, a fugitive accountant who worked closely on stock manipulation deals with Ketan Parekh, an infamous Indian market manipulator. The emails indicate that the CEO of Elara worked with Doshi on stock deals after he evaded arrest and was widely known as a fugitive.” Hindenburg also revealed: “A review of the LinkedIn profile of Ketan Parekh’s daughter shows she worked at Elara Capital.”
Parekh, “arrested multiple times since the 2001 market crash (in India)”, is said to be now living in London. Hindenburg also said that a 2007 SEBI ruling stated that “the charges levelled against promotors of Adani that they aided and abetted Ketan Parekh entities in manipulating the scrip of Adani stand proved”.
It continued: “As part of our investigation, we interviewed an individual who was banned from trading on Indian markets for stock manipulation via Mauritius-based funds. He told us that he knew Ketan Parekh personally, and that little had changed, explaining “all the previous clients are still loyal to Ketan and are still working with Ketan”.”
FT has absorbed all of the above and is pursuing its own line of inquiry. Among these, the fact that examination of wrongdoing by a finance house falls within the remit of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). A straightforward question was put to FCA by Frontline: “Is the FCA investigating the conduct of companies like Elara?” The reply from its press office was: “We will not be commenting on this.” Why will it not be commenting on the subject, it was asked. The reaction: “We don’t tend to comment or confirm/deny if we are or are not investigating a firm, as per policy.”
Johnson in a pickle
City of London (meaning the British capital’s business district) sources, however, indicated that the FCA was, in fact, contemplating inquiring into Elara, if it has not commenced work in this respect already. The FT’s former Delhi correspondent Jo Johnson, younger brother of Boris and now a peer, is in a pickle, having been a non-executive director of Elara, before he hurriedly resigned from this position after the Hindenburg findings exploded.
He said he joined Elara “in the hope of making a contribution to UK-India trade and investment ties” and that he had “consistently received assurances from Elara Capital that it is compliant with its legal obligations and in good standing with regulatory bodies”. Asked if he would like to discuss his resignation in greater detail, he on WhatsApp that he had “nothing to add”.
Clearly, the optics emerging out of Johnson’s abrupt departure from the board of Elara appear to be unfavourable for both the investment company and Adani. Indeed, the FCA’s stonewalling is standard practice when a probe is underway. Will Johnson be invited to assist in the inquest? Not unlikely, if it desires to do a thorough job.
In October 2021, Gautam Adani, head of the Adani group, was among a select few Indian corporate honchos who attended Boris Johnson’s Indo-British chief executives’ conclave. Thereafter, in April 2022, Adani was hand-picked by Narendra Modi to host Johnson when he visited Gujarat as Prime Minister. Brother Jo became a director of Elara in June 2022.
Back to Rahul: there was a lunch hosted by the director of London’s celebrated Victoria & Albert Museum Tristram Hunt. Son of an Ooty-born baron, contemporary of Rahul at Cambridge, historian as well as former Labour party member of parliament—who was once tipped as a potential British prime minister—Hunt would be on the same page as his Indian friend in his world view.
Besides, the high-flying Briton can open doors otherwise slammed shut for the Indian opposition. Fears exist in the British government and ruling Conservative party circles that Modi will not take kindly to his domestic critics being encouraged overseas. His reaction to the unflattering BBC documentary India: The Modi Question proves this.
Rahul’s circumstances today are not dissimilar to US President Joe Biden’s in 2020. Admittedly, outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN endorsed the challenger. But the incumbent Donald Trump enjoyed six times his opponent’s following on social media. Shrill, most-watched television channels such as Fox News were on Trump’s side, not to mention mass-circulated tabloids.
In India, the esteemed The Hindu and The Telegraph courageously resist Modi, as do some large-selling media in the south, west, and east. The likes of Dainik Bhaskar have also occasionally told the truth to power. But overwhelmingly, private news media, which includes television—a pillar of any democracy worth its salt—have been induced or intimidated away from their independence. Therefore, in terms of communications, there is no longer a level playing field for Congress.
Biden proved that even in such an adverse situation, it is possible to slay Goliath. He found a technological passage to overcome the disadvantage. This is the solution Rahul is searching for. The phenomenon of the Yatra extended to hundreds of millions of Indian mobile phones and beyond—including the shores of the UK and the US. He and the Congress need to replicate this success over and over again to win 2024.
London-based Ashis Ray has been a foreign correspondent for 45 years, working mainly for BBC and CNN, where he was editor-at-large. He has also been an academic visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford.