The market rout suffered by Indian tycoon Gautam Adani is the latest corporate scandal to plague one of the world’s largest economies despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to root out corruption.
Properly investigating the claims of fraud that triggered the sell-off in Adani’s companies will be a key test for “India Inc” as the country seeks to attract foreign investment and rival China economically in the 21st century, analysts say.
In its breakneck expansion Adani’s vast business empire conducted “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud” that amounted to “the largest con in corporate history”, according to US short-seller group Hindenburg Research.
Adani has denied the explosive claims, which accuse the companies of inflating stock prices using offshore tax havens. But an avalanche of selling by spooked investors has wiped more than $100 billion from the group’s market value since last week.
Most damning for Modi’s government is Hindenburg’s assertion that Adani’s dodgy activities “seem to be enabled by virtually non-existent financial control”.
Adani has used his “immense power to pressure the government and regulators to pursue those who question him”, the group said, with investors, journalists, citizens and even politicians “afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal”.
Good times king
The list of corrupt past Indian moguls is long, from fugitive jeweller-to-the-stars Nirav Modi to Vijay Mallya, the “king of good times” behind Kingfisher beer.
Modi — no relation to the prime minister — fled India in 2018 after being accused of defrauding one of India’s largest state-backed lenders out of $1.8 billion.
Mallya left the country in 2016 owing more than $1 billion after allegedly defaulting on loan payments to a state-owned bank and misusing the funds.
Both saw their empires collapse under Modi, which helped raise hopes that along with giving regulators more powers he was serious about tackling wrongdoing.
Modi’s demonetisation drive in 2016 — withdrawing almost 86 percent of banknotes — was catastrophically handled but the stated aim was to root out corruption and bring all transactions out of the shadows.
“I would actually really compliment Prime Minister Modi,” Tim Buckley, an Australian energy analyst who monitors India, told AFP. “Seven years ago, crony capitalism was endemic in India.”
But Adani’s rise could be seen as telling another story, with the mogul’s ascent mirroring the meteoric political career of Modi, a fellow native of Gujarat.
Having linked hands while Modi ran the state, when he became prime minister their close cooperation went national, enabling Adani to expand into virtually every area of the economy.
That includes ports, coal and solar power, with critics saying Adani was able to out-compete rivals to win more and more business — with insufficient oversight — and take on ever more debt.
But independent market analyst Ambareesh Baliga said that he believes Adani is an isolated case, pointing to India’s strong economic growth under Modi.
“As of now, I wouldn’t paint India Inc with the same brush, because the report was basically on the Adani Group,” Baliga told AFP.
“In India, corporate governance has improved a lot over the last decade or more. It’s not the same as what it was two or three decades back.”
Nonetheless other specialists said authorities must still be seen to investigate Hindenburg’s claims properly.
Capital markets regulator the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) did not respond to AFP‘s request for confirmation Friday on whether it was probing Hindenburg’s allegations.
Hindenburg’s report said that SEBI had been investigating suspicious Adani stakeholders based in Mauritius back in 2021 but had not taken any action more than a year later.
“Are they asking questions, demanding disclosures? All that is extremely critical,” said independent analyst Srinath Sridharan.
“This also will set the tongues wagging about the true independence of the regulator. Are they really independent? And do they have a mind of their own asking questions?”