The sun seems to be setting on the fortunes of the trio of Gupta brothers from Saharanpur, all in their 40s, who earned millions in South Africa and hobnobbed with many of the top politicians and bureaucrats, including President Jacob Zuma. Only to see Zuma disgraced with corruption allegations and forced to quit office by his own African National Party.
Police have raided the Gupta estate of four mansions in an upscale Johannesburg suburb. One of the Gupta brothers is said to be on the run.
The brothers’ network of friends in high places has not been able to lessen their woes in South Africa. Does that mean that had India been their ‘karm bhoomi’ they would have been able to extricate themselves from trouble?
It will be interesting to explore if the Gupta brothers could have done equally well, maybe even better, if they had not travelled to distance South Africa from their native town in western UP. Equally tempting is speculating about the chances of their life story becoming a block-bluster—a book followed by a film.
It would have worked in favour of the Guptas in India that their origin was somewhat humble. It is said that the rotund brothers lack the ‘sophistication’ and felicity to speak fluent English expected of men of their stature. Their father Shiv Kumar Gupta ran a ration shop in a crowded bazaar in Saharanpur on the border of UP and Haryana. A ration shop owner in India, of course, cannot be called humble, but let us say this business cannot be as prosperous as running a jewellery shop.
Many Indians who sell tea and pakodas do fairly well economically but are not included in the rich category. If anything, their ‘humble’ background works to their advantage should they join politics; if they become successful businessmen it is added to the ‘rags to riches’ legend.
In the present Indian milieu where well-placed businessmen are reportedly ‘fleeing’ with huge sums of public funds corruption charges have suddenly begun to fly in the opposite direction—those who had earlier let loose a non-stop barrage of corruption charges on their political rivals now face the same music and fumble for credible explanation.
But it may still be right to imagine that the Guptas would have avoided trouble by simply flying away to a safe haven abroad had they been doing business in India. Much of their wealth would have been intact—benami properties in India and money stashed in foreign tax havens.
While it is for the courts to judge the veracity of charges against them, nobody can deny that liquor baron Vijaya Mallaya and diamond merchant Nirav Modi, both accused of misappropriating hundreds of crores of bank (public) money, are not going to be reduced to penury, no matter what happens to the accusations against them. The strong arms of the law have not been able to lay their hands on Lalit Modi.
Why, the Gupta brothers—Ajai, Atul and Rajesh—could have felt safer in South Africa than anywhere else had India been their principal business playfield and that ‘rainbow’ country only an extension. But how could they have opted to expand their wealth in India when South Africa looked decidedly more inviting for ‘enterprising’ Indian businessmen?
By their own admission (in a media interview), the Gupta brothers said that they found ‘red tape’ in South Africa easy to surmount. Apparently, South Africa scores over India in the ‘ease of doing business’! Few will dispute that despite all the claims of the Indian government, Indian bureaucracy and red tape still frighten prospective businessmen and investors.
Most governments, especially in countries which have long suffered colonial rule, will not allow a foreign businessman to walk in and carry on with whatever he decides to do with absolute freedom. In other words, in such countries there will be stages where things will not move without some help from people in high places. It could be in manipulating a contract at the expense of a better bidder or bestowing advantages that unfairly enhance monetary benefits.
There could be other ways of offering undeserving help that only those familiar with business activities can explain. In India ‘enterprising’ businessmen know how to get past hurdles, using ‘short cuts’ when the route via the rule books looks formidable.
It appears the Gupta brothers discovered some similarities between the nature of problems faced in doing business in India and South Africa and also the ways to overcome them. One was to befriend important politicians.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind in India that connections in the right places made it easier for certain Indian business tycoons to ‘flee’ the country even when they were wanted by the law enforcement or tax authorities. That is also believed to be one of the factors in the rise of some of the top industrialists.
It has been reported that the Gupta brothers met Jacob Zuma at a party about 10 years ago by when their business was already on an upward curve. As their friendship grew, the Guptas were able to offer lucrative jobs to some family members of Zuma in their companies. It created a two-way bond—the Guptas and the Zuma family found that their friendship could be mutually advantageous.
No legal or moral hurdle was allowed to sour this comfortable relationship. The Guptas had in the meanwhile become bigger than before. They did not seem to bother about the fear of the law or certain norms of the host country. It was well illustrated by the manner in which the Gupta brothers organized the wedding of their niece in Sun City, South Africa 2003.
It will be an understatement to say the marriage was a lavish affair. Perhaps it could be better described as an expensive Bollywood set. But what attracted wide adverse notice in South Africa was the use of a military airbase to receive 200 guests who arrived in a special plane. Only civilian planes with visiting foreign dignitaries are allowed to land at that airbase.
Zuma was subjected to criticism for letting the Gupta breach security. The Guptas had to offer an apology even though they continued to maintain that they had done nothing wrong. They got away at that time because Zuma was still in power.