New Delhi/Princeton: After flying across India on a corporate jet owned by billionaire Gautam Adani prior to last year’s election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is returning the favour.
In New York, Adani sat in the audience as Modi addressed the United Nations. In Canberra, he shared breakfast with Modi and signed business deals. Adani was also in Bhutan, Brazil, Japan, France and—earlier this month—China.
Adani, 52, has travelled with Modi in the past year more than any other billionaire, helping him emerge as the most prominent face of India Inc. to the wider world. His wealth has more than quadrupled since Modi announced his candidacy in September 2013, the biggest gain among the country’s elite.
The Adani Group, founded in 1988, has grown along with Modi’s political stature. The relationship between the two men was forged more than a decade ago in Gujarat, one of India’s wealthiest states.
On the day Modi became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, Adani Enterprises Ltd—then his only listed unit—was a trading company with a market value 500 times smaller than Reliance Industries Ltd, which is headed by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.
Shares of Adani Enterprises and his two other listed units—Adani Power Ltd and Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones Ltd—have more than tripled on average since Modi became a candidate, outpacing the S&P BSE 100 Index’s 46% gain. Their combined market value is now approaching Reliance Industries.
“They may get a few more projects than if Mr Modi wasn’t there, but these days you have a transparent process," said Vibhor Singhal, an analyst with Phillip Securities Ltd in Mumbai. “Sentimentally the relationship is positive, but at the end of the day, if that support doesn’t show up on balance sheets, then investors won’t forgive Adani just because of his proximity to Modi."
In the run-up to the election, Adani said he doesn’t receive nor expect any special treatment from Modi, and the company said it received compensation for the campaign flights. Adani Group spokesman Sudeep Purkayastha didn’t answer multiple calls to his mobile phone seeking comment. Jagdish Thakkar, a spokesman in Modi’s office, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.
Adani’s listed units are now leading their sectors. Adani Enterprises is India’s largest coal importer, Adani Ports is the country’s largest private port operator, and Adani Power is the biggest private power company. A corporate restructuring in January provided a further boost to the share price.
He’s also had success where other companies have failed. Adani Ports is expanding a shipyard on India’s eastern coastline that proved a burden for previous operators, including Tata Steel Ltd and Larsen and Toubro Ltd.
All of this has boosted Adani’s wealth. His fortune has climbed 26% to $8.7 billion since the day before Modi’s election win on 16 May 2014, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Ambani’s wealth fell 17% to $20.8 billion in that time.
Perception matters when it comes to getting loans. A company like Adani with ties to Modi is more likely to get financing than a similar business with no political connections, according to two India-based executives who help arrange corporate debt, including in the past for Adani companies. They asked not to be named because they aren’t authorized to speak with the media.
While loan growth starts recovering from near a 20-year low, Adani’s listed companies are some of the most leveraged in India. Adani Power has the highest debt-equity ratio of any private company on the BSE 100 index.
Adani’s relationship with Modi can hurt as much as it helps. Opposition politicians frequently use Adani’s success to attack Modi, who has sought to attract private investment through reducing hoops of red tape.
The most controversial overseas deal came in Australia. With Modi looking on, Adani signed a $1 billion loan deal with the chairwoman of the State Bank of India—the country’s biggest lender—for a coal project that he said would bring $22 billion in revenue to the state of Queensland.
Loan talks have stalled after Modi’s opponents raised the issue in parliament and environmentalists brought a legal challenge in Australia. State Bank spokesman MK Rekhi declined to comment, saying he isn’t authorized to speak on the matter.
“There’s no disputing the relationship between Modi and Adani," said Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an author on Modi and Gujarat. “For Modi, Adani is familiar. They have a history and know what to expect from one another, so they’ll build off that."