reportage

The Price of Power

Naveen Jindal’s mounting struggles to keep profit seperate from politics

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 1 March 2013

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AT HALFTIME during the Indian Open Polo Championship in New Delhi last November, the spectators came wandering onto the field to take part in the long-standing tradition of “divot stomping”—tamping torn-up turf back into place with their feet. Well-heeled VIPs, variously accoutred with pearl necklaces, glittering cufflinks, vintage handbags, tiny, fluffy dogs and big Cuban cigars, used the interlude to clink champagne glasses and exchange business cards. As they did so, 200 farmers—men of all ages, wearing white dhotis and kurtas, Nehru vests and turbans—came running onto the field. They rushed past the divot stompers, past most of the polo players, and halted before a rider astride a brown pony. The leader of the crowd, a burly man in a large turban, was the first to speak: “Accha khelay, Naveenji. Accha kheley.” (Well played, Naveenji. Well played.) Another dhoti-clad man threw his fist in air and shouted “Naveenji zindabad!”

Their praise was directed at Naveen Jindal, the 42-year-old Congressman and billionaire chairman of Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL), who in the past decade has amassed a vast fortune from the unglamorous coal beds of India. Jindal waved at his supporters, who had come from villages around Kurukshetra, the Haryana constituency he has represented in the Lok Sabha since 2004. As he dismounted his pony and stretched, mumbling a few words in Spanish to his physiotherapist, the farmers formed a human cordon around him. Then, as he walked toward the pavilion, the men from Haryana followed, pushing and shoving each other for the chance to stand closer to Jindal and have their photographs taken. Jindal spotted a young man standing with a camera dangling from his neck, and barked something between a joke and an order: “Hey you,” he said, pointing. “Is that camera just for show? Take some pictures!”

Before play resumed, the VIPs retreated to a bar at the top of the invite-only stands, while the farmers went back to the concrete general admission seats on the opposite end of the polo ground to watch the second half of the match. Jindal’s team lost, against a team from Hyderabad, by just one goal, but he was in high spirits afterwards, surrounded by his loyal constituents. He posed for more photographs while an awards ceremony carried on in the background; when his name was announced, he hustled over to the dais and stood with his team. A few minutes later, I saw him chatting with one of his players, Ed Winterton, who was shaking his head in disappointment. “It’s okay,” Jindal said, patting him on the back. “It’s just one of those days when you play good but you still lose.”

THE SCENE AT THE POLO CHAMPIONSHIPS captured something of Naveen Jindal’s multiple identities. In Delhi he’s a billionaire industrialist, India’s highest-paid CEO—his salary last year was Rs 734 million—and a fresh-faced politician identified with a new generation of Congress leaders, as well as being a polo player and shooting champion. In Kurukshetra, he sheds his well-tailored suits and aviator sunglasses for a Nehru vest and kurta pyjama while he walks the dusty roads to meet voters.

In the villages of his district, he’s a man of the soil—born and raised in rural Haryana, where faith in family remains a paramount virtue. Jindal is a careful, even anxious, manager of his own image, and he seizes every chance to speak reverentially of his late father, Om Prakash Jindal, who built a massive steel company from scratch before entering politics as a member of the Haryana Legislative Assembly in his sixties. Whether he’s talking about business or politics, Jindal turns to stories involving his father—whom he calls Bauji—and modestly avers that he’s merely continuing on the path that his father paved. “I have always drawn inspiration from my father, I always wanted to follow his footsteps,” Jindal told me during an interview in his office earlier this year. “So he was in business, I am doing the same. He was in politics, I am doing the same.”

In 1998, Om Prakash divided among his four sons the industrial group he founded in the 1950s. (The four companies remain under the umbrella of what is now called the OP Jindal Group.) Naveen was given the newly formed JSPL, which controlled three coalmines and a single steel plant. In its first year under his management, JSPL’s turnover was Rs 3.8 billion; by 2011-12, that figure had multiplied almost fiftyfold, to Rs 180 billion. JSPL now has operations in nine countries; in India, it has four steel plants, 10 coalmines, one wildly profitable power plant and six more power projects under development.

In a business that depends on privileged access to natural resources and clever negotiation of government regulations, Naveen Jindal has steadily expanded his portfolio of coal deposits and successfully navigated the shifting currents of government policy. In the last decade, he made windfall profits selling power generated from coal, taking advantage of JSPL’s unique status as the country’s first private power operator; while other steel producers have seen profitability suffer due to interruptions in their access to coal and iron ore, two raw materials crucial for steel production, JSPL has thrived atop its enormous reserves, among the largest of any private company in India.

“The Jindals have always been hungry for raw materials,” a senior Coal India official told me. “Wherever they go, they take huge portions of coal and iron ore mines.” Naveen Jindal’s appetite for expansion, and his determination to secure raw materials at a cost that keeps his profits high, has lured him into investments in Africa, Australia, the Middle East and Latin America. In 2006, he cemented his status as a player in the cutthroat global steel business by outbidding ArcelorMittal—the world’s largest steel producer—for the rights to develop the El Mutun mines, in Bolivia, one of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore. (Last year, however, Jindal terminated his deal with the Bolivian government after both sides accused each other of failing to fulfill contractual obligations.)

While his business burgeoned in the mid 2000s, Jindal launched his career in politics, winning the Lok Sabha seat in Kurukshetra, which his father held from 1996 to 1998; his margin of victory was more than 160,000 votes. As a politician, he fastidiously avoids confrontation, preferring soaring but earnest rhetoric about civic duty and national pride; when he addresses the public, Jindal often repeats one refrain: “I want to make India the country of my dreams.”

Before he achieved prominence as a businessman or a politician, Jindal made his name as a patriot, launching a legal battle in 1995 to amend the Indian Flag Code, which only permitted citizens to fly the tricolour on Independence Day and Republic Day. (His official website calls this “The Fight to Free Tiranga.”) Seven years later, the Union cabinet agreed to revise the Flag Code, giving every Indian the right to hoist the national flag any day of the year; the Supreme Court subsequently held that “the right to fly the flag freely … is a fundamental right of a citizen”. Over the years, Jindal’s activism for the tricolour became something of an obsession: with his wife Shallu, he launched the Flag Foundation of India, whose mission is to promote pride in the flag and its display. “Only a man with a vision could have taken upon himself the mammoth task of re-awakening such a pride in the Indian conscience,” Jindal’s biography on the foundation’s website declares. In 2009, he secured permission to erect giant flagpoles with monumental tricolours flying day and night, and he has since put up flags the size of tennis courts at locations in Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. Jindal never wears a suit without a flag pin in his lapel, and his foundation has produced and distributed innumerable tricolour wristbands and pins. “Now he wants to erect a flagpole in Connaught Place,” Vivek Mittal, Jindal’s political secretary, told me. “He wants to cover every state of India from Kargil to Kanyakumari.”

Jindal has frequently said that he wants to devote more time to his career in politics, but he still spends many of his days flying across India in his private jet, supervising his projects and meeting the state politicians and bureaucrats whose signatures and clearances are critical to their success. About once each month, a JSPL executive told me, Jindal travels abroad to explore new deals and continue the relentless search for resources: JSPL already has mining operations in South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Indonesia and Australia. Last December, he was in Cameroon, meeting with the president, announcing plans to invest $500 million there, and floating a bid (since withdrawn) to purchase a mining firm. In January, Jindal traveled to Oman, where JSPL is expanding its existing steel plant; in the same month, JSPL made an offer to buy up the remainder of an Indian-owned Australian mining company in which it already owns a minority share, while JSPL executives told the press the company was contemplating further investments in West Africa, Spain and Ukraine.

BEGINNING LAST SUMMER, Jindal’s carefully tended public image took the first in a series of blows. A leaked draft report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) indicating irregularities in the government’s allotment of coal blocks to private firms brought a wave of unwelcome scrutiny on Jindal’s divided life as a politician and a businessman—one whose business cannot thrive without resource rights assigned by the government and regulatory clearances issued by its ministers and bureaucrats. Newspapers, magazines and television channels leapt to cover the exciting new scam, which had an eye-popping CAG-estimated price tag of Rs. 1.86 trillion, and opposition parties set out to make Jindal the face of what was quickly dubbed “Coalgate”.

Jindal protested that he had never misused his political position to snap up coal mines—four of his 10 were assigned before he joined politics—and complained in one interview about being described as a “beneficiary” in the coal block controversy. “I strongly object to this term,” he told the Economic Times. “Do you know how difficult and challenging it is to open a mine?”

But the criticisms continued to mount. Mint reported that Jindal had personally written to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2008 to lobby for one coal block in Madhya Pradesh (which he did not, in the end, receive); the Times of India singled out Jindal’s power plant in Chhattisgarh, the first in the nation with the right to sell electricity on demand at market rates, for the steep profits it generated using cheap coal from captive mines. As the stories piled up, reporters swarmed around Jindal wherever he went, and he faced uncomfortable questions at every turn.

Last September, as Jindal was arriving at a function in Delhi where he was to be the chief guest, he was met by a camera crew from Zee News, one of the country’s most popular Hindi news channels, which had devoted considerable airtime to Jindal’s role in the coal scam. The journalists followed Jindal as he walked away, barking questions as they gave chase. After a few seconds, Jindal turned back with a scowl: “What is this misbehaviour?” he demanded. “Why are you here?” But when the crew continued questioning him, Jindal charged toward the camera, his face stiff with anger, and pushed it aside. The resulting footage, which Zee aired over and over again, reporting that Jindal had “manhandled” its reporter, shows the picture jumping out of focus while the audio captures Jindal shouting “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?”

Jindal’s battle with Zee News soon intensified: the following month, he convened a press conference to announce he had engineered a “reverse sting” on the broadcaster, by taping two of its editors in the act of demanding a bribe to lay off their coverage of Jindal’s coal woes. Zee quickly fired back by alleging Jindal was the one trying to bribe them. The Zee editors were arrested, and Jindal proclaimed he had struck a courageous blow against corrupt journalists, but neither side came out looking good.

In the wake of Coalgate and the barrage of unwelcome attention that followed, Jindal has taken steps to restore the shine to his reputation. He reshuffled his corporate communications team, bringing in a new public relations chief, and carved out a separate unit for political communications, newly separated from JSPL; he hired a senior journalist to handle media relations for his constituency in Kurukshetra; and he signed on with celebrity image-manager Dilip Cherian’s lobbying and PR firm Perfect Relations. (When I met Jindal for an interview in January, they had given him a one-page background report on my biography and career.) But his scuffle with Zee is still making news, along with sporadic updates on the continuing Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into coal block allocations. Jindal has not been named in the investigation, but headlines like “Coal allotment to Naveen Jindal’s company under CBI scanner” surely make for unpleasant reading at Jindal’s house and at Congress headquarters.

In his interview with the Economic Times last September, Jindal cast himself in the role of an unappreciated business titan: after citing what the paper characterised as “the hardships already faced by people setting up brick-and-mortar businesses like steel, power, cement or mines”, Jindal bemoaned the lack of government support for business in India—an unwitting irony in an interview dedicated to the controversy over the coal mines that the government had allotted without auction to his business. “In India, things happen despite the government, in spite of the government,” Jindal said. “In terms of handholding or supporting or guiding, does anybody do it? Does anybody anywhere in the country welcome any investor? Does anybody welcome you? Does anybody say ‘thank you’? In other countries they welcome you, and thank you for being a big investor.”

Jindal’s frustration may be entirely justified: the governments on which he depends for access to resources undoubtedly make his life difficult in a million little ways. And he has ample reason to regard himself as unfairly maligned by a newly agitated public that demands eight percent annual growth while fuming about the resource giveaways that made it possible. But in the acrid atmosphere of today’s politics, things are likely to get harder for Naveen Jindal before they get easier, and the separation he has carefully maintained between his career serving the public and his career serving shareholders seems to be the first casualty.

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NAVEEN JINDAL WAS BORN IN 1970, the youngest son in a tightly-knit traditional family in the Hisar district of Haryana. Thirteen years earlier, his father, Om Prakash Jindal, had set up a small steel unit in Hisar, which manufactured pipes, sockets and buckets. The story of the elder Jindal’s rise became the stuff of legend as his business grew larger and larger. In interviews, he often told the tale of his unlikely start in the steel trade: in 1950, he left his home in the village of Nalwa, near Hisar, to seek his fortune as a trader in Calcutta. One day, the story goes, he stumbled upon a stack of steel pipes in a field, each one stamped with the words “Made in England”. He asked himself why pipes used in India were manufactured in England, and the rest is history.

Om Prakash soon began trading in steel, buying pipes, spare parts from old military vehicles and other scrap that the US Army had left behind in Assam after helping the British deflect a Japanese invasion at the close of the Second World War. In 1952, he set up a manufacturing unit near Calcutta to make pipe bends and sockets, using waste pipes produced by other factories. In 1957, he returned to Hisar to set up his first steel plant, manufacturing buckets using machinery he had designed himself. By the late 1970s, he had set up additional steel units in Bombay and Bangalore.

In 1988, Om Prakash went to Raigarh district, in Madhya Pradesh, to assess the region’s potential as a centre for steel production; according to the senior Congressman VC Shukla, he had been encouraged to explore the district by then chief minister Digvijay Singh. In Raigarh, Om Prakash found abundant coal deposits, untouched by industry, and he was quick to recognise the advantage of Raigarh’s geographical proximity to Orissa, a state dotted with iron-ore mines. With its easy access to ore (the raw material for steel production) and its plentiful supply of coal (the most commonly used fuel in blast furnaces), Raigarh was perfectly positioned to be a steel-producing powerhouse. Om Prakash began construction on a steel plant near Raigarh the next year.

Though Naveen’s family was already wealthy even by urban standards, his upbringing was rustic. He went to a local primary school in Hisar that operated in a manger, and the Jindal household kept hens and cows. Many of Naveen’s friends told me that he “worshipped his father”, who set strict rules for his children. One family friend recalled that Om Prakash required the children to drink a glass of cow’s milk every morning—he believed it was beneficial for the mind—and prohibited them from attending movies in public theatres. “There was only one television in the house,” the family friend told me, “and that was in his father’s room; he preferred to play movies for the family at home.” While his older brothers were inside doing their schoolwork, Naveen was more likely to be found out in the garden, taking care of his family’s dogs, monkeys and pigeons. “He never liked toys,” Savitri Devi, Jindal’s mother, told me. “He played with his father’s guns, and so many animals that it looked like a zoo.”

THE STEEL BUSINESS CONTINUED TO GROW, and when Naveen was 14, the family moved to Delhi so his father could establish an office in the capital. The Jindals lived in a spacious villa on the posh Prithviraj Road, though they still milked cows, which they kept in the backyard. Concerned that Naveen was small for his age—his older brothers were tall and muscular—the family sent him to an all-boys school in south Delhi with a strong emphasis on athletics.

Two years later, Jindal began his higher secondary education at the elite Delhi Public School (DPS) on Mathura Road, taking commerce as his main subject. For the first time in his life, he was exposed to the lifestyles of Delhi’s privileged classes. Though he was easily the wealthiest student at DPS—he arrived every morning in his own red jeep, while most of the others came on school buses—he found it hard to fit in with his classmates. They spoke to one another in English, a language he found difficult, about Hollywood movies and expensive restaurants that he knew nothing about. “In the beginning I found it very hard to interact with him,” Manoj Tandon, one of Jindal’s friends from DPS, recalled. “He had this feeling that he was not conversant—that he was unable to speak English. That’s why he became a backbencher; he was never comfortable in the front row because he was afraid the teachers would ask him to explain something in English.”

Jindal never flaunted his wealth, Tandon said. “He was very self-conscious, and very focused on developing his personality, so he tried to interact with people who were intellectually sharper than him. He had this thing, that he was from Haryana and not from Delhi, and at the back of his mind, he was always wondering, ‘What will this person think of me?’ He was always thinking, ‘I have to dress properly. I have to look good.’”

During his first year at DPS, Jindal became the captain of the horse-riding team—“He was the only one who knew how to ride horses,” Tandon said—and soon took up polo as well. But he still lacked self-confidence. “Before taking any decision, he used to take feedback from his close friends,” Tandon told me. “Should I do this or that? How should I proceed? He was also very superstitious. Once someone told him, ‘If it’s raining and you go out and touch the gate of your house, your wishes will get fulfilled,’ and he actually did that.”

Jindal passed out of DPS with average marks, and went on to study commerce at Hans Raj College in Delhi University. But he devoted more and more time to polo, which had become the backbone of a newly confident identity. Jindal’s own exercise discipline—he even had a gym in his bedroom—emboldened him to tease his out-of-shape friends, and he liked to poke their bellies and ask why they’d gained so much weight. (It’s a habit he still retains: according to one of Jindal’s aides, he often chides employees who look to be putting on excess pounds.)

After graduating in 1990, Jindal went to the United States, where he pursued an MBA degree at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It was a good experience for me to go to the US,” he told me. “To be on my own, to drive my own car, to clean my dishes, to do all my laundry.” The former backbencher was no longer reluctant to speak up, and he found himself debating subjects like governance and constitutional rights in his classes. “He immediately became a leader in discussions,” said Diane McNulty, a dean at the UT-Dallas management school who taught him in a class called “Social and Political Environment of Business”. “He was eager to learn as much as he could about business and government in the US.”

(In 2011, Jindal expressed his gratitude to the university with a large donation, and the UT-Dallas management school was subsequently renamed in his honour. Curiously, the precise size of Jindal’s gift is a matter of some dispute. The university said that Jindal and two other alumni donated a combined total of $20 million, but refused to specify the exact amount. JSPL issued a statement to the press announcing a donation totalling only $2.5 million, most of it from the corporate coffers. But a contemporaneous report in the Dallas Morning News put the figure for Jindal’s contribution at $15 million, quoting university sources who called it the largest single gift from a graduate in the school’s history.)

In his second year on campus, Jindal contested elections for the university’s student government, running for the vice-president’s office, which he won. (His election manifesto called for telephones to be installed in all hostel rooms, a popular idea at a time when cellphones were still a luxury item.)  “We had very strong candidates in those days running for those positions,” McNulty said. “He demonstrated great leadership.”

Jindal’s time in America “changed him completely”, Tandon said. “He had a new command over the language, and he was far more confident of his decisions and his abilities. He was sure he was going to enter into politics—he had become very politically inclined.”

While Naveen was in America, his father was preparing to enter formal politics in Haryana. After a long-running dispute with the state’s senior Congress leader Bhajan Lal, who had denied him a ticket to contest the 1987 assembly elections from Hisar, Om Prakash joined with a group of rebel Congressmen, led by former chief minister Bansi Lal, to form the new Haryana Vikas Party. When he returned home on a vacation from Texas, Naveen threw himself into campaigning for his father, distributing pamphlets, mobilising young voters and chanting slogans. “As a kid, you learn that after shouting for half a day, if you’re not used to it, your throat is gone,” he recalled with a smile.

On one occasion, Naveen’s father asked his son to address the crowd at a campaign rally. Standing on the dais to deliver his first ever political speech, Jindal recalled an address he’d given back at his university in Texas about the dangers of political apathy. “I converted that same speech into Hindi,” he told me. “I said every person has a right to vote—a right that we have got after a lot of sacrifices. We have to exercise this right, and if everyone exercises this right judiciously, we would never have a dictator like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Bhajan Lal.” He had been closely following the intense debates on his university campus over the first American war in Iraq, and clubbing Bhajan Lal with the other two dictators delighted the audience, which showered Jindal with applause. “My father was very happy,” Jindal told me. “It was the best speech I ever gave.”

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WHEN JINDAL RETURNED FROM TEXAS for good in September 1992, he was quickly dispatched to his father’s steel plant in Raigarh. “I asked my father, ‘Bauji, this plant is running on losses. When will it start becoming profitable?’” Jindal told NDTV in 2012. “And Bauji replied, ‘Don’t worry, son. After ten years you will make an annual profit of Rs 100 crores.’” The elder Jindal was farsighted: though the steel industry was at a low ebb in the early 1990s, he anticipated that the country’s infrastructure needs would reverse the tide soon enough. After liberalisation began in 1991, steel prices and distribution were deregulated; in 1993, the government began to allot captive coal mines, which the government gave to private companies for the specific purpose of producing steel, power or cement. The Jindals were among the first to apply. “In those days, the cost difference between mining captive coal and buying from Coal India was not that huge,” a senior official in Chhattisgarh’s mining department told me. There was little competition for mine allotments, he explained. “That’s how they got in so early. When they started, they had no idea they were going to make such huge margins.”

Among the many lessons Jindal took from his father, this may have been the most valuable. “It’s very important to have control over the key raw materials,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “We don’t control all the raw materials, but we have captive mines for 60 or 70 percent. This is something my father really believed in—that we must control our raw materials. If we don’t, then other people control us. So we made a conscious effort to acquire coal and iron ore mines.”

The company’s first captive coal block was allotted in 1996, and the Jindals built their own road from Raigarh to the mining town of Tamnar, which would become the lifeline of the steel plant. Om Prakash had set up a captive power plant attached to the Raigarh steel plant, using the coal to produce energy for steelmaking. But Naveen saw the possibility of establishing an independent power project, which would sell the electricity it produced. In 1996, JSPL received permission from the central government and the state of Madhya Pradesh to begin planning a coal-fired power plant adjacent to its captive coal mine in Tamnar. Two years later, the company was allotted two additional coal blocks to be used in power generation. In time, this would bring in massive profits: according to the company’s latest annual report, nearly half its after-tax profits over the last two fiscal years came from its single power plant. “Jindal was the first one to enter power generation,” the Chhattisgarh mines official said. “There were no distribution licenses then, but he took a bold decision. He was able to make huge margins because of policy flaws, but he was taking a calculated risk when he got into the power sector.”

Jindal spent nearly ten years running the plant in Raigarh, working around the clock to make it profitable and competitive. “There was nothing else in the town for me,” Jindal said, “I was just living in the plant, on campus, 20 days a month.” The plant was his life; when he was introduced to Shallu Oswal, his future wife, he asked her: “Are you willing to live with me in Raigarh?” Shallu, who had just returned from a fashion design course in London, recalled that at first she was taken aback. But she said yes, and a month later, they were married.

Compared to the titans then dominating the Indian steel industry, Tata Steel and the state-run Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), Jindal was running a small firm, and he knew JSPL had to grow to survive. “Most of the equipment was second-hand, so one by one we changed the equipment,” Jindal said. “He knew that if he was going to compete with the big steelmakers, he would eventually need more men and machinery,” Anand Goel, the joint managing director of JSPL, told me. “First, he focused on improving the infrastructure: he set up mills, he put up a blast furnace, he put up a plate mill with a million-ton capacity. After all these became functional, he started making profits and he never looked back.” Once the machinery had been revamped, Jindal set his sights on recruiting the most talented executives in the field; many people told me that one secret of Jindal’s success was his ability to poach the best managers in the business. “He selected the right people, from SAIL and from NTPC [the state-run National Thermal Power Corporation] and he paid them 20 times more than they were getting from the government,” the Chhattisgarh mines official said.

By the end of the 1990s, OP Jindal was ready to retire from day-to-day management, and he engineered the smooth reorganisation of his company into the four components managed by his sons. When he assumed full responsibility over JSPL, Naveen Jindal began to devote more attention to cultivating relationships with the state politicians and officials whose support he needed to secure. After the new state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, Jindal was often spotted visiting ministers and senior bureaucrats in the state capital, Raipur. “All the government offices still have table flags that were gifted by Jindal,” Sunil Kumar, the editor of Daily Chhattisgarh, told me.

“Jindal is a shrewd businessman,” the Chhattisgarh mines official said. “He comes, he meets everybody, all the way up to the chief minister. He used to come to me with pending issues, for clearances.” Instead of leaving a document to be signed and sending an employee to collect it later, the mines official said, Jindal would wait there himself until the papers were ready. “This is how he always completed his projects on time.”

JINDAL ALSO BECAME FRIENDLY with some local newspaper editors and reporters, including Kumar, a veteran journalist who first met Jindal in 2001. Kumar was looking to raise money for a school that was teaching documentary filmmaking to Adivasi students in Chhattisgarh, and he wrote to Jindal suggesting a visit to the school. “He came alone, because at that time he wasn’t visible in Chhattisgarh,” Kumar remembered. “There were no pictures of him, not like the way you see his hoardings all over the place now.” (After my plane landed in Raipur last December, the first thing I saw outside the airport was a massive portrait of Jindal’s smiling face, which seemed to say ‘Welcome to my town.’) “When I first saw him,” Kumar said, “I thought he was Naveen Jindal’s son—he looked like a college student. And being a sportsperson he was extremely fit. But then I remember he had a very rustic way of talking. He was very un-posh.”

Jindal toured the film school and congratulated Kumar for launching the initiative, but his response seemed lukewarm, and Kumar figured Jindal wasn’t interested in supporting the school. “A few weeks later, he came again, but this time with his CEO, who looked around and spoke to the kids,” Kumar told me. “And before leaving, Jindal gave us Rs 75,000. Since then, we’ve had a good relationship. We often talked on the phone, because he respected my suggestions.”

A few years later, Kumar said, Jindal called up in search of advice about his own impending debut in Indian politics. By the start of 2004, Jindal had decided to contest Lok Sabha elections from Kurukshetra, about 160 kilometres from his hometown of Hisar, but he wasn’t sure which party to join. “He was confused between the BJP and the Congress,” Kumar told me. “Both the parties were offering him tickets. He asked me, ‘Sunilji, which one should I choose?’ I told him that between the two, there was not a great choice. I said that I considered the BJP to be a communal party, so you should not go to BJP and you should go to Congress. He still asked me, ‘But Sunilji, which party is going to win the elections?’ I told him that I didn’t know the answer.”

“He had a very open mind,” Kumar continued. “He wasn’t allergic to the BJP, and he had no great liking for the Congress.” In the end, Jindal took the Congress ticket. Wherever he went during his campaign, his supporters would have a well-decorated horse waiting for him; once Jindal was out of his vehicle, he was sitting atop the horse, smiling and waving at the crowd. In his speeches, he avoided criticising the opposition parties and focused on his own manifesto: total sanitation and quality education. “He mostly engaged with youth,” Jindal’s political secretary Vivek Mittal told me. “He would say to them, ‘I have come from abroad, and I have seen good things there. I want to apply all those things here.’”

Jindal, who was running for the Lok Sabha seat that his father held from 1996 to 1998, won by a wide margin over his closest rival, Abhay Singh Chautala—whose own father, Om Prakash Chautala, was then the chief minister of Haryana. After taking office, Jindal moved to implement the development agenda he’d promised during the campaign, making use of the funds allotted annually to his district through the Member of Parliament Local Area Development scheme (MPLADS) as well as his own considerable wealth. After OP Jindal’s death in 2005, Jindal endowed a foundation named for his father to fund development in Kurukshetra. As of 2011, the foundation had spent Rs 470 million on a vast array of projects in the district, including the construction of 50,000 toilets, equipping 330 gyms, organising almost a thousand eye-testing camps, and deploying medical vans that travel to six villages each day. Two years ago, Jindal even hired a full-time director of development—a 31-year-old Goldman Sachs analyst named Nishant Baranwal who returned from New York to administer and advise Jindal’s projects in Kurukshetra.

The 2004 elections marked the start of Jindal’s public life: before that point, he was a businessman of moderate prominence (and a renowned flag enthusiast), but still only one of four brothers working under the towering reputation of their highly visible father (who won back the Hisar seat in the Haryana assembly in 2005 and became a cabinet minister a few weeks before his death). He became an “industrialist–MP”, as his father had been, but his life was now divided rather than hyphenated: as a businessman, he avoided the public; as a politician, he held court with the crowd.

Though Jindal may profess to see no conflict between the parts of his whole, his image-consciousness and aversion to controversy suggest at least some awareness of the fundamental tension between his politics and his business. In parliament, he studiously avoids talk of industry, especially those in which he’s involved; he prefers to raise local issues related to Haryana or his district, and to speak on poverty, education, development and other causes to which no one could object. He prides himself on his refusal to attack the opposition, and he shies away from the sort of hot-button topics that fuel shouting matches on prime-time television.

When I asked him if he wanted to become a minister, he demurred. “I want to serve the people,” he said. “Whatever responsibility will come my way, I will be happy to do that.” But when I mentioned the idea of heading a ministry overseeing the industries in which he has substantial experience—steel, power or coal—he made it clear that he would never consider it. “My being in these industries—my being knowledgeable about coal power and steel—would very much put me and my relationship with my companies in a conflict of interest. At least in people’s minds, I have a conflict of interest, and for these reasons I never speak about these subjects in the parliament, I am on none of these committees,” Jindal said. “Though if given a chance I would do better than anyone else.”

| 4 |

IT’S A FOUR-HOUR TRAIN JOURNEY from Raipur to Raigarh district, through vast, empty flatlands and clusters of barren rice fields. When you first exit the station, Raigarh looks like a quaint rural town of serpentine streets, with shabby houses and densely packed roadside shops. But once you walk past the old heart of the town, you spot the flickering signboards of new hotels and restaurants that have come up in the last decade of industrialisation. Following in Jindal’s lucrative footsteps, more than 30 private companies are currently building thermal power plants in Chhattisgarh, according to the Union power ministry.

Late in the afternoon, I drove north along OP Jindal Road to the mining town of Tamnar. The paved road, built by the Jindals to transport coal from their first captive mine to the steel plant outside Raigarh, was carpeted with coal dust; the mango and mahua trees flanking the road, the colour of coal, and the slight breeze a gust of coal. Over the plains, underneath the grey sky, settlements of single-storey mud houses, whitewashed from top to bottom, stood defiantly on this blackened landscape. Approaching Tamnar, the presence of miners, wearing dhotis and carrying yellow helmets, increased: they huddled around makeshift tobacco shacks and sat bantering along the edge of the road.

The first Jindal facility to come into view was a power plant: the country’s first privately-held “mega-power” project, which came online at the end of 2007. From a distance, you can see two tall, red and white chimneys, thrusting upward like minarets and billowing white smoke into the sky. Fired by coal from two captive mines allotted to JSPL in 1998—operating on a 30-year lease signed in 2005—the Tamnar plant has earned enormous profits for Jindal, thanks in part to its unique regulatory circumstances: it was the first operation entitled to sell almost all its power on the open market at flexible prices, taking advantage of higher rates driven by demand rather than long-term power-purchase agreements.

“When the policy was changed by the power ministry in 2006, they thought, ‘Let’s encourage the private companies,’” the senior Coal India official told me. “They thought if you bring more private players the competition will happen automatically, so let’s have tariff-based bidding. If there were sufficient competition, then bidding would be most beneficial for the country, but right now there is almost no competition. The market is playing in Jindal’s favor, so he is enjoying this divine monopoly.”

The plant’s extraordinary profit margins led JSPL to begin expanding its operations at Tamnar: on an adjacent plot, the company is building a second power plant capable of producing more than double the capacity of the original. When I visited, construction was in full swing, and small convoys of trucks carrying cement and sand were shuttling to and from Tamnar.

As I drove away from the power plant, another one of Jindal’s innovations came into view: a seven-kilometre-long conveyor belt that ferries small chunks of coal from the nearby mine directly into the power plant. This is another advantage Jindal has over his competitors: he saves the money other power producers have to spend transporting coal by truck from mines to plants; all he needs is a perpetual feed of coal, which is precisely what the conveyor belt provides. I followed the belt to its source, a massive open-cast mine. Blocks of coal sparkled as sunlight briefly poured into the mine, but then the sun receded behind the clouds, and everything fell back into gloominess. I stood at the edge of an enormous sea of coal—so immense that the trucks at the other end looked like matchboxes—and could hear the cranes striking great hollow blows, breaking the coal hedges into pieces and then lifting them up and releasing them into trucks.

BACK IN RAIGARH, I walked through an old neighbourhood called Itwaari Bazaar, past little tarpaulin-roofed shacks selling clothes, plastic utensils, socks and bags. After 10 minutes, I came to a two-storey concrete house with two security guards, wearing commando uniforms and carrying automatic rifles, posted at the entrance. The guards had been deputed by the state government to prevent any further attack on Ramesh Agarwal, a local environmental activist and Jindal’s most determined foe.

Inside, Agarwal was lying on a bed with his left leg wrapped in a bandage; two steel rods had been inserted through his ankle and knee. “Two bullets,” Agarwal said, softly. “They shot at me thrice.”

Agarwal’s confrontation with Jindal began in 2010, over the new power plant I had seen under construction in Tamnar. In March of that year, Agarwal sent a letter to Jairam Ramesh, then the Union environment minister, alleging that Jindal had begun building the plant without securing an environmental clearance. Agarwal fed the letter to the local press—Jindal’s friend, Sunil Kumar, published it in Daily Chhattisgarh—and Ramesh dispatched a team of investigators to Tamnar, where they confirmed Agarwal’s allegations. In June 2010, the environment ministry directed the Chhattisgarh government to withdraw its approval for the power project.

For the time being, Jindal remained silent, though Kumar told me he received an anguished phone call from Jindal after publishing the letter. “He said, ‘Sunilji, your story has damaged us beyond repair. We had been good friends, and I respect you so much. Why are you hurting me?’ I said, we have carried the factual details, which have been established by the ministry. Our story is correct. He listened to me quietly and then hung up.”

Jindal appealed to the environmental ministry and managed to get the decision reversed, but his fight with Agarwal was just getting started. A year later, in May 2011, the police arrested Agarwal at his home, on the basis of a criminal defamation complaint Jindal had filed in June 2010, over remarks Agarwal had made at a public meeting on the power plant expansion. Agarwal spent about 60 days in jail, while the district court and high court refused him bail, which was finally granted by the Supreme Court. “The words he is alleged to have said in public are ‘hum Jindal ko ukhaad deingay yahaan sey (we’ll uproot Jindal from here)’,” said Ritwick Dutta, Agarwal’s lawyer, who runs a Delhi-based law firm called Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment. “If this is the grounds to put him behind bars, then half of north India’s population should be in jail. Such stuff is said in everyday dealings.”

In April 2012, the National Green Tribunal took up a complaint that Agarwal had filed three years earlier, challenging Jindal’s environmental clearance for a mining project and coal washery in Tamnar. The crux of Agarwal’s complaint was that the required public hearing had been conducted improperly: after the meeting was dispersed by police who had arrived to break up angry protests, the district magistrate continued the hearing, recording the remarks of a tiny number who supported the project. The tribunal’s decision was unusually harsh; after reviewing video evidence, the bench of two judges declared the hearing “a farce” and “a mockery of the entire process of public hearing”. The tribunal cancelled the environmental clearance, and Jindal suffered another setback at the hands of Agarwal’s activism.

On 7 July 2012, Agarwal was at the cyber cafe he owns, a hundred metres from his home. A motorbike pulled up to the shop and two men came inside. One asked Agarwal about the price of a computer, and the moment he looked toward the machine, he heard gunshots. “I saw blood flowing down my trousers,” Agarwal told me. “I cried for help, and they ran away.” Agarwal believes the gunmen were sent by Jindal, and that a retired army brigadier named KK Chopra, who Agarwal described as the head of security at Jindal’s plants in Raigarh and Orissa, plotted the attack and hired the shooters.

According to SK Banerjee, the investigating officer on the case in Raigarh, a chargesheet has been filed naming seven accused, including Chopra and his associate SN Panigrahi, who run a security agency called Superior Fire and Security Service, which provides security for JSPL’s Raigarh plant. “During the interrogation they didn’t confess to be involved in the shootout,” Banerjee said. “But we have collected physical evidence that says the two shooters had met Chopra and Panigrahi before and after the crime took place.”

When I asked Pradeep Tandon, a JSPL executive who runs the company’s operations in Raigarh, about the shooting, he described Chopra as “one of the guys who was working in our security agency before”. “He was not with us anymore—he was previously with us,” Tandon continued. “By the time Jindal came to know about the shooting, the police had already arrested them.” As for Agarwal, Tandon said that JSPL had filed the original criminal complaint, which led to his arrest, because “he used to keep blackmailing us. He was asking for a bribe of five crores, and we said we will not give money.”

Last July, about ten days after Agarwal had been shot, the Congress MLAs staged a walkout from the state assembly to protest the speaker’s refusal to allow a discussion of the incident. Chhattisgarh’s Congress politicians remain wary of Jindal, whose business interests in the state have led him to forge an alliance with the BJP chief minister, Raman Singh. Jindal often invites Singh to the inaugurations of new facilities at his plants; on several occasions when the chief minister’s helicopter has had technical problems, Jindal offered to send one of his private jets for Singh’s use.

VC Shukla, an octogenarian Congress leader and former Union cabinet minister—who befriended Om Prakash Jindal when they served in the Lok Sabha together two decades ago—is now among Naveen’s most vocal critics inside the Congress; he argues that Jindal’s pursuit of his own business interests inside Chhattisgarh have blackened the reputation of the party. “His deeds have given a bad name to the Congress Party,” Shukla told me when I met him at his New Delhi residence. “When it comes to voting, people don’t make a distinction between whether Jindal is an MP from Haryana or from Chhattisgarh. For people, Jindal is a Congressman, and his deeds will make us suffer in coming elections.”

“He manipulates the village council meetings,” Shukla continued. “He bribes the local officials, right from a pathwari level. When people protest against him, he asks police to lathi charge them. I mean, this is insane. We could have controlled him but he has never attended Congress meetings here.”

AFTER THE COALGATE SCAM HIT THE HEADLINES in August 2012, Agarwal’s accusations against Jindal were widely publicised by Zee News, which relentlessly focused its coverage of the scandal on Jindal’s role. According to a statement from JSPL, over one 24-hour period, Zee aired 78 items about Jindal and the “windfall profits” the company had earned from its captive coalmines. Footage of an injured Agarwal lying in his bed, alleging that Jindal had sent shooters to kill him, became a centrepiece of the channel’s prime-time programming.

Ravi Mutreja, then the head of corporate communications at JSPL, told me that he had already been in touch with the two Zee News editors who would later be accused of demanding bribes from Jindal. In late August, he said, he had met one of the editors and agreed to a Rs 200 million advertising contract with the channel. Mutreja told me he had simply asked the editors to include JSPL’s version of events alongside any subsequent negative stories about the company. “I must tell you, most publications are resorting to all this,” Mutreja said. “They will write a couple of stories against Jindal, get an ad or a private treaty, and then end the issue. But clearly the others aren’t as blatant as Zee.” Even after the end of the monsoon session of parliament, which had been dominated by opposition demands for the prime minister’s resignation, thereby keeping Coalgate in the news, Zee continued with what Mutreja felt were unfair attacks on Jindal. When he contacted one of the editors to complain, Mutreja told me, they discarded the advertising deal and demanded a billion-rupee payment to cease their critical coverage of Jindal.

When Mutreja explained the situation, Jindal called for an emergency meeting with Sushil Maroo, a top JSPL executive, and Vivek Mittal, his political secretary. They decided to engineer a “reverse sting” against Zee, and Mutreja was dispatched to purchase spy cameras and microphones. The equipment—three hidden cameras—was set up in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel next to Jindal’s Delhi headquarters, where Mutreja invited the two Zee editors for a meeting on 12 September 2012.

Jindal did not immediately release the recording: in an interview with Madhu Trehan of Newslaundry, he explained that he had texted Subhash Chandra, the chairman of Zee, to arrange a meeting. But Chandra declined to meet, Jindal said. “They realised that [we] are not going to pay up, so then they again unleashed their terror on us,” he told Trehan. “That’s when we decided there is no point [in talking], we must report the matter to the police. So it was a very brave decision that I had to take because, obviously, most people said that nobody has ever done this [expose the recorded conversations] and if you do this against a media mogul they will always unleash terror on us and it will not be good for us. But then I always draw inspiration from my father who always taught ‘that we always have to die but the brave dies only once and a coward dies many times.’”

On 25 October, Jindal held a press conference to play the footage of his sting operation. That night, Zee responded with a programme contending that it was Jindal, in fact, who had tried to bribe the news channel. (They also aired footage of Jindal’s press conference, focusing on Ramesh Agarwal, who had come to Delhi for the occasion, shouting at Jindal from his wheelchair.) But soon after, the police arrested the two Zee editors, and Jindal demanded that the government withdraw the channel’s broadcasting license.

In late December, I went to Hisar to meet Nand Kishore Goenka, Subhash Chandra’s father, who called the whole controversy “a silly fight between two brothers”. The two families, both from Hisar, have known each other for many years. Goenka told me that he was the head of the Agroha Temple Trust, which he called “an epicentre of spirituality for the Agarwals”, including the Jindal family. Goenka said he had been “a yes man” for Jindal’s father, and an ardent campaigner for both Jindals. When I asked him whether the controversy had marred the ties between the two families, he told me “the matter has been resolved, and there is no issue now.” “It’s like the way kids usually fight in their childhood,” Goenka continued. “It’s the same thing.”

Goenka claimed he had personally intervened to negotiate a truce between his son and Jindal. After Jindal’s press conference, Goenka said, Jindal’s mother called him and sought his assistance to resolve the conflict. He argued that the Jindals needed his support to maintain their vote bank in Haryana, and that they pressed for a resolution to avoid losing voters loyal to Goenka. “If they fight elections again,” he said, “they need to be on good terms with us.”

“GENERALLY WE FIND the media does sensationalise,” Jindal told me. “We understand it’s their business compulsion. But we had never been subject to extortion before.” When I turned to what his employees called the “Zee Nuisance”, he yawned, stretching his arms over his head, and slid down further in his chair. It was obvious that he would rather tell stories about his father or his student days in Dallas than field another round of questions about coal allocation and electricity prices, and he batted aside a question about how JSPL was addressing the problem of local opposition to its new projects in Chhattisgarh. “We are not facing any local opposition,” he said.

When I asked Jindal how he had weathered the storm of allegations over Coalgate, he expressed his frustration with the prevailing notion that mining rights had been wrongly “given away” to private firms who then reaped undue benefits from public resources. He professed to be uninterested in debating the merits of government policy on mining and power, which seemed to him to be working just fine. “I don’t go through these policies,” he said. “But because of my practical experience and my understanding of the subject, I am confident that the coal policy adopted by the Government of India since 1993 is the best in the world.”

The most intense days of Coalgate scrutiny were a few months in the past, but Jindal still bristled at the implication of wrongdoing, and I sensed that he still hadn’t entirely acclimated himself to the fact that his life in politics had begun to focus unwelcome attention on his business, at the same time as his business success threatened to burden his nascent political career. It’s a situation that seems unlikely to improve. Jindal’s ambitious push to expand his operations will inevitably lead to more conflicts over environmental clearances, land acquisition, and mining rights—and more opportunities for journalists, politicians and activists to scrutinise previously unexamined aspects of Jindal’s growing empire.

For the time being, however, Jindal remained confident that his hard-won success was its own defence, and that only the most uncharitable critic could doubt the nobility of his intentions. “In the 1990s, there were hardly any people who were interested in these mines—Coal India did not want them,” he said. “Because of these coal blocks, we have paid thousands of crores of revenue to the government, and thousands of crores of taxes, and that has to be appreciated. I used to feel disappointed that no one was appreciating that we managed to run these blocks successfully,” Jindal said. “But now I don’t. If somebody doesn’t want to understand, then what to do?”

| 1 |

AT HALFTIME during the Indian Open Polo Championship in New Delhi last November, the spectators came wandering onto the field to take part in the long-standing tradition of “divot stomping”—tamping torn-up turf back into place with their feet. Well-heeled VIPs, variously accoutred with pearl necklaces, glittering cufflinks, vintage handbags, tiny, fluffy dogs and big Cuban cigars, used the interlude to clink champagne glasses and exchange business cards. As they did so, 200 farmers—men of all ages, wearing white dhotis and kurtas, Nehru vests and turbans—came running onto the field. They rushed past the divot stompers, past most of the polo players, and halted before a rider astride a brown pony. The leader of the crowd, a burly man in a large turban, was the first to speak: “Accha khelay, Naveenji. Accha kheley.” (Well played, Naveenji. Well played.) Another dhoti-clad man threw his fist in air and shouted “Naveenji zindabad!”

Their praise was directed at Naveen Jindal, the 42-year-old Congressman and billionaire chairman of Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL), who in the past decade has amassed a vast fortune from the unglamorous coal beds of India. Jindal waved at his supporters, who had come from villages around Kurukshetra, the Haryana constituency he has represented in the Lok Sabha since 2004. As he dismounted his pony and stretched, mumbling a few words in Spanish to his physiotherapist, the farmers formed a human cordon around him. Then, as he walked toward the pavilion, the men from Haryana followed, pushing and shoving each other for the chance to stand closer to Jindal and have their photographs taken. Jindal spotted a young man standing with a camera dangling from his neck, and barked something between a joke and an order: “Hey you,” he said, pointing. “Is that camera just for show? Take some pictures!”

Before play resumed, the VIPs retreated to a bar at the top of the invite-only stands, while the farmers went back to the concrete general admission seats on the opposite end of the polo ground to watch the second half of the match. Jindal’s team lost, against a team from Hyderabad, by just one goal, but he was in high spirits afterwards, surrounded by his loyal constituents. He posed for more photographs while an awards ceremony carried on in the background; when his name was announced, he hustled over to the dais and stood with his team. A few minutes later, I saw him chatting with one of his players, Ed Winterton, who was shaking his head in disappointment. “It’s okay,” Jindal said, patting him on the back. “It’s just one of those days when you play good but you still lose.”

THE SCENE AT THE POLO CHAMPIONSHIPS captured something of Naveen Jindal’s multiple identities. In Delhi he’s a billionaire industrialist, India’s highest-paid CEO—his salary last year was Rs 734 million—and a fresh-faced politician identified with a new generation of Congress leaders, as well as being a polo player and shooting champion. In Kurukshetra, he sheds his well-tailored suits and aviator sunglasses for a Nehru vest and kurta pyjama while he walks the dusty roads to meet voters.

In the villages of his district, he’s a man of the soil—born and raised in rural Haryana, where faith in family remains a paramount virtue. Jindal is a careful, even anxious, manager of his own image, and he seizes every chance to speak reverentially of his late father, Om Prakash Jindal, who built a massive steel company from scratch before entering politics as a member of the Haryana Legislative Assembly in his sixties. Whether he’s talking about business or politics, Jindal turns to stories involving his father—whom he calls Bauji—and modestly avers that he’s merely continuing on the path that his father paved. “I have always drawn inspiration from my father, I always wanted to follow his footsteps,” Jindal told me during an interview in his office earlier this year. “So he was in business, I am doing the same. He was in politics, I am doing the same.”

In 1998, Om Prakash divided among his four sons the industrial group he founded in the 1950s. (The four companies remain under the umbrella of what is now called the OP Jindal Group.) Naveen was given the newly formed JSPL, which controlled three coalmines and a single steel plant. In its first year under his management, JSPL’s turnover was Rs 3.8 billion; by 2011-12, that figure had multiplied almost fiftyfold, to Rs 180 billion. JSPL now has operations in nine countries; in India, it has four steel plants, 10 coalmines, one wildly profitable power plant and six more power projects under development.

In a business that depends on privileged access to natural resources and clever negotiation of government regulations, Naveen Jindal has steadily expanded his portfolio of coal deposits and successfully navigated the shifting currents of government policy. In the last decade, he made windfall profits selling power generated from coal, taking advantage of JSPL’s unique status as the country’s first private power operator; while other steel producers have seen profitability suffer due to interruptions in their access to coal and iron ore, two raw materials crucial for steel production, JSPL has thrived atop its enormous reserves, among the largest of any private company in India.

“The Jindals have always been hungry for raw materials,” a senior Coal India official told me. “Wherever they go, they take huge portions of coal and iron ore mines.” Naveen Jindal’s appetite for expansion, and his determination to secure raw materials at a cost that keeps his profits high, has lured him into investments in Africa, Australia, the Middle East and Latin America. In 2006, he cemented his status as a player in the cutthroat global steel business by outbidding ArcelorMittal—the world’s largest steel producer—for the rights to develop the El Mutun mines, in Bolivia, one of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore. (Last year, however, Jindal terminated his deal with the Bolivian government after both sides accused each other of failing to fulfill contractual obligations.)

While his business burgeoned in the mid 2000s, Jindal launched his career in politics, winning the Lok Sabha seat in Kurukshetra, which his father held from 1996 to 1998; his margin of victory was more than 160,000 votes. As a politician, he fastidiously avoids confrontation, preferring soaring but earnest rhetoric about civic duty and national pride; when he addresses the public, Jindal often repeats one refrain: “I want to make India the country of my dreams.”

Before he achieved prominence as a businessman or a politician, Jindal made his name as a patriot, launching a legal battle in 1995 to amend the Indian Flag Code, which only permitted citizens to fly the tricolour on Independence Day and Republic Day. (His official website calls this “The Fight to Free Tiranga.”) Seven years later, the Union cabinet agreed to revise the Flag Code, giving every Indian the right to hoist the national flag any day of the year; the Supreme Court subsequently held that “the right to fly the flag freely … is a fundamental right of a citizen”. Over the years, Jindal’s activism for the tricolour became something of an obsession: with his wife Shallu, he launched the Flag Foundation of India, whose mission is to promote pride in the flag and its display. “Only a man with a vision could have taken upon himself the mammoth task of re-awakening such a pride in the Indian conscience,” Jindal’s biography on the foundation’s website declares. In 2009, he secured permission to erect giant flagpoles with monumental tricolours flying day and night, and he has since put up flags the size of tennis courts at locations in Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. Jindal never wears a suit without a flag pin in his lapel, and his foundation has produced and distributed innumerable tricolour wristbands and pins. “Now he wants to erect a flagpole in Connaught Place,” Vivek Mittal, Jindal’s political secretary, told me. “He wants to cover every state of India from Kargil to Kanyakumari.”

Jindal has frequently said that he wants to devote more time to his career in politics, but he still spends many of his days flying across India in his private jet, supervising his projects and meeting the state politicians and bureaucrats whose signatures and clearances are critical to their success. About once each month, a JSPL executive told me, Jindal travels abroad to explore new deals and continue the relentless search for resources: JSPL already has mining operations in South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Indonesia and Australia. Last December, he was in Cameroon, meeting with the president, announcing plans to invest $500 million there, and floating a bid (since withdrawn) to purchase a mining firm. In January, Jindal traveled to Oman, where JSPL is expanding its existing steel plant; in the same month, JSPL made an offer to buy up the remainder of an Indian-owned Australian mining company in which it already owns a minority share, while JSPL executives told the press the company was contemplating further investments in West Africa, Spain and Ukraine.

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Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.

READER'S COMMENTS

26 thoughts on “The Price of Power”

What is the point of this essay? What is its point of view? The lamest most insipid profile I have ever read in Caravan. A pity.

Nice article. Naveen Jindal stands exposed in “coal gate” scandal. His murderous campaign against opponents and media will only blacken his face further. Any number of tirangas will not help to cover his breed, greed and speed. The tiranga campaign is only a cunning attempt to divert the eyes of the public while he goes on plundering national wealth. Any street magician knows this attention diverting tactic. Of course, people like the thrice married Shashi Taroor lack moral fiber and will be attracted to wealth like moths to the flame. Otherwise what does a former UN under secretary see in a massage parlor owner from Dubai? Jindal and Taroor can wear tirangas on their chest and go all the way to hell. The point these so called patriots should ask themselves every day is: “What would happen if everybody in India were to act selfishly, greedily and corruptly like me”. They cannot do it. In the old days people were deceived by khadi wearing, nehru topi wearing netas. Some netas even took to wearing saffron to give the appearance of being holy. Now the public is too smart and will see through such gimmicks. So the best option is wear tiranga and go on bullshitting people while you go on looting them without environmental clearances in the name of development. The benefit of being a Congress politician is that the government is in your pocket wrapped in the silk pocket square, pinned with the tiranga on the chest. Characterless people like Jindal should take sannyas from politics. They need to take care that their bad karma does not bounce back on them. Otherwise one day you will read in the headlines that another plane has crashed somewhere and that will be the end of the matter.

I don’t understand why people are criticising the writing here. Jindal is criticised, albeit a little more subtly than the approach Indian journalists usually prefer, and I don’t see this subtlety as a bad thing at all. However, I’m really surprised that his support for Khap Panchayats has not been included.

I fail to understand why people like Jindal are shown as successful story of India. After reading this article I’m convinced about the failure of Congress, BJP and any other political party that has been functional in India. I left India way back in 1975 and that was the time when we wanted new business families to come up and grow. But it’s regrettable to see that many families have come into play but they just mint money for their personal growth, for leaving enormous wealth for their future generations; it’s not about helping India to become economically independent. It’s just looting India by striking secret deals with politicians and filling their pockets at the same time. If Jindal is really revolutionary, he must start a chain of schools from “Kargil to Kanyakumari” where poor kids are given free education, along with mid day meal. He can easily afford to run at least a thousand such institutions, but instead of that, he wants to erect poles? Ha! Insane. Why Flag Foundation? That should be the job of the government? By erecting a flagpole you are not solving the problem. In Connaught Place I have seen hundreds of poor kids begging out of hunger, and all they need is a few rupees to buy a roti from a nearby dhaba. Your flagpole is not going to subside their hunger. Any display is the worst form of image building. People will call you a true leader only after you make any change on the ground. That change is felt by not seeing a poor kid dying of starvation. The amount of happiness you will get by quenching the thirst of one human being is incomparable to even if you raise 3.5 billion flags. Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

In an articulated way this article explains jindal’s growth trajectory. While reading, in midway, I was of the view that it’s a paid up article by JSPL but as the story unfolds in the end it seems that I was wrong. Nonetheless a well researched article which explores the story from another angle.

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