How two of India’s richest men became the target of farmer boycotts

January 23, 2021, 2:31 AM UTC

Two Indian business moguls—one India’s richest man and the other nicknamed “Modi’s Rockefeller”—have become embroiled in a months-long protest movement by farmers in India over claims that the government favors the magnates at the expense of normal citizens.

Since November, tens of thousands of farmers in India have camped out in a sprawling, makeshift tent city on the outskirts of Delhi, calling for the repeal of three agricultural laws that they see as erasing government protections for farmers while benefiting corporations. The protesters believe the new market-friendly laws will get rid of the government’s minimum support price guarantee, which ensures farmers a base level of profit from selling their produce.

Now, some protesters are railing against the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who runs India’s largest private company, Reliance Industries, and Gautam Adani, who heads Indian conglomerate Adani Group, over unproven claims that the tycoons will benefit from the reform laws the farmers oppose.

Ambani and Adani, worth $81.2 billion and $35.2 billion, respectively, don’t operate in corporate and contract farming, the sector that the laws address, and both say they have no plans to enter it. But to the protestors calling for the boycotts, the billionaires are symbols of “crony capitalism,” the idea that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prioritizes the desires of the uber rich over the needs of average citizens, said Gurharpal Singh, an expert in South Asian politics at SOAS University of London.

Farmers have burnt joint effigies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ambani, and Adani during protests. Reliance-owned telecom towers in India’s northern states, where most of the farmers are from, were vandalized earlier this month, and in recent weeks, hashtags like #BoycottReliance, #BoycottJio, and #BoycottAdani have circulated on Twitter, many of them alongside hashtags expressing support for the farmers and calling for the repeal of the laws.

“There’s an increasing resentment…that essentially big capitalists like the Ambanis and the Adani Group are being given favors while the average Indian citizen is suffering hugely,” Singh said.

Ambani and Adani saw their combined wealth jump almost $41 billion in 2020 even as the COVID-19 pandemic battered India’s economy, leading to lost income for the country’s poorest people and high unemployment. The men’s enormous wealth and ties to Modi have made them ideal symbols of the farmers’ grievances about government favoritism, while the debate over farming reforms is giving farmers an opportunity to unleash their simmering anger over economic inequality and an agrarian crisis that has long been a source of despair.

Crony capitalism

Complaints of “crony capitalism” stretch back to the beginning of Modi’s first term in 2014, when the prime minister flew to New Delhi to assume office in Gautam Adani’s private jet. Both Ambani and Adani are personally close with Modi, and both men’s fortunes—which are built on sprawling businesses, from energy to defense to port infrastructure—have soared since Modi became prime minister seven years ago.

Ambani and Adani are attracting scrutiny, says Surinder S. Jodhka, professor of sociology and chair at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University, because of “a public perception that they are particularly favored by the Modi government.”

Ambani launched Reliance Jio in 2016, and it’s now India’s biggest mobile network operator after it benefited from reforms that critics point to as evidence of special treatment. Regulatory changes in India’s e-commerce sector in 2019 tightened rules on foreign firms like Amazon and gave a boost to Ambani’s e-commerce business.

In 2018, Adani won a contract to run six recently privatized airports in India, despite having no experience in operating airports. The state government of Kerala is currently contesting Adani’s takeover of its international airport in India’s Supreme Court after the Kerala High Court dismissed the challenge. Kerala’s state finance minister described the airport deal as “brazen cronyism,” and airport employees protested this week against the privatization of the facility.

In a statement to Fortune, an Adani Group spokesperson said Adani won the airports “because it offered the best bids.”

“The privatization of six airports by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) was conducted through a globally competitive and transparent bidding process,” the spokesperson said.

Reliance Industries didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Farmer concerns

The claims that the farm laws were deliberately crafted to benefit Ambani and Adani businesses spawned from farmers’ core concerns that the reforms would remove state protections and give private corporations the upper hand in the agricultural sector.

The three laws include a reform to permit the trade of farm goods in private markets instead of the regulated markets of state government-run Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Prior to the reforms, which the government passed in September, farmers could only sell their produce through APMCs in their state.

Fourteen years ago, the state government of Bihar in northeastern India scrapped its APMCs to stimulate private investment in the state’s agricultural sector, similar to the aim of the new nationwide laws. After Bihar repealed its APMC law, crop prices collapsed and farmers were forced to sell their produce for lower than the minimum support price, retaining nearly no profits for themselves.

According to the central government, the national change in AMPCs will give farmers more choice in trading their crops. The farmers who oppose the laws argue that private markets, which aren’t subject to the same taxes, fees, and licenses as state-run venues, will be able to set the price of goods and hold bargaining power over them. Other changes in the laws include provisions about e-trading and the deregulation of the production, storage, transport and sale of certain crops.

Farmers at a tractor rally outside of New Delhi to protest the farm laws on Jan. 7, 2021.
Vipin Kumar—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In mid-January, India’s Supreme Court suspended the laws and said it would assemble an expert committee to resolve the impasse between the government and the farmers, who have met for talks on ten separate occasions without coming to a resolution. On Thursday, the farmers stood firm on their demand for a total repeal of the reforms and rejected a government offer to suspend the laws for 18 months.

The farmers’ grievances go beyond the new reforms. They’ve “been at some level unhappy for quite some time,” says Jodhka.

India’s agricultural sector has been shrinking for decades, and agriculture as a share of India’s gross domestic product dropped from 43% in 1967 to 16% in 2019, according to World Bank data. The drop-off in agricultural revenue has coincided with a rise in the prices of seeds, fertilizer, and other agricultural necessities. Even with those declines, an estimated 60% of people in India remain financially dependent on agriculture. Farmers struggle with debt, bankruptcy, and endemic suicide.

The three laws, Jodhka says, “provide a kind of context for all that anger to come out.” At the same time, Jodhka adds, there’s “a larger perception that the government of India is increasingly being influenced by corporate interests…there is a kind of fear of monopolies emerging in every field.”

Threat to Modi?

On Nov. 26, an estimated 250 million people took part in a nationwide general strike in support of the farmers’ demands, with activists hailing it as the largest protest in history. The widespread popular support for the farmers raises the question of whether the farmer’s critiques of Ambani and Adani and the pair’s close ties to Modi’s government will spread to the wider public.

“[The government] is dealing with a large protest, which has much popular support,” Singh says. “The danger with this movement for the government is that it could become a moral movement, a crusade against inequality, favoritism, cronyism…I think that’s what the government is probably most worried about.”

“[The billionaires are] an interest group that is seen to be aligned with the government, and if there is a widespread protest movement, of course their interests will be threatened,” Singh says.

Modi and Adani at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit on Jan. 18, 2019 in Gandhinagar, India.
Siddharaj Solanki—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Amita Baviskar, a sociologist and professor at Ashoka University in India, is more circumspect about the prospect of the farmer protests growing into a mass movement critical of the government. The farmers have significant public support, Baviskar says, but that support comes from “a very basic understanding, which is, ‘These people grow food that we eat and they shouldn’t get a deal that makes life harder for them.’ It doesn’t add up to a larger critique of the policies that led to the agrarian crisis.”

Many people still have an “image of the government as strong on security and social welfare, so the critique of crony capitalism and the favorable deals given to Reliance and Adani don’t have a great deal of popular traction,” Baviskar says.

Many of the alleged “special breaks” held up as evidence of cronyism, like the airport deal and others in defense, telecoms, and real estate, are “well documented,” Baviskar says, but “they don’t figure in popular perceptions of the Modi government.”

Modi won reelection in 2019—with a stagnating domestic economy—by a wider margin than he had in 2014. For now, says Jodhka, the political opposition is weak, and Modi, who twice was elected as a populist ‘Man of the People,’ remains enormously popular with a 76% approval rating. Objections to crony capitalism remain isolated in “pockets” of the populace, Jodhka says.