New Delhi: A long-festering dispute between Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra and her former partner over custody of a Rottweiler named Henry has morphed into an all-out assault by the Narendra Modi government and its closest corporate backer – the Adani group – on an opposition politician widely seen as one of their sternest critics inside and outside parliament.

Since the publication of the Hindenburg report in January this year, the Adani group has been battling heightened international scrutiny of its business dealings. More recently, the Financial Times has published two damaging stories, based on internal Adani documents accessed by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and more stories are expected to follow. Amidst the silence of the big Indian media, it has been opposition politicians like Mahua Moitra of the TMC and Rahul Gandhi and Jairam Ramesh of the Congress who have been the most vocal in demanding that the Modi government take action against the controversial business house. Adani’s response has been to portray the ongoing criticism of its operations as an “attack on India” by foreign and domestic conspirators working in tandem.

Dehadrai to Dubey to Adani

Latching on to accusations of impropriety and corruption levelled by Moitra’s former partner, lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai, on October 14, a leading Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Nishikant Dubey, sought both the institution of criminal proceedings against her and an urgent hearing by parliament’s ethics committee in the hope of getting his bête noire expelled from the Lok Sabha. Dubey, incidentally, was accused by Moitra a few months ago of lying about his educational qualifications in an election affidavit.

Dehadrai’s affidavit included claims that (1) Moitra was “bribed” by businessman Darshan Hiranandani to ask over 50 questions in parliament “pertaining directly to his business interests” which targeted not just Modi but the “business activities of M/s Adani Group”, and (2) that “the much-publicized Hindenburg Report contained direct references from the complaints filed by Smt. Moira against M/s Adani”.

Adani was quick to issue a triumphant statement. Dehadrai’s complaint, it said, “corroborated” the company’s charge that there was a wider “arrangement to besmirch the reputation and interests of the Adani Group and our chairman Mr. Gautam Adani”. Significantly, the Adani statement alleged that recent news reports on the group by the Financial Times were also part of this campaign.

Unsolicited affidavit from Hiranandani

On Thursday, Hiranandani, who describes himself as a close friend of Moitra’s since 2017, issued an ‘affidavit’ in which he endorsed two of the allegations Dehadrai had made. First, that he had used her login credentials to post questions on parliament’s portal and helped her draft questions about the Adani group. Second, that he had given her unspecified gifts, helped renovate her official MP’s residence in Delhi and provided “secretarial and logistical assistance” for some of her travels.

However, Hiranandani did not corroborate the two most damaging charges Dehadrai and Dubey had levelled at Moitra. There is no cash payout ‘smoking gun’ that government handlers evidently hoped he would deliver. Nor does he say the gifts he gave were in exchange for anything Moitra had done as an MP, least of all for asking questions in parliament.

This absence of a quid pro quo is further borne out by Hiranandani’s claim in the affidavit that Moitra’s targeting of Adani was driven not by his business interests or purported gifts but by what he described as her own political ambition.

Modi’s ‘impeccable reputation’,  ‘rise of Adani created jeaousy’

He said Moitra wanted to make her mark as an MP after getting elected in 2019 and “was advised by her friends and advisors that the shortest possible route to fame is by personally attacking Shri Narendra Modi, the honourable Prime Minister of India.”

If this theme – that Modi’s critics are possessed by the desire to ‘abuse’ him – sounds familiar to those who have heard the prime minister’s speeches [see here; here; here], the passage which followed is a textbook example of the government’s own image of itself. Hiranandani’s affidavit states:

“The only problem was that Sh. Modi enjoyed an impeccable reputation and was not giving any opportunity to anyone to attack him in policy, governance or personal conduct. As was her wont, she thought that the only way to attack Sh. Modi is by attacking Sh. Gautam Adani and his group as both were contemporaries, and they belong to the same state of Gujarat. She was helped by the fact that the rise of Sh. Gautam Adani had created jealousy and detractors among some sections of businesses, politics and media, both within and outside the country. So she expected support from these sections in her endeavour to malign and embarrass the Prime Minister by targeting Sh. Adani.” [emphasis added]

The strikingly ‘official’ nature of this narrative becomes apparent further down when Hiranandani says Moitra received help or “had frequent interactions with” the business journalist Sucheta Dalal – known for her integrity and no-nonsense reporting on a range of big corporates, including Adani – and “journalists from the Financial Times, the New York Times, the BBC and also with several Indian publications.”

The three foreign media outlets named have all earned the ill-will of the government for their coverage of Adani’s businesses, India’s democratic backsliding under Narendra Modi’s leadership and the prime minister’s own controversial role in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Hiranandani also identified  the lawyers Shardul Shroff and Pallavi Shroff as individuals who were “feeding [Moitra] with all kinds of unverified information relating to Sh. Gautam Adani and his companies” and “assisting her in this targeted attack” and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as someone with whom she had “interactions with… on matters relating to Adani companies.”

‘Gun put to head’, Moitra says about ‘dear friend’ Hiranandani

Late on Thursday night, Moitra issued a two-page statement, pointing out that Hiranandani’s ‘affidavit’ – which she called a “plea bargain” – was not notarised and had not been officially released to the media by its signatory but was instead hurriedly ‘leaked’  in order to fuel a “media circus”.

Moitra also said that Shardul Shroff, whom Hiranandani had dragged in, “is the brother of Cyril Shroff who has had a bitter separation of business from him. Cyril Shroff is Gautam Adanis samdhi” and was on the SEBIs committee [probing the Hindenburg allegations] in total conflict of interest.” The Shroffs, incidentally, have warned Hiranandani that they may sue him for defamation for making “reckless, malicious” allegations against them.

Hiranandani, who signed the ‘affidavit’ in Mumbai on Thursday, flew back to Dubai the same day. On Friday, he issued a notarised version of the same document, without explaining why he had rushed to issue a non-notarised affidavit the previous day.

Claiming that a businessman like Hiranandani would only have signed a letter in this way if a ‘gun was put to his head’, Moitra described the contents of the letter as “a joke”. “It has clearly been drafted by some half-wit in the PMO who doubles up as a creative writer in the BJPs IT cell. It sings paeans to Modi and Gautam Adani while linking in every opponent of theirs to me and my alleged corruption.”

Describing Hiranandani as a “dear friend”, Moitra said that the PMO gave his father and him “20 minutes to sign this letter”:

“They were threatened with a total shutdown of all their businesses. His father is in real estate which depends on government licenses. And he is in energy, data centres and semiconductor chip manufacturing which too depends on government licenses. He has over 30,000 crore investments in UP alone. They were told they will be finished, the CBI would raid them and all government business would stop and all PSU bank financing would be stopped immediately.

“The draft of this letter was sent by the PMO and he was forced to sign it. And it was leaked to the press immediately. This is in return for the government not doing a CBI investigation or not aggressively attacking their businesses. Though tragic, it is totally understandable that Darshan (who is a dear friend) would need to think of what is at stake for him here – namely the continuation of his family businesses built up over decades and the fate of thousands of employees – and buckle under pressure and sign this.”

This is “the usual modus operandi of this BJP government or rather Gautam Adanis government run by the BJP,” Moitra added.

Adani, Modi, Moitra: A Timeline [Graphic: The Wire]

Was Hiranandani coerced by the PMO as Moitra alleges?

The circumstances under which the businessman’s affidavit appeared on Thursday were highly unusual. Affidavits are normally notarised and released publicly but the version which was put into circulation that night was not. Finally on Friday a notarised version of the same affidavit was released.  So what was the tearing hurry on Thursday?  Was Hiranandani asked by the government to issue a statement broadly corroborating Dehadrai’s allegations against Moitra? The question needs to be posed because he had neither been summoned by the ethics committee of parliament or by any official investigating agency. The language of the affidavit seems to speak in two registers. One is personal and almost informal. The other is formal and sarkari, with lots of ‘Shris’ and gushing remarks about Prime Minister Modi – classic hallmarks of official drafting.

The Hiranandani group has extensive and growing business interests in states ruled by the BJP which renders them vulnerable to official threats and pressure. The past few years have seen many examples of the threat or even use of investigative agencies to ensure opposition politicians fall in line and soften up businessmen into accepting deals and arrangements that they might otherwise not be willing to do.

What happens next?

Parliament’s ethics committee, headed by the BJP’s Vinod Kumar Sonkar, has called Dehadrai and Dubey for a hearing on October 26. The 15-member committee (comprising seven BJP MPs and one Shiv Sena (Shinde) MP, four Congress MP, and one each from the Shiv Sena, BSP, Janata Dal (United) and Communist Party of India (Marxist)) can recommend action be taken against Moitra but she would also have to be given a hearing. The ethics committee does not recommend expulsion and has never done it, former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary told The Wire. It normally recommends suspension, at most, he said.

Will Hiranandani be asked to give evidence to the ethics committee?

If Hiranandani’s affidavit is to become the grounds for any punitive action against Moitra, the businessman will have to be subjected to cross-questioning. Dehadrai has alleged that the businessman paid cash as a bribe to Moitra but Hiranandani’s otherwise sweeping affidavit makes no such claim. If he appears before the committee, he is bound to be asked whether Dehadrai’s claim that he gave money to Moitra is true. Answering no would discredit Dehadrai and weaken the government’s case. And if circumstances prevail upon him to say yes, the fact that he has been able to so dramatically improve upon his affidavit would discredit him as a witness.

Would the government handlers who extracted the affidavit from Hiranandani want a situation where he might end up deviating from a carefully framed narrative? Perhaps not.

Can the government move to have Moitra expelled from parliament?

The power to recommend expulsion rests with the privileges committee or any special committee appointed by the house. Further, the Lok Sabha speaker has no power to punish a member. This power vests in the house. Only the house can expel a member on a proper motion which will be voted by all MPs, among whom the BJP has a majority, says Achary. But this is easier said than done, even given the precedent which exists.

In 2005, several MPs were expelled after they were caught in a sting operation accepting cash in exchange for agreeing to table questions in parliament. The accusation against Moitra seems designed to invoke the 2005 expulsions as a precedent. However, unlike the ‘cash for questions’ sting, there is so far no evidence to back up the claim that she received a ‘bribe’ from Hiranandani or anyone else for any question that she has asked. Hiranandani’s own affidavit does not support such a charge.

What about Hiranandani’s use of her parliamentary login credentials to draft and post questions?

Hiranandani has said he used Moitra’s login to draft and post questions and this is an issue that the ethics committee is likely to raise with Moitra, assuming there is a rulebook of parliament which stipulates that MPs are barred from sharing their login details with anybody other than their staff or interns. But for this to become a more serious charge, the committee would have to establish that the questions Hiranandani uploaded, if any, brought him actual benefit in business terms and that he rewarded Moitra in some tangible way for that. So far, such a nexus has not been established.

Would an MP who saw two persons associated with her party – Prashant Kishor and Abhishek Banerjeee – hit with Pegasus spyware and who knew her own outspokenness on Adani made her a target, use a businessman in Dubai to log in and upload questions for her if those questions represented an act of corruption? Similarly, would a businessman seeking to ‘plant’ a question to further his business interests be comfortable leaving his own digital fingerprints at the scene of the crime? These are questions the ethics committee members are likely to ponder over.

The fact that questions submitted through the parliament members’ portal generate an OTP which goes to the MP’s registered mobile phone each time something has to be uploaded means Hiranandani did not have unsupervised access and did not “hack” any official computer network as some have suggested. Moitra would have had to authorise the submission of each question, thus retaining control. So was she simply using her businessman friend as a glorified secretary to upload questions she had approved? “Once she asked you for something,” Hiranandani says in his affidavit, “it was always a drop everything and do it now for me approach.”

“An MP can get information from any source and frame questions on that basis,” PDT Achary told The Wire. “He or she may procure information from even illegal sources. No one can ask the MP to disclose their source. So Moitra can procure information from [Hiranandani] and frame questions or draft Bills or whatever. No one can question her,” he said, adding: “But sharing the password is not allowed.”

What do we know about the gifts Hiranandani says he gave Moitra?

In his affidavit, Hiranandani has not described the nature and value of the ‘gifts’ he said he gave her, an omission that is hard to understand unless the inventory was seen as underwhelming by those who urged him to put pen to paper. Under cross-examination, however, those details would emerge.

Given that both Hiranandani and Moitra say they have been close friends for several years, the committee will have to ask him what gifts he gave and when, in order to assess their significance and any potential conflict of interest. In any case, Hiranandani’s affidavit does not link his gifts and favours to the asking of parliament questions.

Moitra’s statement notes that Hiranandani’s says he gave in to her “demands” because he was fearful of displeasing her. “Darshan and his father run one of Indias largest business groups and their recent projects in UP and Gujarat have been inaugurated by the CM of Uttar Pradesh and by the Prime Minister. Darshan accompanied the PM abroad as part of his business delegation very recently. Why would such a wealthy successful businessman who enjoys direct access to every Minister and the PMO be coerced by a first time Opposition MP into giving her gifts and giving into her demands? It is totally illogical and only cements the truth that this letter was drafted by the PMO and not Darshan.”


Adani, Narendra Modi and Mahua Moitra: A Timeline of how the war has unfolded

January 24, 2023: Hindenburg report on the Adani Group alleges insider trading via offshore funds to artificially boost company share prices.

February 2023 onwards: Mahua Moitra demands probe into the allegations made in the Hindenburg report, targets the Narendra Modi government for shielding the business group.

August 31, 2023: The Financial Times, Guardian and OCCRP publish stories linking some of the offshore funds mentioned in the Hindenburg report to the Adani Group.

October 9, 2023: Having received a questionnaire about a new story the Financial Times was working on, the Adani group issues a statement condemning what it said was a “malicious attempt” by the newspaper to “tarnish its global reputation”.

October 10, 2023: Moitra hits out at Adani group for attacking the FT over its forthcoming story

October 11, 2023: The Financial Times publishes a detailed and highly damaging story on the alleged over-invoicing of coal imports by the Adani Group. The story referenced an earlier investigation by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence but documented how the over-invoicing is still continuing.

October 13, 2023: Moitra says the Adani group is lying when it claimed, in the wake of the FT story, that the Supreme Court has “already settled” the issue of overvaluation of coal imports

October 14, 2023: Jai Anant Dehadrai alleges Mahua Moitra was bribed by Darshan Hiranandani to ask questions in parliament targeting the Adani group but provides no evidence.

October 15, 2023: BJP MP Nishikant Dubey demands a CBI case and a parliamentary ethics probe against Mahua Moitra, but again offered no proof.

October 16, 2023: The Adani group issues a media statement linking Dehadrai and Dubey’s allegations against Moitra to the Financial Times and OCCRP’s critical coverage of the group.

October 16, 2023: Moitra posts three questions on X directed at the Adani group

October 16, 2023: Moitra sends legal notice to Dehadrai, Dubey and 17 media platforms accusing them of defamation.

October 18, 2023: Parliament’s ethics committee calls Dehadrai, Dubey for October 26 hearing.

October 19, 2023: Darshan Hiranandani’s ‘affidavit’ confirms he helped Moitra frame and post questions on Adani in parliament and also did favours for her and gave unspecified gifts but he does not confirm Dehadrai’s bribery charge. Hiranandani’s statement portrays Adani as the victim of “jealousy” and also says Moitra was in touch with the Financial Times.

October 19, 2023: Mahua Moitra issues statement accusing the PMO of drafting Hiranandani’s affidavit and forcing him to sign it by threatening his extensive businesses in India

October 20, 2023: Head of parliament’s ethics committee says he has received and taken note of Hiranandani’s affidavit

October 20, 2023: Moitra’s defamation case is taken up in the Delhi high court and adjourned to October 30.

This article was edited at 11 am on October 21, 2023 to add another quote from PDT Achary and correct some references about the Hiranandani affidavit.

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