India Finance
EXCLUSIVE: Did PM Modi and BJP disclose election spending on Adani private jet?
Jan 18, 2024
An AdaniWatch investigation finds that the 2014 election campaigning by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private jet owned by the Adani Group was not disclosed as election expenditure. Image Press Trust of India

An AdaniWatch investigation finds that the 2014 election campaigning by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private jet owned by the Adani Group was not disclosed as election expenditure, potentially violating the law of the land.

The photograph above, of Narendra Modi flashing a victory sign while boarding an Adani private jet was taken on the day India’s general election results were declared on 23 May 2014. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had won a landslide victory, defeating a Congress-led coalition government that had been in power for the previous decade. This particular journey on the Adani jet took Modi from Ahmedabad in Gujarat where he was still Chief Minister, to India’s capital New Delhi, where he would be sworn in as India’s Prime Minister.

This photograph has become infamous in the decade since. Rahul Gandhi, Congress politician and Modi’s strongest political opponent, brandished it in Parliament in February 2023, questioning whether Modi’s ties to the Adani group were preventing law-enforcement agencies from investigating and prosecuting alleged wrongdoings by Adani companies that had formed the basis of the explosive Hindenburg Report.

Modi had been using the Adani private jet for election campaign trips in the preceding months. In a rare interview in 2016, Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani defended Modi’s use of his conglomerate’s private jet as a regular commercial lease, saying ‘[Mr Modi] is not taking Adani aircraft for free’. Under Indian law, while payments for lease of private aircraft must be reported to the aviation regulator by the aircraft operator, when payments to lease aircraft are made by politicians and political parties for an election campaign, they must also be reported by the party or politician to the Election Commission of India, which then discloses election expenditure to the public. If the flights were ‘in-kind’ donations, the rules prevailing at the time would have required disclosure in the same report that is filed with the election commission. No such disclosure of in-kind donation of aircraft leases by Karnavati Aviation has been disclosed.

In this investigation, AdaniWatch can report that, if payments were made to the relevant Adani company for the lease of its aircraft by Modi for election campaigning, they were not reported by Modi or the BJP to the Election Commission.  This potentially violates rules put in place by the Commission to ensure transparency and accountability in party funds and election expenditure.

Questionnaires seeking comment from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Election Commission of India and representatives of the Adani Group were sent on 14 January 2024. This article will be updated with any responses that are received.

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Political Parties must disclose election expenditure

Rules put in place by India’s aviation regulator prevent any lease of private jets without payment at market rates. Payments made for commercial leases of private jets are to be reported by the aircraft operator to the regulator, and even trips made by corporate executives of a company that owns an aircraft, or the family members of its owners, are required to be paid for. So, surely Modi or his party, the BJP, did pay the Adani Group for the use of its aircraft and the Adani Group must have reported these payments to the regulator. These records, held by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, are not public.

However, campaign finance law in India (flowing out of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and various rules issued by the Election Commission – set out in a compendium of rules issued by the commission before every election) requires political parties and candidates to report election campaign expenditure. Once an election’s dates are declared by the Election Commission of India all campaign expenditure is to be reported to the Commission by candidates and parties. Crucially, these expenditure disclosures are public. The Election Commission releases each party’s and each candidate’s financial disclosures after each election.

In this investigation AdaniWatch has uncovered some of the trips taken by Modi in the Adani jet while campaigning for the BJP in the 2014 general election, and in state elections that preceded it by a few months. Tracking down these trips has been an exercise in gathering circumstantial evidence, as all records of the Adani jet’s movements have been erased from public databases of aircrafts’ movements. We have been able to ascertain several of the jet’s movements in the relevent period in 2013-14 due to social-media posts by one of the pilots employed by the Adani Group, who flew the jet that Modi traveled in.

Comparing the jet’s movements from this record of the pilot’s social media posts to public reporting of Modi’s movements has confimed at least sixteen trips taken by Modi in the Adani jet. At least thirteen trips among these were during the periods when the model code of conduct applied for the state elections and the general election. None of the fees presumed paid for the lease of the Adani jet appear to have been reported by Modi or the BJP, according to the Election Commission’s records. This failure to disclose fees may constitute a violation of rules issued by the Election Commission requiring political parties to disclose election expenditure to it.

Adani charter pilot’s photograph with Modi

Paul Hinkley, educated and raised in the United Kingdom, according to his Facebook profile, was employed as a pilot by the Adani Group’s charter aviation business in May 2013. Karnavati Aviation Private Limited – the Adani Group company that owns its private jets and operates them as a commercial charter business, and was established as a subsidiary of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone – in its 2014 balance sheet, lists Hinkley among its employees as a pilot.

Screenshot from Karnavati Aviation’s 2014 Balance Sheet, stating Hinkley’s employment.

In a post to his Facebook profile, on 4 January 2014, Hinkley posted a photograph of himself in an aircraft’s cockpit, saying ‘Somewhere over north India. Question for Embraer pilots: which switch is in the wrong position?’.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by HinkleyKarnavati Aviation purchased an Embraer E135J aircraft in the financial year 2012-13.

Screenshot from Karnavati Aviation’s Balance Sheet of 2013 stating its purchase of the Embraer 135J.Notably, as per the Indian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, a foreign national such as Hinkley must have had a single employer or organization sponsor to obtain an employment visa in India. It would be highly unusual and unlikely for a foreign individual to be employed by multiple businesses while on an employment visa in India. This means Hinkley would not have been referring to another Embraer owned by a different Indian entity, and must have been piloting the Karnavati-owned Embraer 135J aircraft.

According to plane registration data, an Embraer 135J aircraft with the tail number VT-AML belongs to Karnavati Aviation. Here is an image of the Karnavati owned VT-AML aircraft.

The Karnavati Avaiation owned Embraer 135J with tail number VT-AML. Photo credit: planelogger.com

Now, comparing this image of the aircraft with the image of Modi stepping onto the aircraft establishes that the aircraft appear to be the same. Note the identical placement of the Indian flag to the left of the door, the ‘adani’ logo on the right of the door, and the long distance between the door and the first window, and the position and colour of the downward moving stripe painted on the side of the aircraft for comparison.

On 25 November 2013, Hinkley posted to his Facebook profile a picture of him shaking hands with Narendra Modi, standing in front of an aircraft.

Screenshot of photograph posted by Hinkley to Facebook, where he shakes hands with Modi standing in front of an aircraft.

Comparing the mark just under the stripe on the body of the aircraft, over Hinkley’s left shoulder, to the above photo of the VT-AML strongly suggests that this photograph is taken in front of the same aircraft as referred to above.

So, Hinkley was piloting the Embraer E135J owned by Karnavati Aviation with tail number VT-AML, and this is in all likelihood the same aircraft Modi was boarding in the photo taken after his election victory, and this is the same aircraft that Hinkley was photographed with Modi in front of.

A friend of Hinkley’s on Facebook, one Justice Khalsa, comments on the shared photo, stating: ‘Looks like you’re flying the Gujarat Chief Minister around in the Adani jet since Guj. Govt plane is smaller’.

Further, on the day of Hinkley’s post, Prime Minister Modi’s Twitter account confirmed that he was traveling, saying that he had visited Khetri, a town in the state of Rajasthan.

Post by Narendra Modi on Twitter

In a Facebook post several months later, on 25 April 2014, Hinkley also says he is ‘waiting for Namo’, to which he clarifies the meaning of ‘Namo' for his social media friends: ‘It's what [Modi’s] being called by journalists and others’.

Screenshot of a post by Hinkley to Facebook where he says he is ‘waiting for Namo’.

 Adani pilot flew Modi on the campaign trail

Hinkley’s ‘waiting for Namo’ post was a ‘check-in’ on Facebook, a feature where Facebook users can tag a post to a specific location. Between 30 April 2013 and 27 April 2014, Hinkley posted a number of such ‘check-in’ posts on his Facebook account – marking his location in various airports across India.

Screenshot of Hinkley’s ‘check-ins’ on Facebook

Screenshot of Hinkley’s ‘check-ins’ on Facebook

We matched these check-ins by Hinkley to public documentation of Modi’s travels to determine whether he was in a specific location on a specific date to fly Modi in or out.

The first cluster of matching travels is during the election campaigns for five states in November 2013. In that winter, elections were held for the legislative assemblies of the states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The second cluster occurs after these elections, during campaigning for the general election held in the summer of 2014.

On 16 November 2013, then BJP prime-ministerial candidate Modi kick-started the BJP’s campaign for the winter 2013 assembly elections with a rally in Bengaluru. The next day, 17 November, Hinkley ‘checked-in’ at Bengaluru’s HAL airport – HAL is the acronym for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, a public-sector corporation. This airport, notably, did not operate commercial flights at the time – it was the city’s old airport and was only used by the Indian Air Force and private-charter aircraft. If Modi flew out of the city on 17 November via a private chartered aircraft, he would have used this airport, where Hinkley checked in on the same day.

Then, on 18 November, Hinkley checked in at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. On that day, Modi addressed four public meetings in Madhya Pradesh. The first meeting was at Chhatarpur, about an hour’s drive from Khajuraho.

The following day, 19 November, Hinkley checked in at Jaipur in Rajasthan. Modi addressed five public meetings in Rajasthan on that day. The first meeting was at Alwar. The closest airport to Alwar is in Jaipur. Modi’s last event on that day was in Jaipur.

Then on 20 November, Hinkley checked in at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. On that day, Modi addressed four public meetings in the state, the first at Shahdol, three hours away from Jabalpur by road, and the last was in Jabalpur city.

On 21 November, Hinkley checked in at Agra in Uttar Pradesh. Modi held a rally there that day. On 22 November, Hinkley checked in at Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Modi addressed four public meetings in the state that day. The first, at Khandwa, was four hours’ drive from Indore. The last was at Indore city. On 23 November too Modi was again in Madhya Pradesh, addressing his final rally for that state’s campaign in Ujjain.

On 25 November, Hinkley posted his photograph with Modi. By this point, he appears to have been flying Modi around continuously for the previous 10 days. That was the day Modi posted that he had visited Khetri in Rajasthan. On that day he addressed four meetings in Rajasthan. He had addressed four meetings in Rajasthan the previous day too – that is, on 24 November.

On 28 November, Hinkley checked in at New Delhi. On 28 and 29 November, Modi campaigned in Rajasthan (at distances accessible by helicopter from Delhi) and on 30 November he campaigned in New Delhi.

A couple of months later, on 2 February 2014, Hinkley again checked in at Delhi. Modi addressed a rally in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on the same day, a couple of hours north of the capital city. On 8 February 2014, Hinkley checked in at Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Modi addressed a rally there the same day.

The following month, on 26 March 2014, Hinkley checked in at Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). On that day, Modi visited the Vaishno Devi shrine in Sanjichat in J&K – accessible by helicopter from Udhampur, and then addressed a rally in Hiranagar also in J&K, then a state. This rally was the first of the BJP’s ‘Bharat Vijay’ (Victory to India) rallies that were part of its campaign for the general election of April-May 2014.

Then Hinkley checked in at Pathankot, Bathinda and Amritsar – all in Punjab – on 25 April 2014. On that day, Modi addressed campaign rallies in four locations in the state: Pathankot, Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana and Bathinda.

On 27 April 2014, Hinkley checked in first at Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Modi held a rally at Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh – two hours away – in the morning of that day. Modi held four more rallies in Uttar Pradesh, presumably traveling by helicopter from location to location that day, ending with a rally at Sidhauli in the afternoon. Hinkley checked in at Lucknow later the same day, an hour away from Sidhauli. Finally, Hinkley checked-in at Kolkata in West Bengal in eastern India the same day. Modi addressed a rally at Srirampur (West Bengal) in the state that evening.

It should be emphasised that these journeys represent only those of Hinkley’s flights in the Karnavati-owned private jet that can be reconstructed from Hinkley’s posts on his social-media profile. The true extent of Modi’s travels on the Adani jet can be ascertained only by tracking the aircraft’s movements across the entire period. While such data is available for most aircraft in the world, for free, on public databases – the movements of the Adani owned VT-AML jet appear to have been erased from such databases.

In April 2014, the Times of India reported that Modi, as the then Gujarat Chief Minister, flew back to the capital of Gujarat – Gandhinagar – via the Ahmedabad airport every night of his campaign trips. The same article noted that his flights on private jets cost Rs 300,000 per hour. So, if each of the flights taken by the Adani-owned jet, as indicated by Hinkley's check-ins on Facebook involved a flight from and to Ahmedabad, the total flight time is a conservative 25 hours at least. This would mean a cost of at least Rs 7.5 million (over US $90,000) for the trips documented in this article. 

BJP did not disclose Modi’s flights on Adani jet to election commission

What is also noteworthy is that these flights by Modi on the Adani jet were during the period when elections had been declared the five election states in November 2013, and across the country in March, April and May 2014. Modi was designated as a ‘star campaigner’ for the BJP in both these elections – a designation for a party leader notified to the Election Commission by their political party. Such star campaigners fly to multiple regions, campaigning for their party’s candidates in every seat. According to the Election Commission’s rules for election expenditure, expenditure incurred by star campaigners outside of constituencies where they are contesting themselves are to be accounted for under the political party’s election expenditure and reported to the Commission. Modi was not a contesting candidate in the five state elections, and in the General Election contested from the seat of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. All his travel outside this seat thus qualifies as party expenditure incurred by the BJP, rather than his own expenditure as a candidate.

So, according to the Election Commission’s rules, payments for these flights by Modi on the private jet owned by the Adani Group should have been disclosed by the BJP. However, we looked at the BJP’s expenditure disclosures for these elections in 2013 and 2014 that are available on the Election Commission’s website. While payments to various others for charter flights are disclosed, no payments to Karnavati Aviation are mentioned.

Here is the BJP’s expenditure statement for the state elections of 2013. In Rajasthan all charter flight payments are to an entity called Sarthi Airways. In Delhi no payments for charter flights are listed at all. In Madhya Pradesh, payments for charter flights are made to Arrow Aircraft Sales and Charter Private Limited and to Saarthi Airways Private Limited. In Chhattisgarh payments for charter flights are to Saarthi Airways Private Limited and to Air King Charters Private Limited. Only one payment for a charter flight is listed in Mizoram to a ‘Central Office’ (presumably of the party).

Then let us come to the BJP’s expenditure statement for the general election in 2014. Here is a link to download it from the Election Commission’s website. Payments made for charter flights list the following payees: Saarthi Airways Private Limited, Aceair, VRL Logistics Limited, Arrow Sales and Charters Private Limited, Graphisads, GSEC Aviation Private Limited, and OSS Aviation Limited.

Karnavati Aviation features nowhere on BJP’s expenditure disclosures.

As we have seen, the aviation regulator’s rules prevent charter operators from offering flights for free. Gautam Adani stated publicly that his company’s private jet was chartered for a fee for Modi’s use. So, who paid these fees, and how much was paid? This information has to be in the possession of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, but may not be made available to the public under commercial-secrecy exceptions to India’s Right to Information Act.

However, Modi’s flights where he leased the Adani jet for the purpose of election campaigning and the amounts paid for them by his political party should have been disclosed to the Election Commission and made public. Was the failure to do so a violation of the law, or at the very least, of the Election Commission’s rules? That is a question for the Election Commission to look into.

The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. With inputs and editing by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.