In September 2022, Gautam Adani briefly surpassed Jeff Bezos to become the world’s second-richest person. He is now a permanent fixture amongst the top ten richest men on Earth. Adani’s personal net worth is said to be US $147 billion. He’s the richest man in Asia. His close links to Indian Prime Minister have become a thing of notoriety.
Gautam Adani is lionised by an army of acolytes in India. A gushing biography of him, published by Penguin, is said to be ‘a compelling business story and portrait of one of the most influential men in India right now.’
Backed by a colossal fortune and the accolades of millions, you would think that Mr Adani would feel secure enough to brush off criticism. However, it seems that behind Mr Adani’s ever-smiling visage is a hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned personality that feels the need to squash critics of his Group's operations.
This is best illustrated by the growing number of defamation cases mounted either by Mr Adani or by companies that are part of his Group against Indian journalists and media platforms. The latest of these is a lawsuit filed in August 2021 in Mr Adani’s home state of Gujarat against Delhi-based freelance journalist Mr Ravi Nair. This case came to light in July 2022.
According to the complainant company, Adani Enterprises Limited, Mr Nair has used Twitter to issue a number of comments with ‘the sole intent to tarnish the image of the complainant company and creating panic and chaos amongst the shareholders and investors’.
The tweets themselves are described in the complaint as ‘scandalous, frivolous, misleading, derogatory, libellous and defamatory’ that have allegedly been posted ‘wilfully, mindfully, deliberately and with such intent that it will be read by the public at large on social media’. (Adani seems to be highly indignant that posts on social media are intended for public consumption.)
Adani Enterprises Ltd claims to be concerned that this ‘series of strenuous tweets’ will ‘blemish the image, goodwill and reputation of the complainant company and the Adani Group’.
The melodramatic language employed only serves to pique one’s curiosity about what has actually been said in these tweets. Has Mr Nair accused the Adani Group of indulging in slavery or drug-trafficking? Has Mr Adani been described as an axe-murderer?
Hardly! In fact, the vast majority of the 26 offending tweets consist of the usual sort of commentary found in public discourse about political developments in a democracy. According to Adani’s complaint, the number of ‘likes’ pertaining to these tweets number in the hundreds, with the number of re-tweets generally numbering in the dozens. Most refer to attached stories published by the mainstream media.
However, towards the end of the series of offending tweets, there are four that refer to articles written by Mr Nair himself and published by AdaniWatch. Two of these pertain to the controversial Pench coal-power development in Madhya Pradesh; two pertain to the rather shadowy group of offshore investors in various publicly-listed Adani Group companies. The complaint itself, in fact, refers to a ‘defamatory article’ about these offshore investors published by AdaniWatch. Given that the complaint was filed in court the very next month, one wonders whether it is Mr Nair’s work for AdaniWatch in July 2021 that forms the main motivation for the court action.
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Here are descriptions of the tweets referred to by the Adani company’s complaint in detail:
On 8 October 2020, Mr Nair tweeted a comment on the Indian government’s new policy on natural gas, remarking that it would assist the aspirations of the Adani Group. There was another tweet by Mr Nair on the same day commenting on the apparent priorities of India’s Supreme Court.
A tweet on 11 October 2020 speculated that the Modi government might be trying to privatise a major port in Maharashtra, and that the Adani Group might be a buyer. It was based on a story by NewsClick, a news platform subsequently silenced by an Adani lawsuit.
An October 2020 tweet and the AdaniWatch story on which it’s based alleged that the Modi government ‘tweaked’ environmental rules to enable approval of an Adani coastal development.
On 5 November 2020, Mr Nair was one of thousands of people in India and Australia to tweet a Guardian story about Adani’s change of name for its Australian coal-mining project. The name ‘Bravus’ had been substituted for ‘Adani’ in the belief that the word means ‘courageous’. Latin scholars said that the word actually means ‘crooked’ or ‘mercenary’. It seems that Mr Nair is the only person to be taken to court for helping to disseminate this highly entertaining story.
On 27 November 2020, Mr Nair tweeted an opinion piece in The Times of India about the shemozzle of a bidding process for the sale of assets of a troubled finance company. He speculated that the Adani Group’s fortunes were ‘a bubble’ that would burst sooner rather than later, and that the government had shown favouritism to an Adani Group company.
And here’s another tweet (24 December 2020) critical of PM Modi and the Indian government – this time for allegedly promoting the interests of the Adani Group as preferred developer of a port in Sri Lanka.
And here’s a tweet from 24 November 2020 that’s critical not so much of Adani, but rather a policy of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). It’s based on a Times of India story about a new RBI policy said to be to the advantage of large corporates such as the Adani Group.
In this December 2020 tweet, Mr Nair refers to a dossier on the Adani Group put together by AdaniWatch and its tabling in the Australian Parliament. At the time, the Adani Group seemingly had no public comment to make regarding the AdaniWatch dossier.
Like many thousands of people concerned about Adani’s Carmichael coal project in Queensland, Mr Nair tweeted about the State Bank of India and its mooted loan to the notorious coal mine. The story on which the January 2021 tweet is based was published in Caravan magazine.
In January 2021, a Caribbean news outlet reported that the USA might impose sanctions on Adani. It’s not the original source that Adani attacks, but Mr Nair’s subsequent tweet.
During the prominent protests of 2020-21 by Indian farmers against deregulatory policies by the Modi government, dozens of commentators publicly asserted that the new regulatory regime would be to the advantage of large corporate players such as Adani. In a January 2021 tweet, Mr Nair questions why the government would respond by labelling the farmers terrorists. It’s a comment not on Adani but on the behaviour of India’s national government.
Similarly, this tweet of 15 January 2021 criticises the Modi government for policies favouring the Adani Group’s bid to become India’s largest private airport operator. It’s based on a much earlier story by Mr Nair and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, published by NewsClick. Both Paranjoy and NewsClick have subsequently been silenced by a gag order arising from yet another Adani defamation case.
Later in January 2021, a tweet quoted from an opinion piece published in Sri Lanka describing the Adani Group as responsible for various corporate misdeeds. This is another case of Adani shooting a very secondary messenger.
Once again, Adani takes exception to comments critical of the Modi government, in this instance described as a ‘sycophantic bootlicker’ with a ‘detachable spine’ for policies favouring the Adani Group. The June 2021 tweet was based on an advertisement for a government training program for writers.
And this tweet of 9 June 2021 is yet another case of the Adani Group using the courts to object to criticism of a member of the Modi government. The Adani Group’s takeover of airports is mentioned in passing. Similarly, this 13 June tweet criticises the Modi government; Adani becoming the (then) second-richest person in Asia forms part of the context.
In this tweet of 11 June 2021, Mr Nair makes factual comment about the ballooning share price of Adani Green. Perhaps he hit a raw nerve.
Around this time, Mr Nair allegedly issued a tweet pertaining to alleged links between a notorious fraudster and the Adani family.
It’s understandable that the Adani Group wouldn’t like being criticised for its huge environmental impacts in Mr Nair’s tweet of 2 July 2021. However, the ecological impacts of the Group’s coal mines, coal-power stations and port expansions have been frequently documented. The pages of AdaniWatch are full of such descriptions. This may not be strong ground for the Adani Group to claim that its reputation is at stake.
Again, it’s understandable that Mr Adani wouldn’t like reading a story about his Group losing $18.8 billion of value. But it wasn’t Mr Nair who wrote the July 2021 story about the drop in value, published in the New Indian Express. He merely tweeted it.
Perhaps the motivation of the Adani Group in going after Mr Nair is best understood by considering the following tweets identified in the complaint to the court. Each of them relates to a story authored by Mr Nair himself for AdaniWatch.
On 8 July 2021, AdaniWatch published Mr Nair’s story titled ‘political favours for Adani’s Pench coal-fired plant in central India’. Mr Nair tweeted his story, referring to a controversial power-purchase agreement between the state of Madhya Pradesh and Adani Power. The agreement was signed as the government fell apart amidst chaotic scenes in the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly.
The Pench story was part of a series of four, all authored by Mr Nair. The final one in the series, on 9 July 2021, referred to the surplus of power-generating capacity in Madhya Pradesh and the massive payments likely to be paid by the state to Adani Power for electricity not even used. Mr Nair tweeted his AdaniWatch story.
Following the Pench series in July 2021 there came two stories whose content was very significant. Mr Nair researched foreign investors in various publicly-listed Adani companies. His stories described the web of shadowy companies registered in countries that are tax havens as well as alleged connections back to the Adani Group.
On 29 July 2021, Mr Nair tweeted the first of his stories, referring to two alleged fugitives allegedly associated with these offshore investors. On 30 July 2021, Mr Nair issued a similar tweet based on the second story.
The following month, Adani Enterprises Limited filed its complaint against Mr Nair in a court in Mr Adani’s home state of Gujarat, over 900 km from Mr Nair’s home in Delhi. It would seem from the timing of this action that the Adani Group’s objection to Mr Nair’s tweets pertains to the last ones in the series, the ones based on Mr Nair’s own reporting for AdaniWatch. Perhaps all the other tweets were inserted as a smokescreen to obscure the Adani Group’s primary concern – exposure of its convoluted corporate structure.