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A war of words between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is heating up, centering on India’s two richest men: Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.

Modi has long faced credible accusations that he’s favored Adani and Ambani, whose combined net worth is greater than $180 billion. And it’s a theme Gandhi, who leads the beleaguered Indian National Congress, has zeroed in on as India’s multi-stage general elections head into their final month — part of an attempt to tap into growing discontent over income inequality and crony capitalism.

Modi is now shooting back at Gandhi, leveling — without evidence — charges that he has received “illegal funds” from Adani and Ambani. As they say, every accusation is a confession.

Modi On the Defensive

The Adani-Ambani-Modi nexus is undeniable. The two businessmen helped Modi rebrand himself as a pro-business reformer after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms that took place under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat.

During the 2014 elections, Modi crisscrossed India on an Adani private jet, which also took him to his inauguration as prime minister. Since then, Adani’s net worth has taken off.

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From 2014 to 2022, Adani saw his net worth rise from $7.1 billion to $150 billion — a whopping 20-fold rise over eight years.

Reports by India’s central auditor have assessed that the Adani Group received “undue benefits” from Gujarat and other Indian state governments. The Modi government in New Delhi has also given extraordinary concessions to Adani’s coal business, which has caused great ecological damage. (Adani is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for bribery.)

What’s clear from Modi’s accusations is that he and his party view growing income inequality and intensifying crony capitalism as political problems.

According to a February 2024 survey by India Today, most Indians said they believe that the biggest beneficiary of Modi’s policies is big business. A majority regards India’s unemployment problem as “very serious” and feels that the prime minister has done a poor job of generating jobs. The data proves Indian public sentiment to be correct: under Modi, India has seen jobless growth.

Mission 400

While Modi is on the defensive, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still expected to handily win the polls.

Turnout in the initial phases of the ongoing elections has been weaker compared to previous cycles — potentially jeopardizing the BJP’s plans to win 400 seats in the lower house of parliament, which would give it more than a two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP could amend the constitution to formally end the country’s secular system.

With Mission 400 potentially in jeopardy, Modi has turned to brazen anti-Muslim bigotry in recent weeks — a tactic he’s generally tasked to surrogates. Regardless of whether Modi succeeds in hitting his 400-seat target, one thing is clear: pervasive underemployment and unemployment, particularly among the youth, will increasingly have political and social ramifications in India.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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