Billionaires Ambani and Adani dragged into India's election rhetoric

By Shivam Patel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and election rival Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi traded barbs about campaign funding on Wednesday, with both sides accusing the other of taking money from top industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

Neither of the business leaders have made any public comment about who they might support in the election, if anyone, and their businesses did not reply to requests for comment. Neither candidate presented any evidence for their claims.

The comments from Modi seek to counter Gandhi's long-running criticism about what he says are Modi's ties to the country's two richest men, weeks into the election where differences over growth, poverty and unemployment are key themes.

But the ramped up rhetoric could also be part of a change of tack from Modi.

A lower turnout so far in the six-week vote has rattled Modi's campaign managers and called into question whether his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies can achieve the landslide predicted by opinion polls a month ago, BJP leaders and political analysts have told Reuters.

They say the lack of momentum seems to have prompted Modi to change the thrust of his campaign speeches, focusing on economic growth before the first phase of voting to now attacking rivals as pro-Muslims and in other ways in bid to fire up the party's hardline base.

"For five years you abused Ambani-Adani and now suddenly you have stopped. Meaning, you have accepted truckloads of some illegal funds. You'll have to answer to the country about this," Modi said at an election rally.


Gandhi responded hours later by asking Modi whether he was "slightly scared" and said he should send financial crime investigators to do a full inquiry immediately.

"For the first time you have spoken in public about Adani and Ambani. Is it your personal experience that you know they give money in trucks?" Gandhi said in a video message. "I want to repeat to the nation that the amount of money Modi has given to them, we are going to give the same amount to India's poor."

Modi's party did not immediately respond to Gandhi's remarks.

Gandhi has for years attacked Modi saying he works for the interests of industrialists such as Ambani and Adani and that inequality between the rich and poor has worsened during his 10-year term, charges the government denies.

Modi has previously called allegations of promoting Adani and Ambani monopolies "unfounded" and said such accusations do damage to the Congress party.

Ambani, Asia's richest man, is chairman of the oil-to-media conglomerate Reliance Industries while Adani, Asia's second richest, is chairman of the power-to-ports conglomerate Adani Group.

Both industrialists are from Modi's home state Gujarat, where their businesses have large operations and have branched out to other Indian states including those ruled by opposition parties and also overseas.

Research group World Inequality Lab said in a recent report that India's richest 1% citizens owned 40.1% of the country's wealth as of 2023, the highest since 1961.

India's seven-phase election began on April 19 and ends on June 1. Modi is seeking a rare third straight term.

(Reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Editing by Alison Williams)