Once a middle-class family in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, the Guptas built a flourishing business empire in just over two decades, propelled by eldest son Ajay Gupta’s decision to move to South Africa.
It all began in 1993, when Ajay decided to enrol in a chartered accountant’s course in Delhi. He moved to South Africa a few years later and never looked back.
On landing in South Africa, he quickly developed business relations with top political leaders, including the then vice-president. The contacts helped him get a slew of mining licences, and permission to open other businesses.
Political links ensured he had a smooth ride for the next 20 years despite growing corruption allegations, until a key opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters, demanded his ouster last week.
People close to the businessman – a “living god” to his friends and admirers – said Ajay dropped hints recently about expanding his business in Dubai under the supervision of younger brother Rajesh Gupta.
“Though he didn’t say anything about the ongoing controversy in South Africa because of his proximity with the ruling party’s leaders there, he expressed his willingness about business expansion in Dubai,” a close associate said on condition of anonymity.
The Guptas have never been shy of flaunting their wealth and connections. People in their hometown believe the family is richer than the Ambanis and enjoy telling outsiders the story of how Ajay took political leaders, bureaucrats and Bollywood stars to South Africa in a chartered plane to attend his niece’s marriage.
The hyped trip ended on a sour note. The plane landed at a military airbase in South Africa, triggering a political storm, with opposition party leaders targeting him for his perceived proximity to President Jacob Zuma.
Recent troubles don’t seem to have dented Ajay’s popularity in Saharanpur. Residents recounted the time Ajay invited the South African cricket team to his residence, and brought Bollywood stars Anil Kapoor and Shilpa Shetty and singer Mika to the small town. His fascination with Bollywood pushed him to make the film, Gandhi: My Father, starring Akshay Khanna.
Property dealers said the Gupta family had invested in land in Saharanpur, Dehradun and Gurgaon and had close ties with politicians and officials, giving them the image of “power brokers”.
Ajay’s sister married Anil Gupta, who was inducted in the planning commission of Congress-ruled Uttarakhand. He enjoys the status of a designated minister.
“I have nothing to do with politics,” Anil Gupta told HT over phone, claiming the government had included him in the panel as an “expert”.
But rivals alleged the post was a reward by top leaders who use a helicopter owned by Anil Gupta’s family and other facilities.
Ajay’s nephew’s marriage was attended by BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Vasundhara Raje, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, state ministers Shivpal Yadav and Azam Khan and Congress leader Rajeev Shukla.
Sources said when Ajay went for a dip in the Ganga during the Kumbh in Allahabad, BSP leaders Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Nandgopal ‘Nandi’ provided him a fleet of cars and an escort.
He is now building a huge Shiva temple in Saharanpur at an estimated cost of more than Rs 100 crore.
Ajay’s friends said he still visits Saharanpur regularly, meeting his father’s friends in the city’s Rani Bazar neighbourhood, where he grew up with his two brothers and sister. He has helped several poor families with financial aid and gifts, they added.
“He touches the feet of his father`s friends and elders and tries to help them as per their requirement,” said Rakesh Mogha, who runs a homeopathy store in Rani Bazar.
They believed Ajay would emerge from the current crisis unscathed, and blamed the South African media for blowing up the issue.
“This is not the first time that he has been targeted and it was all political. Even South African President Jacob Zuma had highlighted the Gupta family’s contributions to that country. I have no doubt he is capable of giving a befitting reply to his critics,” Ajay’s childhood friend Rajkumar Raju said.