OVER THE weekend, as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa went into a huddle, rocked by allegations of unethical links between President Jacob Zuma and a business empire owned by three Indian brothers, echoes of that storm were heard thousands of kilometres away — in UP’s Saharanpur, their hometown.
On Sunday night, the Guptas, who are involved in mining, media and aviation in South Africa, appeared to have weathered the storm with the ANC officially reposing its faith in Zuma. According to their friends and relatives in Saharanpur, the allegations were part of a “political vendetta” against the family.
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The Guptas moved from Saharanpur to New Delhi in the 1980s and onwards to South Africa in the 1990s but have not lost touch with their hometown. Just last Monday, two of the three brothers – Ajay and Rajesh – were among the devotees at the Pataleshwar Mahadev temple at the crowded Rani Bazaar in Saharanpur.
“They came here on Monday and offered their prayers. I have been here for around 25 years now and have seen that they have huge amount of faith in this temple. The third brother Atul did not come,” said Pandit Naresh Dutt, priest of the Pataleshwar Mahadev temple, adding that their father, Shiv Kumar Gupta, ran a ration depot and dealt in the spice business.
Relatives and local businessmen in Saharanpur say the Guptas are also giving back to the city in the form of a Shivadham temple that is “beyond dreams” and is estimated to cost “around Rs 200-Rs 250 crore”, including a helipad and a flyover from the main road.
In South Africa’s Centurion, meanwhile, the ANC meeting was held amid allegations of the Guptas’ business ties to President Jacob Zuma’s family — Zuma’s son, Duduzane, sits on the boards of at least six Gupta companies. And over the last few days, specific allegations have emerged about how the Gupta family offered Cabinet posts to two ANC politicians.
But in Saharanpur, the allegations are met with disdain.
“We have known the brothers as honest and hard-working. Ajay Gupta started working from the age of 10 while attending school. When one grows big, allegations and criticism come along but we know how humble they are,” said Sanjay Gupta, a cousin, who works at a local store.
“Ajay Gupta continues to be very grounded despite having achieved so much success and fame in life. We have read about his proximity with South African political leaders in newspapers, but all I can say is that all businessmen maintain cordial relationship with all political parties as they are there to do business,” said a clothes trader in Rani Bazaar, which is very close to the dilapidated house in which the Guptas lived.
Local traders say the construction of the Shivadham temple – also seen as a dedication to their father — is on full swing near Lal Das Ka Bada, with the Guptas having set up an office in the Hakikatnagar area where the brothers hold meetings related to the project.
“It is estimated that the Guptas will spend around Rs 200-Rs 250 crore in the construction of Shivadham Temple,” said another clothes trader.
An employee at the construction site confirmed plans for a helipad within the premises and a flyover for devotees to access the temple from the road.
Near the Guptas’ home, meanwhile, Phoolchand, a “safai karamchari”, recalls how “Ajay Gupta asked his son to touch my feet as a mark of respect when the family came for a visit last year”.
It was a different story that played out in South Africa, though. On Friday, Reuters reported that the latest to join the chorus against the Guptas was the the former boss of South Africa’s state power firm who accused the brothers of orchestrating his exit.
That was days after Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas claimed that the Gupta family had offered him an opportunity to replace former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene who was dismissed in December. Zuma, however, rejected the claims in parliament on Thursday and said that only he appointed ministers.
The Guptas also denied trying to influence political appointments. “We play no role in the hiring and firing of anyone outside of our own business … These allegations are nothing more than political gossip and innuendo,” Nazeem Howa, CEO of Oakbay Investments, the holding company of Guptas’ businesses,was quoted as saying.