Lucknow: Strange as it may seem, the alleged involvement of the Indian business family the Guptas in fixing cabinet posts in South Africa has barely caused a ripple in Indian media or political circles.
The Guptas’ success, including their proximity to President Jacob Zuma and the ANC leadership has been virtually ignored in India.
The three Gupta brothers hail from the city of Saharanpur – hence Sahara computers – in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), about 160km from Delhi.
In UP’s capital, Lucknow, only a few remember how in 2013 the Guptas ferried high-profile state politicians to a family wedding via Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria.
“The family duly apologised for any offence caused,” claimed Atul, the eldest of the Gupta brothers in a recent interview with The Times of India, which has a stake in the Guptas’ newspaper company.
The Gupta family’s relative anonymity in India, according to an associate from Saharanpur, is due to their inability to set up any businesses in their home country.
Some years ago they had tried to partner with a more famous Sahara Group in India – its promoter, Subrata Roy, has been languishing in jail for many months – but they could not strike a deal.
As a result, their Sahara computers could not be aligned with a larger Indian group with the same name.
Later, the Guptas, after helping businessman and former commissioner of the Indian Premier League (IPL) Lalit Modi to bring the Indian cricket tournament to South Africa in 2009, wanted to invest in this lucrative league, but their plans did not succeed.
Modi’s audacious move to take the IPL to South Africa was the reason for a rupture in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and was later subjected to a money laundering investigation by the Indian enforcement directorate.
Indian diplomats who have served in South Africa remember the Gupta brothers as extremely pushy.
“They would not take no for an answer when it came to suggesting that we buy Sahara computers,” remembered a diplomat who had served in Durban.
Another Indian High Commissioner who was posted in SA had a more favourable impression.
“I remember them. They were courteous but we were all familiar with their proximity with Zuma in the 1990s. It was understandable that they prosper when he came to power.”
In The Times of India interview, Atul Gupta acknowledged he knew Zuma, but was categorical his exposure to government contracts was barely “1 percent”.
The Indian foreign ministry has been aware of the inordinate influence the Guptas exercised.
When the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Durban in 2013 for the Brics summit, he did not have a bilateral meeting with President Zuma like he had with China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Dilma Roussef.
After the summit, the need to hold a bilateral between the two countries was conveyed by the Indian officials to their South African counterparts.
They were brusquely told there was no need as Singh had already met Zuma at the Brics inaugural ceremony.
The Indian side were later informed if they had been so keen for Singh to meet Zuma they should have sought the help of the Guptas, who would have organised the meeting with ease. Singh’s archives indicate no such bilateral meeting took place.
There are many instances of the resourceful Guptas organising meetings of Indian editors and other businessmen with Zuma at short notice.
The Gupta family enjoys enormous good will in Saharanpur, where no one wants to hear anything negative about them.
The family is building a colossal temple for Lord Shiva in memory of their late father, Shiv Kumar Gupta, who had reportedly told his son, Atul, to look for fortune in Africa as he prophesied “Africa will become the America of the world”. That was in 1993.
“They have helped the people of Saharanpur in many ways like by organising jobs in their country, through charity work, scholarship etc,” claimed a government official who served in Saharanpur.
“They have been caught in a crossfire between the ANC that has majority support and the opposition,” claimed a local admirer who keenly awaits their periodic visit to their home town.