The Price of Power

Naveen Jindal’s mounting struggles to keep profit seperate from politics

01 March, 2013

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AT HALFTIME during the Indian Open Polo Championship in New Delhi last November, the spectators came wandering onto the field to take part in the long-standing tradition of “divot stomping”—tamping torn-up turf back into place with their feet. Well-heeled VIPs, variously accoutred with pearl necklaces, glittering cufflinks, vintage handbags, tiny, fluffy dogs and big Cuban cigars, used the interlude to clink champagne glasses and exchange business cards. As they did so, 200 farmers—men of all ages, wearing white dhotis and kurtas, Nehru vests and turbans—came running onto the field. They rushed past the divot stompers, past most of the polo players, and halted before a rider astride a brown pony. The leader of the crowd, a burly man in a large turban, was the first to speak: “Accha khelay, Naveenji. Accha kheley.” (Well played, Naveenji. Well played.) Another dhoti-clad man threw his fist in air and shouted “Naveenji zindabad!”

Their praise was directed at Naveen Jindal, the 42-year-old Congressman and billionaire chairman of Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL), who in the past decade has amassed a vast fortune from the unglamorous coal beds of India. Jindal waved at his supporters, who had come from villages around Kurukshetra, the Haryana constituency he has represented in the Lok Sabha since 2004. As he dismounted his pony and stretched, mumbling a few words in Spanish to his physiotherapist, the farmers formed a human cordon around him. Then, as he walked toward the pavilion, the men from Haryana followed, pushing and shoving each other for the chance to stand closer to Jindal and have their photographs taken. Jindal spotted a young man standing with a camera dangling from his neck, and barked something between a joke and an order: “Hey you,” he said, pointing. “Is that camera just for show? Take some pictures!”

Before play resumed, the VIPs retreated to a bar at the top of the invite-only stands, while the farmers went back to the concrete general admission seats on the opposite end of the polo ground to watch the second half of the match. Jindal’s team lost, against a team from Hyderabad, by just one goal, but he was in high spirits afterwards, surrounded by his loyal constituents. He posed for more photographs while an awards ceremony carried on in the background; when his name was announced, he hustled over to the dais and stood with his team. A few minutes later, I saw him chatting with one of his players, Ed Winterton, who was shaking his head in disappointment. “It’s okay,” Jindal said, patting him on the back. “It’s just one of those days when you play good but you still lose.”