On March 1, the online edition of The Hindu carried a report by Jagriti Chandra with this headline: “Jamnagar airport gets international status for Anant Ambani’s pre-wedding bash.” The text described how the small airport at Jamnagar, run by the armed forces, had been declared an “international airport” for ten days, from February 25 to March 5. This was done to be “able to welcome global bigwigs such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Rihanna, Ivanka Trump and several former Prime Ministers to the three-day pre-wedding bash” of Anant, the youngest child of Nita and Mukesh Ambani.

The “Union government’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs”, the report continued, “have pressed in resources to set up a Custom, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) facility at the airport”.

I read Chandra’s striking report, and then went to see the comments on social media. These were, as to be expected in these times, very polarised. On the one side, there was a series of justificatory remarks by supporters of the political regime which had allowed this extraordinary discretionary favour to the Ambanis. So we were told that the Congress government did the same at Chandigarh airport in 2011 to facilitate Pakistani visitors (but then that was for a major international sporting event, the semi-final of the cricket World Cup, not a private wedding), that the Ambanis provided employment to thousands of Indians, that the VIPs visiting had to be given proper respect and security.

On the other side, there were a series of critical remarks expressing horror and dismay. One user commented: “For Adani and Ambani life in India is like being in heaven and for the rest of us it is hell.” A second said: “We are new Russia with much bigger Oligarchs...” A third dryly remarked: “The great saying ‘Vasudhaiva Kudumtakam’, which means ‘The World is One Family’ has been rewritten as ‘Me, My Wealthy Friends and their Friends are One Family’.”

One comment on the Ambani “pre-wedding” said that the redesignation of the Jamnagar airport was effected “because a young rich kid wants to showcase his private zoo by inviting some famous species from all around the world”. This remark was given credence by images of Ivanka Trump posing in front of a caparisoned elephant in Jamnagar.

The private zoo referred to is run by an organisation called the Radha Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust. This grand religious appellation masks a secular scandal more egregious than making a “defence” airport “international” for ten days. This trust and its activities were enabled by an amendment to the Wild Life (Protection) Act in 2021, allowing the creation of private zoos and encouraging the capture, transport and sale of endangered wild species such as the elephant.

At the time, the writer and conservationist, Prerna Singh Bindra, had pointed out that while earlier the Act had explicitly disallowed commercial transactions of protected species, now, with the amendment, “live captive elephants have been excluded from this general prohibition, leaving a gaping loophole for their commercial sale and purchase. It presents the elephant, a protected wild animal, as a tradable commodity; and is, therefore, at odds with the objective, and the spirit of The Wildlife (Protection) Act. This is a serious anomaly in the law that must be corrected.”

Naturally, given who was in power and who they were obliged to, the anomaly was not corrected. The consequences are now starkly there for us to see. A report in The New Indian Express in June 2022 documented eight cases in a single month where attempts were allegedly made by racketeers to fake No Objection Certificates by using forged signatures to smuggle wild elephants from Assam. Seven of these cases saw attempts made to transport elephants to the Ambani-run trust in Jamnagar.

These eight cases were the beginning of a flood. In the last week of February 2024, Anant Ambani boasted that the Radha Krishna Temple Elephant Welfare Trust now housed more than than 200 “rescued” elephants. These claims were taken at face value by the godi media. However, an investigation by the website, Northeast Now, reported that “many of these ‘healthy’ and ‘fit to travel’ elephants were transported from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Tripura to the RKTEWT, raising concerns about the traditional notion of ‘rescuing’ animals in need.” It was surmised that most of these elephants were illegally captured in the wild, and subsequently “purchased” with the help of middlemen, the report stated.

Another report in Northeast Now quoted from a letter written by an animal rights group. It was troubled by the transport of young elephants “from their fertile, lush, tropical, natural habitat of Arunachal Pradesh, 3400 km apart, to the dry, unnatural terrain of Jamnagar, in western Gujarat.” The letter continued: “The cavalcade – in which each elephant per truck is strapped in, boarded by wooden frames – is racing without any stops through Bihar for six more days of the total nine-day journey.” The letter was written to alert the wider public to this “seemingly illegal trade of freshly captured wild elephants being legitimised…”

An animal rights activist I spoke to said while he welcomed attempts to house, rehabilitate and care for wild species that had already been dislocated from their natural habitat, the scheme to transport hundreds of elephants from the North East to the Ambani facility had perhaps reactivated old animal trafficking networks. Once, wild elephants were captured and sent to temples; now, they were being dispatched to this private facility in Jamnagar. The respected ecologist, Ravi Chellam, has compared the Ambani zoo to a personal “stamp collection” which does not contribute in any significant manner to the globally-recognised aims of wildlife conservation.

Wildlife scientists and conservationists have raised three questions that Ambanis and those facilitating them (both within and outside government) must answer. First, why transport so many wild elephants to Jamnagar, a dry industrial belt spectacularly unsuited to the well-being of this forest-loving animal? Second, why create a parallel regulatory system to facilitate this? Third, why not work with state forest departments to create such facilities in natural habitats to keep elephants safe, secure and as these wonderful animals themselves want to be?

These are vitally important questions, but it is overwhelmingly unlikely that the Ambanis or their political patrons will bother to answer them.

When I was young, the Congress regime of the time was derided by left-wing critics as a “Tata/Birla Sarkar”. Yet, surely not even JRD Tata or Ghanshyam Das Birla, at the height of their influence and power in the 1950s and 1960s, would have thought that they could get Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi to accord the airport nearest their factories “international status” for a family wedding (still less a “pre-wedding”). Nor could they have persuaded them to radically change the wildlife conservation act to favour a single family zoo.

Things are now all too different. As the economist, Arvind Subramanian, has argued, instead of creating a level playing field, in which all entrepreneurs have an equal chance of succeeding, the Indian State has in recent years promoted a “2 A variant” of “stigmatized capitalism”. Two industrial houses, the Adanis and the Ambanis, have witnessed a spectacular rise in their fortunes, largely because of government policies that have allowed them to establish a dominant position in such critically important areas as ports, airports, clean and dirty energy, petrochemicals and telecommunications.

Opposition politicians in India have trained their gaze on the proximity to the Modi regime of one of those As, the Adanis. Yet, as the cases of the Jamnagar airport and the amendments to the Wild Life (Protection) Act show, the Ambanis have a comparable ability to bend the professedly mighty Indian state to their will. To invoke a currently fashionable idiom, in business matters as well as family matters, both the Adanis and the Ambanis enjoy Modi Sarkar ki Guarantee.

Ramachandra Guha’s latest work, The Cooking of Books: A Literary Memoir, has just been released. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph.